The Ultimate TripFor Baba Ram Dass, spiritual guide to a generation of seekers, the road that passed through psychedelia—and sheer misery—will end in paradise
The turquoise water is choppy, and white caps are forming as Ram Dass studies the ocean in Maui. People on the sand call, “Hey, Ram Dass! We love you!” He beams and waves back from a special buggy for people with disabilities. Ram Dass, one of the most revered spiritual teachers in America (who was Richard Alpert when he graduated from Tufts in 1952), suffered a stroke in 1997 that left his speech impaired and his right side paralyzed.
“Let’s go!” Ram Dass says. A friend straps a life vest on the teacher and supports him as he walks jerkily into the sea. He swims with one arm, kicking his legs as best he can and moving faster than I am. Another friend throws plumeria flowers into the water. The scent is intoxicating, and the multiple blues of sky and water are as thrilling as an Impressionist painting.
“Oh boy,” Ram Dass says—his favorite phrase—and starts paddling toward shore. “I can’t believe I was so intelligent as to come to Maui. I’ve decided to die here. I’m not getting on a plane again.” At 75, he won’t be flying around the country to give talks and workshops, but “if people want to come to me,” he says, “that’s fine.”
People have been seeking out Ram Dass for four decades. He’s responsible, more than any person in our time, for making Eastern religious thought accessible to the West. Almost every yoga and meditation teacher today has been influenced by Ram Dass. An electrifying speaker with a gift for making people laugh, he has recorded hundreds of hours of tapes and CDs and written 13 books, including Be Here Now, the story of his journey and a “cookbook for a sacred life,” which sold two million copies. He has set an example of how to serve others as a spiritual practice. Especially for boomers, Ram Dass has been the figure holding the lantern, pointing the way, and now he’s demonstrating how to grow old with grace and prepare for dying without fear.
I’ve been interviewing Ram Dass on and off since the seventies, when I read Be Here Now, which changed my view of the world. On my latest visit, I find him living in a rented six-bedroom house overlooking the sea. The house is set up like a temple, not solemn but airy and tropical, with flowers strewn on altars, candles burning, Hindu chants playing, and on the walls, large paintings of Hindu gods and Ram Dass’s guru, whom he calls Maharaji. From the terrace, you can see the pool encircled by fan palms, firecracker plants, and banana trees, and hear the hypnotic hooting and calling of equatorial birds.
Ram Dass looks healthy and radiant. He swims every day, has adopted a vegetarian diet, lost weight, given up sugar, and stopped smoking pot. When we last met in 2004, he was eating whatever he pleased and smoking medical marijuana constantly. I’ve learned that Ram Dass is perpetually transforming, like the Trickster in mythology who changes form and breaks the rules to free people from their habitual perceptions.
Looking back, Ram Dass sees his life unfolding in three parts: the young psychologist who began his studies at Tufts; the psychedelic explorer who, with Timothy Leary, was forced to leave Harvard; and the yogi whose mission is to serve people and bring them closer to God. He follows the direction of his guru: “Love everyone and tell the truth.”
He was born Richard Alpert in Newton, Massachusetts, to a family of wealthy, conservative Jews who valued the intellect. His father, George, was president of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad and a founder of Brandeis University. George was a major fundraiser for Jewish causes, but Ram Dass says that although he himself had a bar mitzvah, he was “inured to religion. I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics.”
Richard Alpert arrived at Tufts in the late forties, when the academy was dominated by agnostics and scientific rationalists. Alpert chose Tufts when Harvard, despite his father’s influence, rejected him. He hoped to attend Tufts School of Medicine, partly because of its sound reputation but mainly, he says, “because my father wanted me to.”
Alpert, to his anguish, flunked organic chemistry and biology at Tufts but earned A’s in psychology. “The psych department became my home,” he recalls, “along with A.E. Pi, the Jewish fraternity.” He had an instructor, Edward M. Bennet, “who inspired me, and the summer after my junior year, he placed me as a psychologist in a camp for diabetic kids.” Alpert was exhilarated working with young people and decided he wanted to study psychology in graduate school.
His father was not pleased. George Alpert phoned the president of Tufts, Leonard Carmichael, an eminent psychologist. According to Ram Dass, Carmichael summoned him to his office and told him he should go to med school. “Carmichael picked up the phone and called the head of Tufts medical school. ‘I’ve got a young man in my office—George Alpert’s son—and
I want him admitted.’ Carmichael hung up and said, ‘Now, that’s solved,’ ” Ram Dass recalls. “But I told him, ‘President Carmichael, I wouldn’t go to med school if you paid me. I’m going to be a psychologist.’ Carmichael said, ‘You’re making a bad mistake.’ And he was a psychologist!”
