The Ram Dass interview: Smiling as he teaches about ‘Polishing the Mirror’

Ram Dass photo by Dassima Murphy 2012 used courtesy of Ram DassBaby Boomers know Ram Dass as an American celebrity from the 1960s who came back from India in 1971 to publish a strange square-shaped book: Be Here Now. Some call that book “the Baby Boomers’ Bible”—and there is a good argument behind such a claim. We recently reported on pulp magazine pioneer Ray Palmer, who began bringing Americans popularized stories about Asian religion even before World War II. But it wasn’t until the era of Be Here Now that millions of Americans could immerse themselves in full-scale Asian spirituality.

Since its debut, Be Here Now has racked up a stunning total of 2 million copies sold—and counting. Ram Dass has built on his original message in 11 additional books, a series of audio recordings, documentary films and short videos. Ram Dass also is famous for his 1978 establishment of the Seva Foundation, a highly respected charity that primarily focuses on curing illnesses of the eye in Asia, Africa and Native American communities.

Then, in 1997, Ram Dass made headlines once again for suffering a devastating stroke. As Baby Boomers, we were confronting our own looming mortality as we watched this perennially smiling genie of the ‘60s utterly humbled by his own body. As Ram Dass puts it himself: “I went from driving my sports car wherever I wanted to go—to being a passenger.”

Now, flash forward 16 years to 2013 and here is a personal note from me, David Crumm, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit: Over the decades, I have interviewed Ram Dass a half dozen times. This summer, I read his new book, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart, with great interest.

In the opening pages, Ram Dass briefly retells the dramatic story that many Baby Boomers know so well: As a rising star in the Harvard faculty, 30-something psychologist Dr. Richard Alpert teamed up with psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary. In the new book, Ram Dass understates their titanic collision: “Meeting Tim was a major turning point in my life.” No kidding! The two Harvard scholars experimented with psychedelics, beginning with the mushrooms common in ancient Native American cultures. Leary and Alpert, later to become Ram Dass, were twin lightning rods, interacting with a Who’s Who of leading spiritual lights—from Aldous Huxley to Alan Watts and far beyond. They grabbed hold of the forces they were discovering—Ram Dass soon studying in India with his Hindu guru. Collectively, they pumped high-octane spiritual fuel into Baby Boomer culture.

When I learned that, these days, Ram Dass prefers to do interviews via video Skype, I was even more curious. Most Read The Spirit author interviews are conducted via telephone. On Skype, how would he look at age 82?

The answer: He’s old. Ram Dass says it that way in his book—he’s old. He’s noticeably slower and more deliberate in his expressive hand gestures. But, those who recall Ram Dass in his prime will be pleased to know that his sparkling eyes are undimmed and, when he gets going, he still likes to throw his head back and smile with that big, toothy grin we know so well. Post-stroke, aphasia continues to slow his speech. He must consciously think through his responses, so the words in this hour-long interview came slowly and often with pauses between phrases. Sometimes, we would stop so that I could read the words he had just spoken back to him, letting him gather his thoughts so he could choose his next words. (I haven’t included those repetitions in the following highlights of the interview.)

There is great inspiration in the 2013 life and work of Ram Dass, whether you are drawn toward Eastern religious traditions or not. As Baby Boomers, we take heart in seeing one of our most colorful mentors take old age and disability in stride. Sure, he’s a passenger these days—but, whatever seat he’s occupying in that sports car, he’s still speeding ahead of us toward our collective horizon line.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH RAM DASS
FROM HIS MAUI HOME ON ‘POLISHING THE MIRROR’

DAVID: The last time we talked, it was 2000 and you were just finishing Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. I was a newspaper correspondent, specializing in reporting on religion. Now, more than a decade has passed—feels like far more than a decade! We’re professional colleagues, you and I, but more than that—a lot of Baby Boomers think of you as a character in our own life stories. You’re our “friend,” in that sense. You’ve been an influential teacher and writer and, like a genie, you keep popping up in our lives. So, as an old friend to many, tell us a bit about what life’s like there at your Maui home.

