Sex & crocheting in Burma: a conversation with Ram Dass

Sex & crocheting in Burma: a conversation with Ram Dass – Interview

Is he a servant of God or just a nice psychologist from Harvard who took one too many doses of LSD? “I’m really an upwardly mobile, exploitative guy on a power trip, and somebody from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY is interviewing me in my house in Marin County with my Mercedes out back. [Those images of me] are all true and they’re all false.”

It’s none other than Ram Dass, who received his name (“Servant of God”) from a spiritual guru he found in the Himalayas in the late 1960s. Born Richard Alpert, he was fired by Harvard in 1963, along with Timothy Leary, for conducting experiments with psychedelic chemicals. His 1971 book, Be Here Now, chronicling the use of mind-expanding drugs, Hinduism, and meditation, was a best-seller.

Now, at 60, Ram Dass is not simply an older–and balder–symbol of the Sixties: He works as a counselor for the dying, has established a volunteer organization to aid refugees in Guatemala and the blind in India, and is a popular figure on the lecture circuit. From college campuses to retreats for Fortune 500 executives, he talks about death, compassionate social action, our ties to the environment, and what it means to be conscious.

Owen Lipstein for PT: You have the most formal and academic background in psychology. You served as a professor of psychology at Harvard in the 1960s. But you resigned–why?

RD: The field was defined very narrowly then. The psychology I studied at Stanford saw humans as ambulatory variables. Psychology was what was measurable in publicly reproducible ways. That ruled out introspection. It ruled out naturalistic experience. At Harvard I started to bring those back in. But that wasn’t considered science any longer. Now it is again.

PT: What’s changed?

RD: Before, inner experience was considered irrelevant, an artifact. Western psychology had very little to say about the mind. It had a lot to say about the brain, about response behavior. What I did from 9 to 5 at Harvard had nothing to do with what happened to me after five o’clock; my depressions, my fantasies were irrelevant to what I was able to measure.

Psychology then was almost totally built on pathology. You were either sick or not sick. You were never healty. You could go from negative to zero; you could never go positive. People like [Abraham] Maslow and [Carl] Jung and [Carl] Rogers saw the positive side. But the minute you get to the positive side, you’re at the edge of mysticism, the edge of what Maslow called the “self-actualized person.” These are the realms in which you don’t have hard empirical data to support your theory. You are dignifying humanity with more potential than just pathology or lack of pathology, but you are losing the science of it.

PT: When did this start for you?

RD: When I took psilocybin in 1961, that changed the meaning of psychology to me. There was a major ground reversal. After that, psychology just seemed like a relative reality, rather than absolutely real. The minute you see this kind of monolithic value system is just another one, it loses its power over you. It lost its position as the first way of knowing. I’m still a psychologist in that I can think in terms of personal dynamics and defense mechanisms and psychosexual stages of development, but that’s not the uppermost matrix against which I see the world. It’s interesting the same way Newtonian physics is interesting in relation to Einsteinian physics.

Tim [Leary] and I wrote an article in the Harvard Review in 1962 or ’63 called “The Politics of Consciousness,” about who controls whose consciousness, about which reality is the reality. That’s when all the institutions started to be up for grabs. That’s when individuals started feeling they didn’t have to look up to existing social institutions. Psychology and psychiatry are among them. Psychology lost its position as the first way of knowing.

PT: What is the larger picture and how did you discover what that might be?

RD: I want to give you one little association before I answer that question. I was spending time the other day with Joanna Macy, an extraordinary woman who teaches systems analysis. She’s also a Buddhist, very involved in ecology, and she’s been a social activist for years. She tells the story that she went to a therapist when she started to experience sadness at the implications of what was happeng to the Earth. She felt great sadness for the effects it could have on the children of her children, and so on. The therapist insisted on treating it as a personal problem of hers. Therapists themselves have not dealt with the grief as a member of the species, the emotional reaction to the horror of the uncertainty of the future. It is a new thing in history.

That’s one of the issues people are up against now. They are asking for a way of being at home in the universe, which involves their social, economic, and political structures. Put another way, there is a truth in the universe and when the meanderings of mind get too far afield from it, people reject it. It doesn’t feed them.

The basic issue humans have is how to deal with the fact that they ended up getting trapped in their separateness. They were born in a unitive consciousness and then they were trained to be separate, to be “somebody,” to identify with their “somebodyness.” Then they’re trapped in this like a prison and they can’t get out.

Psychology just keeps rearranging the furniture in the prison cell. It doesn’t give you any way to get out of it because it takes the individual as the basic unit. The fact is, we are not at home in the universe as long as we are exclusively identified with our separateness. We’re always cut off.

