What Ram Dass Means to Me

Ram Dass’s stroke slowed his speech, but he’s still articulating a message we need to hear, and I still love him.


I read a smart-alecky profile on Richard Alpert in the New York Times September 1.

You remember him. The Harvard psychology professor run out of his job by administrators appalled at his advocacy of mind-expanding drugs. The scion of a railroad tycoon who, after his ejection from academia, went to India and found a guru, and a scholarship beyond anything he — or Harvard — could have imagined. Richard Alpert found a career as an awakened man, a tsaddik, a guiding light. Alpert became Ram Dass.

The Times piece was headed, “Ram Dass Is Ready to Die.”

Anti-euphemism as I lean, I nonetheless discerned a slight, a dig, in the starkness of this, maybe even a form of sarcasm.

The reporter called Ram Dass’s classic spiritual text Be Here Now a “mash-up” of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Clever. But it’s also a “bracing synthesis.”

Angling for hot ink, the reporter asked what he’d say to Donald Trump. Rather than invective, he got unbroken compassion. Trump groans under the weight of “heavy karma.” Ram Dass would not play the hate game.

It’s not what he does. I learned this first hand.

I remember so vividly how he paced the stage of The Civic on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights when I saw him the first time. It had to be thirty years ago. The venue had once housed Temple on the Heights. “I was bar mitzvahed in a place like this,” he mused, striding around on the wood boards, barefoot, in his dashiki.

There was something deeply Jewish about him that was, for me, the way in. He was a tummler, a sage in the best storytelling tradition, using Jewish inflection and humor, though his spiritual influences drew from exotic wells.

He wasn’t the first Jew to find spiritual nurturing outside the tribe. Theodor Gaster, a famous scholar whose World of Myth course I sat stoned through at Columbia, had taken his anxiety about whether God existed all the way to Japan, where a monk, intuiting his angst, waddled up to him and straightened him out. “Don’t you see? There is no you.”

Ram Dass’s oral dissertations, well before Ted Talks, were more standup routine than somber lecture. You could order tapes, for a small fee, from Seva Foundation, who were involved in helping Third World people going blind from not having a simple operation get that operation. Things like that.

The central revelation Ram Dass came to had to do with the fallacy of ego, how it led to separateness.

“We really think we’re somebody,” he said on one of my cherished tapes.We walk around continually manifesting our somebodyness without knowing it.” Ever stand on a street corner and watch people walk around, see into the rapturous self-delusion implicit in their faces and gestures? “And we enter into these conspiracies. You make believe I’m what I think I am, and I’ll make believe you’re what you think you are.” Pause. “We call them relationships.”

I don’t remember if it was that time or the next time I saw him, which might have been ten years after, that I stuck my foot in my mouth in front of a lot of people.

Ram Dass forged into a rap about social concern, helping the hungry, but I was focused on me and my shitty life, and even thought in my egotism there might be some reward in brandishing a cheerless, minority opinion.

And so, when it came time for questions and comments from the crowd, I got up and asked what to do with one’s annoyance at bums hitting you up for change on the street.

“I mean, here I am out here working for a living, busting ass. Why should he get a free ride?” Something like that.

The crowd lowed. I thought I heard a few hisses.

Ram Dass tried to quiet the boos with a calming voice and lowering palm.

“I get what you’re saying,” he said. “This person seems to you not to be ‘playing the game’.” Tenderness infused the voice even as it became pedagogical. “You realize a lot of these panhandlers are street people, discharged from mental institutions?” I nodded, already regretting this.

“Here’s my advice,” he said. “Next time you have such an encounter and you wonder whether to give, use your intuitive faculty and not your intellect.” He saw into me, how my fear-driven mind had forced me into this embarrassment to begin with.

As I sat down, he stayed with me all the way.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes. Thank you,” I croaked, contemplating whether I was a masochist or just flat-out insane.

I was, months later, home scanning Seva Foundation’s catalog of Ram Dass talking tapes, and saw “Panhandling Ethics” as a thread on one of the ones I could order. I didn’t get it. Didn’t figure I could handle it.

The second time I heard him was in downtown Cleveland, at the old Arena. At the end I stood in line with a lot of audience members to hug him.

It was my turn; I took a step up onto the stage, and approached.

He took one look at me and broke out laughing.

“Don’t worry!”

That was like telling a skunk not to stink. I was always worried.

He hugged me and I felt better. Immediately.

I had imbibed all he’d ever had to say. All the stuff about the astral plane and how the Bible was for real. All the mysticism, the stuff about how there are many incarnations. But at this moment I was hugging my zeide. I was folded in the arms of unblinking love. I felt his soul and through it knew my own.

Anyone who’s dedicated his life to offering himself as an exemplar of psychic and spiritual renewal merits more than disingenuous coverage in the nation’s best newspaper.

Hey David Marchese, I learned my lesson.

Not too late to learn yours.

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