I ask Ram Dass if he was happy at Tufts.
“No,” he says. “I wasn’t happy in my life. I was so anxious about med school . . . yich!” That’s his second favorite expression, pronounced with a guttural German ch. He was also a closet homosexual. While in prep school at Williston Academy in western Massachusetts, he says, “I was fooling around with a boy, and we were spied on by seniors. It got all over the school.” He says he was ostracized by the faculty and students. Someone from Williston pledged his fraternity at Tufts, and told all the members, which made Alpert shut down. “I never made my sexuality known.”
His mentors in the psychology department steered Alpert to graduate school at Wesleyan University. Although he eventually flunked the oral exam for his master’s, Alpert was known by his professors at Wesleyan as brilliant, witty, keenly perceptive, and charismatic. He was fun to have around. David McClelland, who chaired the psychology department, once told me, “If he was anxious, no one saw that, and he didn’t talk about it.” McClelland recommended him as a Ph.D. candidate to the psychology department at Stanford, and Alpert received his acceptance before he failed his master’s orals.
At Stanford in 1954, Alpert teamed with another Ph.D. candidate to explore why Alpert was flunking tests. Both men were gifted intellectually, yet one could ace tests that the other failed. They concluded that there were emotional causes, and Alpert wrote his thesis on “achievement anxiety.”
After receiving his Ph.D., he stayed on at Stanford to teach and also began psychoanalysis—at the time, the hottest religion in town. A year later, Dave McClelland moved to Harvard and wanted to bring Alpert there. Alpert accepted, relishing the irony that after being rejected as a student at Harvard, he now was on the faculty.
“I was sitting with the boys on the first team,” he recalls. The young Richard Alpert had a corner office on Divinity Avenue (a name he later found amusing). He was McClelland’s deputy in the personality lab, the only psychologist on the staff of psychiatrists counseling students, and on track for a permanent position. He drove a Mercedes with a Star of David on the back, flew his own plane, and rode a Triumph motorcycle. But he was drinking heavily, eating compulsively, and every time he lectured, he suffered from tension and diarrhea. He felt empty and unfulfilled, despite all the prestige and goodies he’d acquired. It all seemed a sham.
Enter Timothy Leary. McClelland had brought him to Harvard as an instructor, and Leary and Alpert went drinking together. Alpert found Leary stimulating, fearless, and original, “the only person on the faculty who wasn’t impressed with Harvard.” He adds that Leary was hard on institutions “but very loving with individuals.” They planned to travel in Mexico over the summer, but Leary backed out because a shaman had just given him mushrooms containing the mind-altering chemical psilocybin. Leary told Alpert he’d learned more taking the mushrooms “than I learned in all my years as a psychologist.”
In the fall of 1960, when Alpert went to the University of California at Berkeley as a visiting professor, Leary consulted with the writer Aldous Huxley, who was at MIT, and set up a research project to study the effects of psilocybin on various social groups: artists, musicians, philosophers, prisoners. Psychiatrists had been investigating mind-altering drugs because they mimicked schizophrenia, but Leary wanted to see if they could be beneficial.
When Alpert returned to Cambridge, the experiment was in full bloom. On March 5, 1961, Alpert went to Leary’s home and took his first trip on psilocybin with a group that included Leary and the poet Allen Ginsberg. His description of that trip is worth the price of Be Here Now. Alpert saw all aspects of his personality fall away—professor, therapist, son, lover, friend. He went into a panic until a voice inside asked, “But who’s minding the store?” He discovered an inner “I,” a consciousness that calmly observed his body and his mind, and this “I” was all-knowing. He joined Leary’s project as the good cop, the stabilizing influence. They acquired L.S.D. for research purposes and took many more trips themselves.
They were explorers in a glorious new frontier and wanted to share the good news. They used the term “psychedelic”—mind revealing—and began to link the psychedelic experience with that of mystics from different religions. Alpert assisted Walter Pahnke, an M.D. who was getting his Ph.D. at Harvard, in his “Good Friday” experiment, the first controlled, double-blind study of drugs and the mystical experience. They gave psilocybin to 10 divinity students from Andover Newton Theological School during a Good Friday service, and gave another 10—the control group—a placebo. “It was absurd,” Ram Dass says, “because in a short time, it was obvious who had taken the psilocybin. . . . They would stagger out of the chapel and say, ‘I see God! I see God!’ ”
The more drug trips Alpert took, the more he trusted the inner voice and the less reassurance he needed from the outside world. In 1963, Harvard voted not to renew Alpert’s and Leary’s contracts, and the two held a press conference to announce their departure. In Ram Dass’s words, “I remember the president of Harvard telling me I was through, and the reporters looking at me as if I was a prizefighter who’d gone down and was headed for oblivion. And I didn’t take them seriously.” In retrospect, he says, “I was making decisions in a drugged state, and I thought it was all a big joke. We were better than they were. Those poor fellows at Harvard were asleep, they didn’t know. I was awake and I knew: What I’m doing is all right.”