We have come out of tribal and social structures in which people identities were very merged with the community in which they lived. You develop a consciousness that is tribal, then a consciousness from the family. Then you develop an individual consciousness, or a marriage unit. Pretty soon your partner is “him” or “her” instead of “us.” Then you’re “you” versus the rest of it. And then you don’t even trust you anymore. That is what psychology is all about, the ultimate alienation in which you are an object to yourself. Then there’s nowhere any longer where you are at home.

All of what people yearn for is a way of merging–with family, with larger social structures. The mistake of the ’60s was to throw out the family with a vengeance. We misunderstood the relation between internal freedom and external freedom.

PT: All right, what piece of the picture does psychology fill for you?

RD: I call it “body and fender repair.” If my car is broken, I want to go to a mechanic who knows how to fix automobiles. I don’t amend mechanics understand Spinoza or Kant, but I damn well want them to know carburetors and brakes. It’s the same with psychology. When you go into meditative practice, you meditate until you get to certain places in which you psychodynamics, or habits of mind, or image of self are ripe for picking. Then you can go to a therapist and, within that subsystem, use a therapist as a dispassionate mirror. The therapist may eventually say, “let’s go deeper,” and you realize they don’t have the tools to go deeper. Then you turn back into life, or meditation, or whatever. The dynamics between spiritual practice and psychodynamics are so intimate. Why you meditate is psychological. But as you meditate it changes your psychology.

PT: There is obviously a movement in this country away from the materialism of the ’80s. The New York Times recently ran a front-page story on volunteerism. How do you explain this?

RD: Something happened that was of interest in the ’60s. There were shifts in perception of reality, an ecological awakening, an awareness of interrelatedness, that began mainstreaming into the culture. At the same moment, because the shifts represented a threat to existing structures, there was the rise of fundamentalist religions and the conservative movement.

The Reagan years were a moment when the external institutions were so dissonant from the inner experience of people that, at some point, the pendulum has to turn again. We were matching the number of homeless go up and reducing the budget for the homeless. We were having to turn off more and more of our heart in order to hold onto our position. Whatever his other intention, Bush’s call for a “kindler, gentler nation” was a very hip sensitivity to something that is a hunger] in the people.

PT: The way to get elected President is to say you’re an environmentalist.

RD: And say “a thousand points of light for altruism and volunteerism.” But that was not Reagan’s message. The 30- to 50-year-olds who were touched by the ’60s are coming into the power structure now. They want to integrate some of that connection they once experienced with the universe around them.

PT: Is this an altruism trend, or a fad?

RD: You’ve got this pendulum, which makes for the revolutionary swings in a culture. There’s also an interesting evolutionary track. Movement isn’t just back and forth, generation after generation–there is actually an opening of consciousness. We are beginning to openh up and appreciate our interdependence and interrelationships.

You could look at this from the pathological point of view, that there is more fear now. Everyhwere you look, there are more cracks in the wall–pollution, etc. In the anthropological sense, fear forces people into embracing realities that reduce the fear, bigger realities than the material plane they’ve been investing in, which is going to hell. The anthropological interpretation of religion is that religion is the creation of man’s mind to avoid fear; it has nothing to do with “out there.”

The other possibility, is that there are more chinks in the armor and people are beginning to realize that there’s more to the universe. They’re beginning to hear the mysticism of the world.

PT: Which do you believe?

RD: There are dozens of little forces that feed into why. A lot of people who were marching in the 1960s are coming into power now. There is an attempt to integrate some of that connection they experienced with the universe. The media has helped changed the whole game of human consciousness. There is such a glut of information everyone is drowning in that it is pushing people out of linear thinking into gestalt thinking, or seeing it all at once. And there is some kind of emerging social concern.

Anybody that’s economically hip understands that it is dangerous to increase the polarization between the haves and the have-nots. And another is the relation of East to West. Eastern systems have come creeping into the culture; they have an entirely different context for the individual life experience.

PT: One of the few growing businesses these days is psychics. Why do you think that’s true?

RD: I can tell you as a psychologist, people want to be around somebody who knows. When they begin to see that humans don’t know, they begin to look elsewhere. From] a psychological point of view, that’s looking for “Big Daddy.” From another point of view, people have let in the possibility, through a death or other experience, that there are other realms of reality.

It may well be that the psychics and Shirley MacLaines are resonating for people for stuff they are ready to hear. I mean, 30 years ago, birth came out of the closet. Now death’s coming out of the closet. I spend a lot of time with hospice and dying people and I talk about it and people come to hear me talk about death.

