On Maui, the '60s icon who advised a generation to 'Be Here Now'
rediscovers that all you need is love
November 14, 2010
By RICK CHATENEVER
One can only wonder what the barefoot beach kids of Maui must think
of the old guy in the wheelchair with the white hair, the sparkle in
his eye, and the funny name - Ram Dass.
They should ask their grandparents.
At age 79, the former Harvard psychology professor, former LSD
experimenter and pioneering teacher of Eastern ways to Western minds
is just one of the folks you're liable to run into at The Studio Maui
in the Haiku Marketplace. He has been a Maui resident since 2004,
after a stroke curtailed his travels as an internationally renowned
spiritual teacher, and he found the climate here to be good for his health.
"Maui has healing properties for my body," he recently explained at
the other end of a Skype interview. He was in his comfortably
cluttered home, suitably attired for the occasion in an aloha shirt.
"I think I feel content in Maui. And that contentment is a precursor,
a causative effect for spiritual peace."
As opposed to other gurus you're liable to encounter in Haiku, he's a real one.
In his younger days, he was one of the iconic figures blazing a trail
through a time and state of mind now known as "the '60s." Now
remembered as a revolution in American culture and consciousness, he
summed up the era's mindset with the title of his landmark book -
"Remember, Be Here Now."
His face now shows the years, but also glows with Maui sunshine,
often breaking into an almost childlike smile.
"Now I am who I am now," he says. "I don't go anywhere else. I'm an
To mark the 40th anniversary of "Be Here Now," his publisher, Harper
One, is re-releasing the groundbreaking work with all the latest
features, like an e-book version.
That's what used to be known as a long strange trip from the work's
origins as a 12-by-12-inch corrugated box of transcriptions of talks
he had given at the Lama Foundation outside Taos, N.M. They were
printed on brown paper and bound with twine. A recording of chanting
was included in the package, sent out in 1970 by the Lama Foundation
for free to those who had sent a postcard requesting them.
The first run was 1,000 copies. After being turned into a book, it
has sold 2 million copies more.
The anniversary also marks publication of what might be called a
companion volume - or perhaps, a chronicle of evolution, 40 years in
Co-authored with Rameshwar Das, its title is "Be Love Now."
You might say it took four decades to get from "Here" to "Love." For
Ram Dass, the journey can be measured more accurately in inches -
from his head, to his heart.
Flashback to the the early 1960s. His name was still Richard Alpert
then, the third son of a prominent Boston Jewish family. An ambitious
psychology professor who had gotten his doctorate at Stanford, taught
at Berkeley and done research with Yale, his promising career at
Harvard University came to an abrupt end after he began collaborating
with a Harvard associate named Timothy Leary. The pair were dismissed
from the university in 1963, after conducting unauthorized research
into hallucinogenic drugs, including a new synthetic derivative called LSD.
They continued their experiments for the next few years at a mansion
in upstate New York in the company of creative artists, many of whom
would be etched into our memories in Andy Warhol-style images from
those fast-changing times.
But as Leary gained immortality as the poster boy for the motto "Tune
in, turn on, drop out," Alpert's interests gravitated in a more
Influenced by Hindu teachings and a developing ethic of service, he
traveled to India in 1967, where he met the man who was to become his
guru, Neem Karoli Baba, or as his devotees called him, Maharaj-ji.
Former Professor Alpert returned from this first Indian trip with the
new name his teacher had given him - Ram Dass. The name denoted a
servant of the mythical Lord Rama. He also returned as a man on a
mission of education and service based in Hinduism and other Eastern
religious teachings and yoga practices.
He has continued that mission ever since.
He wrote of his experiences in "Remember, Be Here Now," that would
become a grail in an era when Western minds were awakening to new
sunrises in the East.
"I came off my first visit to India and wrote that book," he
recalled. "During the first visit with my guru, he performed a
miracle from my point of view as a psychologist. He told me what I
had been thinking the night before, from 20 miles away. We couldn't
do that in psychology. That blew my mind."