I ask Ram Dass if he still feels the people at Harvard were asleep. He shuts his eyes, as he does when he wants to see what’s true. “No,” he says. “They were trying to be awake with the tools they had.”
Alpert, Leary, and their followers moved to Millbrook, New York, to a house arranged for them by Peggy Hitchcock, an heiress to the Mellon fortune. At Millbrook, they experimented with many drugs, looking for a permanent route to higher consciousness, but no matter how high they’d get, they couldn’t sustain it. By 1967, Alpert was in despair: “I’d shot my load.” He could not return to academia and didn’t want to take L.S.D. anymore. “It was going to show me the garden again, and then I would be cast out.” He had no idea how to make constructive use of the experience.
His mother died that year, and a friend invited him to travel across India. He watched the scenery roll by, but his depression never lifted. Then a chance encounter with another American led Alpert to a temple in the Himalayas, where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. That encounter was to alter the course of his life. At first sight, though, Alpert held back and refused to touch the feet of the guru as others were doing. The guru was a twinkly, fat old man wrapped in a blanket. He beckoned to Alpert and told him he knew he’d been grieving for his mother, who’d died of spleen.
Alpert was jolted—he’d told no one in India that his mother died of a spleen disease. “My mind raced faster and faster,” trying to come up with an explanation, he says, and then “my mind just gave up. It burned out its circuitry.” He felt a violent wrenching, as if he’d been cracked open, and love—welcoming love—was pouring in. “It felt like I was home. The journey was over.”
Alpert stayed in the temple for eight months, rising at four o’clock in the morning for a cold bath, followed by study, meditation, breathing practices, and sessions with the guru, who was called Maharaji, or great king, by his followers. It was clear to Alpert that Maharaji knew everything in his mind—good thoughts and bad—and loved him nonetheless, just as he was. “That had never happened to me,” he says. “Never.” Maharaji gave him the name Ram Dass, servant of God, and added the prefix Baba, a term of respect meaning father. It was during this time that Maharaji told him his path was to “love everyone and tell the truth.” This is the bhakti yoga path of devotion and cultivating the heart. Each person is a manifestation of the divine, so to serve and love people is to serve and love God.
In 1968, Maharaji told Ram Dass to return to the United States, saying he would shower him with grace. Ram Dass came off the plane in Boston barefoot, all in white, wearing prayer beads and a beard. His father told him to get in the car quick, “before anyone sees you.” Ram Dass moved into a cabin on his father’s estate in New Hampshire, where he read and meditated. The first time he drove into town, he met kids who thought he was the new drug connection. He told them, “I am not that kind of connection.” The young people came to visit him and started bringing friends until there were regularly more than 200 sitting on the lawn at his father’s house. Ram Dass said he was a beginner on the path, but he taught them how to chant, meditate, and develop a “witness,” an inner observer that watches thoughts and feelings go by without judging them.
Ram Dass was invited to give a talk on “The Transformation of a Man” at a seminar house in Pennsylvania. The talk was broadcast on Pacifica Radio, and Ram Dass hit the lecture circuit, speaking at churches, personal growth centers, colleges, psychological meetings, and medical schools around the country. At the time, meditation was not well known, and yoga was considered weird. I was not attracted to this strange stuff, but in 1971, when Be Here Now was published and a friend gave me a copy, I related to everything Ram Dass said. He was the first person I read who articulated what I—and countless others—were feeling: that you could achieve, earn money, and attain prestige and still not be fulfilled or content.
What Ram Dass offered—what Eastern spirituality offered—was a set of practices to cultivate inner peace and love. In most Western religions, the individual prays to an external God; in Eastern meditation, the divine consciousness is accessed by looking within. Western psychology is powered by and studies the mind; in Eastern traditions, consciousness is larger and more expansive than the personality and mind. Thoughts are seen not as serious or solid but as clouds that pass across the sky.