PT: Could it also be that a certain generation wants to be told with certainty that things are true?

RD: Everybody wants certainty and no one can ever get it. I have very little interest in the future. That has to do with control by knowing what is going to happen to you.

When you grew up a village in Iowa, and you knew your father, your postman, your villgae stores–everybody knew everybody and you knew the time you would leave your life. If you got to make one trip to Des Moines, that was a big deal. Your whole world was defined by the local newspaper. You had a sense of continuity, of where you fit in within time. That’s all been ripped away. People are losing their definition of themselves in terms of that continuity of parent, child, family extension, knowing how you’re going to grow old. People are bound to have some psychological reaction to that, that letting go of the feeling of place. They regain that feeling of place partly through trying to know the future and know where they’re going.

People also feel malaise regarding their own life. They feel that they played by the rules and di’nt get the feeling they were promised–a feeling of contentment and well-being. Because the myths didn’t work. And whey they don’t people go to psychics, to define themselves on another realm.

PT: So you don’t believe there’s much to it?

RD: Well, there’s everything to it. In the 1970s there was an incredible fad about spirituality. There was this Maharaji and and that old guru, and Rajneesh hired the Astrodome for all the people who came to hear him. That’s all fad, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means that people go there because they feel there’s juice there, but their motivation is such that they can’t be fed there. They couldn’t get enough from it because they didn’t make a deep enough investment in it.

PT: You wrote a book called Be Here Now. It sold millions of copies. Did you have any doubt about what you said since then?

RD: That book represented the highest moments I touched in those days. It didn’t represent my total being, just where I could get to. Since my life has often been up and down, I don’t doubt the truth of what I said, but I doubt my capacity to be in that truth all the time.

In the early days, I touched those places by pushing away the world. I was so afraid of being drowned in life, drowned in my passions. I was basically a renunciate. Then, inthe mid-70s, I saw that my faith was deep and continuous enough so that I could turn around and start to embrace life. I saw that to be free I had to be fully in the world as well as fully not in the world. That brought me into social service, that brought me into a relationship with passion, into working with death and dying, with suffering. I saw that life lived with passionate involvement but without attachment was the art form.

PT: Is service the step from…

RD: From inner work to service. In your inner work you break the thought of yourself as a separate entity. When you break that identification, you experience, on one plane, your relationship, and on another plane, your identity with all things. When you have experienced that in your gut, not just in your intellect, it changes your behavior. Now, if somebody is suffering out there, that’s me suffering, it’s not them suffering. I can’t hold on to the concept of “them” any longer.

For the past 30 years, I have been trying to integrate what I learned the first time I took psychedelics, because a life unintegrated rips you apart–you’re feeling oneness and acting as if you’re separate.

PT: You’ve chosen to identify yourself with the objects of your compassion. Unfortunately, there is more pain and suffering out there than there is you. How do you deal with that?

RD: By making peace with suffering. I kept suffering at bay for fear that I would get entrapped and that it would lead me into despair as a citizen. And my guru kept saying to me, “Ram Dass, don’t you see it’s all perfect. Look at that plane of reality where it’s all law. That tree is rotting according to perfect law.”

Then there’s the emotional, psychological level where it stinks. If you’re just on the psychological level and your heart breaks because you’re holding a dying young AIDS victim or a parent whose kind has been murdered, you are being ripped apart. Like most nurses and doctors, you figure “I’ve got to protect my heart against this pain because it’s just too immense.” If you’ve got this other plane which is saying that “it is all part of the deeper reason in the universe, there is a method to it, it’s the unfolding of law,” then it’s okay.

PT: Not everybody experiences this level of suffering in their daily lives.

RD: Everybody is surrounded by it. They’re choosing not to see it. You help people find the place inthem that has so much equanimity and strength that they can look at it the way it is. Because nothing changes until you look at it the way it is. As long as you are distorting what it is because of your fear, nothing changes.

PT: Do you think that suffering always ennobles?

RD: You listen to how a person is using suffering. Sometimes it’s in a graceful way, sometimes it’s just eating them out. In the long evolutionary sense, it is ennobling. But certainly not in the short term–in the short term it stinks. I’d do my best to be in an environment where people can let go of suffering if they want to. I live with the paradox that suffering is a grace and yet I spend most of my life trying to take people’s suffering away.

PT: What do you say to these people?