As a therapist, researcher and explorer of altered states of
consciousness, he was amazed by the mental feat. It would take some
time before he recalled the rest of what happened during the first encounter.
"He was right above me and I was sitting on the grass. I thought, he
must know everything in my head. I thought, oh my gosh, this was
really bad. I was embarrassed. But when I looked up into his eyes,
what I got was unconditional love. He was loving for me. That was the
first time I had ever experienced unconditional love.
"In 'Be Here Now,' I was wowed by that reading of my mind. But I had
forgotten this wow."
He had his return plane ticket in his pocket, but instead, remained
in India, soaking in the new teachings. "I stayed for six months. I
said, this is home this is home this is home. It was home for my
heart, because he was giving me that love."
Returning to the West, over the next decades Ram Dass spread his new
awareness through his teachings and writings. He also put it into
action in organizations like the Hanuman Foundation, devoted to
social, cultural and environmental programs; and the Seva Foundation,
an international health organization whose programs included
restoring eyesight to nearly 3 million cataract patients around the world.
Since his stroke, his speech is slower. In his presence, when he is
asked a question, you feel like you can actually see the gears
turning, slowly, behind the tanned forehead. When asked a question,
he pauses for a long time before answering in measured phrases.
His sense of humor is still intact.
"He used to be the master of the one-liner," observes Wavy Gravy, Ram
Dass' activist friend from the '60s, in the forward to "Be Love Now."
"Now he's the master of the ocean liner."
On Maui, Ram Dass appears intermittently at educational gatherings
known as "satsang " at The Studio Maui. He conducted two such
sessions in October.
At The Studio Maui, his audience includes many students and
practitioners of yoga and other forms of meditation.
The new book is full of lessons Ram Dass learned from Maharaj-ji,
grounded in Hindu teachings and mythology like the epic "Ramayana."
But as much as it is a guidebook in the evolution of Ram Dass' faith,
it is also a magical tale, full of Indian gurus and holy figures
performing miracles as though they were everyday household chores.
The sense of wonder at reading of these feats is tempered by another
goal of the belief system: overcoming the ego. By fully embracing the
concept of "nothing special," everything becomes special.
For long stretches, the book reads like Alice in a cosmic wonderland.
Amidst descriptions of Indian gurus performing inexplicable acts,
wondering what's "real" on so many different levels just adds to the
fun for the reader.
But what he teaches requires no specialized knowledge to understand.
He says his new book "describes these saintly beings in India. They
all express love toward their devotees and that's very much part of the book.
"But if we want ourselves to love, we have to move our identity from
this (he points to his forehead), the ego, to what what is called the
real self (pointing to the region of his heart.)
"That's the big 'if.' First of all, we have to focus on our center -
our heart space. As you find your identity with your spiritual heart
down there, you are in a plane of consciousness that you weren't in
before. From that vantage point, the world will look lovable."
It's been a long time since Ram Dass advocated pharmaceutical paths
toward mind expansion.
"I recommend walking the walk," he told a recent satsang audience.
"The psychedelics are the Western way they're quick, easy, but
there's no satisfaction."
And it's not long before they leave you wanting more.
But he's also the first to acknowledge that had it not been for his
early drug experimentation, he would never have gone to India, and
never would have found the path he's on now.
Similarly, were it not for his health setbacks, he might never have
gotten to his new home on Maui. After a debilitating stroke in 1997,
he struggled over the next years to regain his speech and body
function. In the fall of 2004, he followed exhausting travels to
India and Singapore by conducting a spiritual retreat on Maui.
"At the end of the retreat he developed a high fever and at the
emergency room on Maui was diagnosed with an acute urinary infection
that had migrated to his kidneys and into his bloodstream," according
to the foreword in "Be Love Now."
He was confined to Maui Memorial Hospital for a month. When he was
finally released, "he was weak and further travel was out of the
question," writes co-author Das.
