Before Ram Dass (the subject of this issue’s “Listening in With …”) became a yogi, teaching Eastern spirituality to Westerners, he was Richard Alpert, Ph.D., a Stanford-educated psychologist and self-described “neurotic Jewish overachiever” who became one of Harvard’s youngest tenured professors. He was on the fast track until he and fellow professor Timothy Leary were famously dismissed in 1963 for their pioneering experiences with psychedelics.
Four years later, in search of a nonchemical route to expanding his consciousness, Ram Dass left for India. There, he met Neem Karoli Baba (known as Maharaji), who unexpectedly became his guru. Maharaji sent his new student to an ashram, renamed him Ram Dass (servant of God), and eventually sent him back to the United States to teach. Soon after, Ram Dass’ classic Be Here Now (Lama Foundation, 1971) became a counterculture bible. He inspired millions to meditate, become present, and experience divine love.
While Ram Dass at various times studied bhakti or devotional yoga, several types of Buddhist meditation, Sufi mysticism, and the kabbalah, his main practice became karma yoga (selfless service).
In 1997, at 65, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and suffering from aphasia. Undaunted, he continued to travel, teach, and write books—including Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying (Riverhead Books, 2000). He survived a life-threatening infection in 2004 and now mainly teaches through the internet from his home in Maui. (His new Aging Into Awakening program is available on the Shift Network.)
Now 86, Ram Dass views aging and the physical limitations from his stroke as opportunities to see with “new eyes,” move closer to God, and connect more deeply with the soul. In Still Here, he explains: “It really helps to understand that we have something—that we are something—which is unchangeable, beautiful, completely aware, and continues no matter what.”
He suggests we aim not for becoming wise elders, but instead for becoming the incarnation of wisdom itself. “That changes the whole nature of the game,” he writes. “That’s not just a new role; it’s a new state of being.”
We talked during a Skype video call, and at the interview’s conclusion, we bowed slightly to one another. Almost immediately, a bird just outside his room began to chirp loudly. His expression filled with absolute wonder, as though he didn’t hear birdsong every single day in Maui. He was totally present with this bird singing this song at this moment, his eyes and mouth opening wide with awe until the bird finished. His face then relaxed into a casual smile, he turned to the side, and in the next second, our Skype connection was lost. It was a perfect ending to our interaction, as any wrap-up pleasantries would have only watered it down.
After all, as Ram Dass has often taught, no true connection is ever really lost.
Katy Koontz, Editor