RD: It’s less what I say than what I be with them–that in the face of their condition there is somebody first that is a fellow human being. They feel an equanimity from me. And they feel that what’s happening is okay, that there’s a deeper rhythm in the universe, that it’s part of the dance of life and death. I don’t have to say a word about it. They feel that, and I don’t have to say a word about it. I may hold their hand or talk to them about their laundry or the weather. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not the words.

The thing that is beautiful about dying is that for people who have been very closed down, there is a moment when they realize that their ego isn’t going to win. And when their own will gets beaten against. Pain can do it. That’s a moment of opportunity when the could flip into another level of consciousness.

PT: We have lots of chances before that?

RD: Most people still have eges that are so tough they just deny it all. That’s why trauma awakens.

PT: Are you afraid of being identified with so much pain?

RD: It brings me so close to the edge of the mystery. When you’re holding a person who’s inpain and dying, all the bullshit’s gone. We’re really right here together and our hearts are open to each other, and we are being fed by that. I come away enriched.

PT: How do you splice service into your life?

RD: The way you relieve suffering is a function of how conscious you are, otherwise you can give food to somebody in such away that you impoverish them. It’s easy to do good; it’s hard to do good well. You have to listen very carefully to hear what people want, not what you want for them. We’re not doing good in order to feel like we are good people for doing good. We’re doing good because that’s what you do? We have to get goodness out of the realm of righteousness. And out of the realm of the personal.

PT: How do you help people see that?

RD You don’t cleanse people of that. You just get them to acknowledge it. Then, as they acknowledge it, they can also hear deeper things.

Every day, people thank me, for what I’ve done for them, for the books I’ve written, for holding their hand when sick. And for years I milked it. Then I saw the emptiness of it. Finally I say, “you’re welcome,” and finally it is just like heart thanking heart, nothing personal. You shouldn’t take it so personally. It’s taken me a long time to get out of taking myself so personally.

PT: Do you think of yourself as a religious leader?

RD: I think of myself as a mouthpiece for a process that a lot of people are going through. If I’m as truthful as I can be, the hear something that resonates with something that’s going on in them. I don’t look at myself as a teacher. I don’t look at my audiences as if I know and they don’t, because it is not true.

PT: Do you tell them what they already know?

RD: Yes, and I can see them all nodding in agreement to what I say. In the ’60s, my audiences were 15 to 25, half of them on acid, and they’d all be shaking their heads in agreement. Now I go to Kansas City, Des Moines, and Oklahoma City, say the same things and good solid people are nodding.

PT: People just know?

RD: There was a little old woman, about 70, sitting in the front row of one of my lectures. She wore a little hat with strawberries and cherries on it, a black patent-leather bag, and oxford shoes. The audience was all flower children. I thought somebody brought their grandmother. I would tell a far-out story, I would lool over, and she would be nodding yes. So I would get a little more outrageous, testing my limits, and she kept nodding. I thought maybe she had a neck problem. At the end, I egged her to come up, and said, “What have you done in your life where you know this stuff to be true?” She leaned forward very conspiratorially and said,” I crochet.”

It blew my mind. Up to then, it was “you meditate in Burma sitting on the full moon on your head after fasting.” And she crochets. I finally realized that there are lots of routes up the mountain. Most people in our society are having these experiences. But the existing paradigm of reality in the culture prevents them from interpreting them as real.

PT: Are we at the dawn of a major change in attitude, in consciousness?

RD: In the paradigm shift we’re talking about, you surrender your separateness into the way of things, going from an egocentric to an ecocentric or interrelated system. Many things feed into it. Women are starting to demand that their way of feeling the universe be acknowledged and heard because men have fucked it up so much. The information age feeds into it. Somebody stands in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square and shows that the institutions are paper tigers. What power that image has in the world of the human spirit!

But livig with increasing information about the uncertainty of the future, the uncertainty of the environment, makes for fear. People polarize at that point. The conservatives get more intransigent and the others see it as a great opportunity for growth and change. I trace the consciousness shifts of the ’60s to this new view of the world in which people are feeling more and more that nationalism is anachronistic. My generation all joined town councils and school committees–local stuff.

PT: We disarmed. We won the war 15 years later. How do you explain that?

RD: We won the war but we don’t feel the victory. People are more threatened by peace than they were by the war. Our history is that people work effectively together only in the presence of an enemy.

PT: What about models of men?

RD: We’ve had a very two-dimensional image of men that has been very macho. It has prevented them from honoring the fullness of their sexuality by the softness that goes along with the hardness, the dependency that goes along with the independence. It is a pathological component of our culture, and it is being addressed, as are a lot of other pathological components of our culture, at this moment.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group