His finances were in the same condition as his health. Supporters,
led by Maui resident and best-selling author Wayne Dyer, rallied to
his aid. A quote from Dyer and words from spiritual authors Thich
Nhat Hanh, Krishna Das, Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra adorn
the jacket of Ram Dass' new book. All acknowledge him as their
teacher or inspiration.
Now Maui provides his therapy.
"He stays very in tune," says Mike Crall, a volunteer with Ram Dass'
Love Service Remember foundation. "He reads The Maui News, he goes to
movies, he goes to cultural events."
At a recent Dhavani concert produced by Crall, featuring Maui's
master of Odissi dance, Sarala Dandekar, and musicians Ty Burhoe and
Steve Oda, Ram Dass was a beaming member of the audience.
The Haiku holy man swims in a pool three times a week. Crall also
takes him to Kamaole I Beach in Kihei once a week. It's the county's
only beach with special accessibility for the handicapped.
"He swims out to the buoy, and says, 'Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy!" says Crall.
"Physical health is concerned with the body," explains Ram Dass. "I
am using the body. The body is sort of like a space suit for this
plane of consciousness. I am in my body, but an analogy in India says
the body is a chariot. The ego is the chariot driver, and the soul is
the guy riding in the chariot. It's his chariot - he tells the ego
where he wants to go.
"The horses are the desires," he adds with a laugh.
Prior to his stroke, Ram Dass addressed issues of aging and death,
both in his life and in his book "Still Here."
On the subject of death, he sees a stark contrast between the Western
view and what he observed in India.
"There they have a healthy reaction to death, because death is part
of life for them. They have multigenerations living together. They
will bring the bodies in the street - they don't hide them in bags
and hearses and things like that."
While death is a source of great fear in our culture, he speaks of it
"From my travels in India, I have found reincarnation is a fact," he
says firmly. "In our lives, each individual life is an incarnation, a
chapter of our history. The ego identifies with this incarnation,
while the soul has come from incarnations in the past. Souls don't
get so anxious about death, because they have gone through it."
But life keeps revealing itself to him in unexpected ways. While he
was writing "Be Love Now," Ram Dass learned he had a son, now 53, and
a 15-year-old granddaughter.
Sharing this revelation with his satsang audience, he joked about not
having had to deal with changing diapers or college costs.
"But to find you have a son when you're 79, it has a little surprise
to it," he says. His new family lives on the Mainland, but they've
been out to get acquainted.
"I wasn't looking forward to family involvement. But I found that
having this son, who is a really nice guy, made me re-evaluate."
Best of all, his new family had no idea of his fame - who he was, or had been.
"They were good Christians," he told his satsang audience.
Ironically, in light of the unconditional love he advocates and
pursues, it often turns out that the hardest people to share it with
are those closest to you - family members, your parents, your kids,
His book describes his return from India, clad in his new robes and
new identity, being quickly ushered into the car at the airport by
his disapproving father.
"He called me 'Rum Dumb my brother called me worse."
It wasn't until his father was in his 90s and Ram Dass was caring for
him that this changed. After training others to deal with dying
people, he realized, "I had to work on myself in that situation. I
was a soul, and there was my father. I could hardly believe it, there
was my father, a soul. There was my father reacting in a spiritual
way. That wasn't the guy I had grown up with."
So bringing unconditional love home, to the people you live with day
in, day out, remains a greater challenge than spreading it around the world.
"I think you know them too well," he says. "You know their
personality, you know their ego, and you are relating to them as ego
to ego, which is certainly hard.
"If you want to change that, you have to work on yourself, so that
you are in your soul. Your wife and your kids, any of these people my
father - you would see them as souls. I'd say you have to change
where your 'I' is."
The man who summed up a generation telling them, "Remember, Be Here
Now," is still offering advice for the new times he's living in.
"The message is that God is within you," he concludes. "You have to go inside."
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.