Ram Dass communicated Eastern precepts in a language Westerners could understand. He would run down Buddha’s four Noble Truths and keep the audience with him all the way. The first truth, he said, is that all life is suffering, because it’s in time. “Birth, death, not getting what you want, even getting what you want means suffering because you’ll lose it, in time.” The second truth is that the cause of suffering is desire or attachment. “If you don’t try to hold on, you don’t suffer over the loss.” So the third noble truth is: “Give up attachment; give up desire and you end the suffering, the whole thing that keeps you stuck.” The fourth truth is Buddha’s eightfold path for giving up attachment, which Ram Dass summarized in a phrase that clicked instantly with Western minds: “Work on yourself.”
Through his teaching and writing in the seventies, Ram Dass helped launch what’s often called the “fourth great awakening” in America, when masses of young people set off on “the path,” seeking a direct experience of truth and oneness or connectedness with all living beings. In Manhattan, most people I knew were carrying dog-eared copies of Be Here Now, reading other spiritual books, becoming vegetarians, and going off on silent retreats.
But by the eighties, when the country was caught up in a fever of accumulating wealth, many seekers turned their attention to careers and raising families. Ram Dass was one of the small number who stayed the course, but he fell off the cultural radar screen. He began to concentrate on service, working with the homeless, prison inmates, and people facing tragedy or death. He never accepted money for this work and made sure his books and tapes were affordably priced. He would sit across from people, looking into their eyes as they spoke about their anger, terror, or grief, and he would help them reach a different perspective. He taught a young man who’d become a paraplegic after a surfing accident to see that he was not merely his body. When a couple sought his counsel after their young daughter was raped and murdered, Ram Dass wrote them a letter that was so empathic and uplifting that the mother later said it was the first communication that had penetrated the blackness and helped her see a glint of light.
Ram Dass also joined with health-care workers to start the Seva Foundation to treat the blind in developing countries. When he gave talks, he urged people to serve others—to give their time and resources—as a path to God.
Ram Dass’s convictions were tested in 1997, when he suffered the stroke and was not expected to live. During his long rehab, he needed assistance to get out of bed, bathe, dress, and eat. It was agonizing. “I’d always been the giver, the one who helps,” he says. He also lost his faith in Maharaji, who had died in 1973. Maharaji had promised to shower Ram Dass with grace, and then Ram Dass was incapacitated by a stroke. “I couldn’t put the two together—grace and the stroke,” he says. But in time, he came to understand that the stroke had deepened his compassion, openness, and humility. “The stroke was giving me lessons, and I realized that was grace—fierce grace.”
Now he sees himself demonstrating a way to grow old and prepare for dying. The most important task is to “practice change—be happy with change,” he says. After the stroke, he had to give up playing the cello, driving his car, hitting a golf ball. He had to let go of his old life and not compare it to the present one. “I’ve been changed with a stroke . . . and I’m happy,” he says. “Death is the biggest change we’ll face, so we need to practice change.”
In 2004, Ram Dass had just returned from India and was running a fever when he was scheduled to fly to Maui to lead a retreat. He got on the plane anyway, “because I wouldn’t welsh on my deal.” The infection grew acute as the retreat progressed, and he wound up in the hospital. Once again, doctors weren’t certain he would recover. When he did, he rented a house and announced he would spend his remaining years in Hawaii.
The day before I leave, we swim in the pool with some of his visitors. Standing in the shallow end, Ram Dass looks transported with joy. He makes a sweeping gesture with his left arm, taking in the vistas. “The trees! The flowers! The ocean . . . and friends! It’s paradise.”
In a quieter moment, I ask what he thinks his life has been about. “Learning about suffering and compassion. I had to learn to be compassionate,” he says. “And bringing people to God.” He sometimes sees his role as the “kindergarten teacher” who took people on their first steps. “Now I’ve graduated. I’m teaching fourth grade.”
When people tell him he’s their guru, he responds, “You’ve never met a real guru, like Maharaji, or you wouldn’t say that. I’m not a realized being at this moment.”
A lot of people love you, I point out. When word spread over the Internet that Ram Dass had always given away money, never saved for himself, and was now about to lose his house, more than 3,000 people sent him loving letters with checks enclosed, ranging from a dollar on up. The money that arrived will support him in his rented house for two years, but his friends are trying to raise more to buy a home for Ram Dass and his nonprofit foundation.
Ram Dass was moved by the letters, but he’s never claimed to be a guru. “Besides being lovable, the guru is God-realized and clear. He has no attachments, and nothing in his personality gets in the way.”
Would you like to become realized in this life? I ask.
He shuts his eyes, letting the question sink in. “Yes,” he says, opening his eyes and nodding. “Then I would help people so much. So much.”
SARA DAVIDSON is a social historian and novelist who has written six books, including Loose Change and Cowboy. Her latest book, Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, will be published in February.