RAM DASS: I came to Maui some years ago and vowed that I wouldn’t fly anymore. After a life of traveling city after city—moving all the time—I got here and decided to explore contentment. And, I am content. It’s just wonderful here. As we’re talking, I’m looking out and can see the ocean. The rains come very often here and I’m surrounded by such beautiful flowers.

DAVID: I’m also a longtime friend and colleague of Don Lattin. Several years ago, we featured an in-depth interview with Don and recommended his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club. I know Don talked to you while reporting that book about you and your old friends, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil and Timothy Leary. So, tell us what you think. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Do you recommend Don’s book?

RAM DASS: I’ve known Don since he was religion editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, but I am not completely comfortable with that book. There were many other people active in that whole era and the story was more complex than what he writes. So, no, I wouldn’t recommend that book.

Ram Dass Cover 1971 Be Here Now

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: But you certainly haven’t repudiated that wild era. In fact, you write about it honestly in the opening pages of your new book. This new book is mainly focused on spiritual teaching, which we’ll talk about in a moment. But, in the first few pages, you write about your early career. I’m fascinated especially by the way you still emphasize the importance of your three most famous words: “Be Here Now.” After more than 40 years, you’re still saying: There’s great wisdom in that phrase. Is that a fair thing to say?

RAM DASS: Yes. Yes, that is fair to say. When you delve into the moment, the moment right now—and you’re right now in the moment, the moment, the moment—then you are going into the spiritual life. The moment doesn’t include time and space. It’s just here. (And Ram Dass gently taps his heart.) In here. In here. Is there wisdom in those words? Yeah, I think: Very much so.

RAM DASS:
‘JUST WALKING EACH OTHER HOME.’

DAVID: Because you’ve been such an influence on a whole generation, I asked other writers what questions I should ask you in this interview. The one I’ve chosen is from Tom Stella, who was a Catholic priest for many years and now is an author and teacher of spirituality from his base in Colorado. Tom said, “Ask him about the line that I’ve repeated—and I’m sure lots of others have as well. Ram Dass says, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ Ask him to talk about that line.’”

When reading your new book, Tom’s question jumped out at me because one of the first sub-chapters is called “The Road Home.” So, please, talk about what you mean in this metaphor.

RAM DASS: Well, “home” is the one. It’s God. When I went into psychedelics, I had an experience where I felt everything being stripped away from my self. I was in my heart, my spiritual heart. All I could say was: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home inside.”

Then, when I went to India, my guru looked at me with unconditional love. And I remember that as: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.”

We all spend so much time living in this outer world, then we encounter things that force us into our inner world. The inner world is what I consider to be home.

In “walking each other home,” I’m talking about how we as individuals—individual persons or individual countries with all of the separation that we experience—through moving toward inner consciousness, can become one. That’s a shift in consciousness. If we can find a way to walk each other home, we could reach a point where there is no more conflict between egos and nations.

RAM DASS:
‘THE WAY THE WORLD CHANGES IS HEART TO HEART …’

DAVID: This is a good place to ask you about the hard and rewarding work of “spirituality.” It’s a term you proudly use—and so do millions of American men and women, many of whom prefer that term to “religion.” This spring, the famous Rabbi David Wolpe issued a challenge in TIME magazine to anyone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious.” Wolpe pretty much described spirituality as easy and selfish. He wrote, “It’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.”

RAM DASS: Institutions don’t change the world in fundamental ways. The way the world changes is heart to heart to heart by individuals, not by institutions.

DAVID: We are speaking, today, on the same day that the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is addressing the United Nations. TIME magazine now calls her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. In her address to the UN, she said, “On the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, courage and power was born.”

RAM DASS: (smiling, then laughing out loud) That’s just what I’m talking about! I’m sure that is affecting many hearts in the august gathering of the United Nations—and I’m sure it will affect the hearts of all the people who hear her story.

You know, this was true when we began the Seva Foundation. This is what happened to the ophthalmologist Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. He began working in a very poor village in India with just a small eye hospital that he and his family supported. But it was the heart-to-heart spiritual connection that changed everything. He was working with patients, but he really saw them as souls. He saw his hospital and all that he was doing as a way to come to God. The repercussions of that model expanded his hospital and now this work is being done all over India. It began with his spirit and it spread heart to heart.

RAM DASS: ‘POLISHING THE MIRROR’

Cover Polishing the Mirror by Ram Das

CLICK ON THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: Then, let’s talk about the title of your new book, Polishing the Mirror, which comes out August 1 and already is on sale at Amazon. At first glance, the title could sound like the very complaint that Rabbi Wolpe raised in TIME magazine—spirituality as narcissism. But you’re not talking about polishing mirrors so we look better to ourselves, are you?

RAM DASS: We polish the mirror of our spiritual hearts, so the beauty of our soul becomes visible. That means, we polish the spiritual heart so that, from our heart, we can radiate love and compassion and consciousness and other people can get in touch with their spiritual heart, too.

These days, when I roll down the street in my wheelchair, (tapping his fingers on his chest, over his heart) I love all the people I encounter. This is really true. I really do. And when I look into their eyes, I feel that I am mirroring their spiritual heart.

I am sorry that I am not more eloquent in speaking with you, (moving his fingers to point toward his mouth) but you understand that since my stroke my words come with difficulty.

DAVID: Your words are very engaging, today. And this is a good transition to talk about what I find to be the most fresh and hopeful part of your new book: the final section on the process of aging. Some of the insights in these pages are well known to us. But, I really was struck by your teaching that describes the central question in aging as: “Can you find a place to stand in relation to change where you are not frightened by it?”

RAM DASS: When you get old, everything changes—your body changes, your family changes. You can’t do what you’ve always done, anymore. And, either you can complain about things changing—or you can be content. Instead of complaining, you can say: “Oh, yesss! Look at all this change!” You can welcome it.

When I stroked in 1997 and then was lying in the hospital, all the people around me were saying: This poor guy! He’s had a stroke! I started to think that I must be a poor guy. Somebody put up a picture of my guru on the wall of my hospital room. I looked up at that picture and I said: Where were you!?! You know: Where were you in this stroke?! You’ve been raising up my life—all the way up to this stroke.

DAVID: You describe yourself in the book as depressed and angry, your faith deeply shaken.

RAM DASS: I thought I knew about aging and changing. (He smiles broadly.) As it turned out, this stroke has been an incredible grace for me. It is true that, in the past, I played golf and drove around in my sports car and I liked to play my cello. Now, I can’t do any of those things.

Instead, I’ve turned further inward—and that has been wonderful. That was grace.

In 1985, I wrote a book with Paul Gorman called How Can I Help? After the stroke, I found myself asking: How Can You Help Me? Instead of being this big, strong, powerful helper who could go anywhere and do anything—I find myself now dependent on so many people around me.

Now, as I say these things, you have to admit: It sounds bad doesn’t it? (He smiles knowingly.) Our culture says it’s bad to be dependent on others, right? Not a good thing! But, you know, we are all souls. That’s what Dr. Venkataswamy discovered in his clinic.

DAVID: And now we’ve come full circle to our previous interview, haven’t we? I remember interacting with you, at that time, just a few years after your stroke when Still Here was coming out—and that book supposedly held your teachings on Aging, Changing and Dying.

RAM DASS: (Still smiling broadly.) When we talked, I had written that book about what I thought aging and dying was all about. But I was in my 60s. Now, I’m in my 80s and this new book talks about what it’s really like. Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end. (He pauses, tilts his head back and looks out at the Pacific.) I was so naive when I wrote that earlier book. Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me. (And he laughs.)

Care to read more on similar themes?

Read The Spirit publishes a series of books on caregiving, from end-of-life decisions to everyday coping with chronic illness—even a humor book by cancer survivor Rodney Curtis, called A (Cute) Leukemia. Check it out in the We Are Caregivers department of Read The Spirit.

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(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Dee Chapell says:

    A very touching interview. Thank you, David, for bringing out the real Ram Dass and his thoughts on aging. I will be sure to purchase the new book by Ram Dass – “Polishing the Mirror:
    Dee

  2. Duncan Newcomer says:

    A beautiful conversation. I felt inner peace reading it and afterward. Who knew you could Skype spirit? Duncan