In the early 1960s, a Harvard psychology professor named Richard Alpert was fired, along with Timothy Leary, for experimenting with LSD. His forays into expanded consciousness led him to India where he met his teacher, the late Hindu master Neem Karoli Baba and metamorphosed into Ram Dass, a notoriously playful and empathic guru who guided a generation of Westerners on the quest for enlightenment. At the pinnacle of its popularity, his spiritual manual "Be Here Now" was outsold only by the Bible and Dr. Spock.
In 1997, at the age of 63, a massive, near-fatal stroke left Ram Dass partially paralyzed and suffering from severe verbal aphasia--and brought him to a new realm of religious insight. His life journey thus far--and particularly the aftermath of his stroke--is chronicled with wit and compassion in "Fierce Grace," an extraordinary new film by the award-winning documentarian Mickey Lemle. It opens in select cities this week.
Sitting in his wheelchair during a recent interview in New York City, Ram Dass's conversation is rippled with silence as he waits, as he puts it, for concepts to be clothed with words in the dressing room of the brain. But as "Fierce Grace" demonstrates, Ram Dass is as eloquent as ever--more so, in fact, for the special vantage he now has on illness, aging, and death after being "stroked by my guru."
In one of the film's most poignant scenes, a couple reads a letter Ram Dass sent them after the violent death of their 11-year-old daughter--a missive that should be offered to everyone who loses a loved one. "Something inside you dies when you bear the unbearable. It is only in the dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and love as God loves....Your rational minds will never understand what has happened. But your hearts, if you can keep them open to God, will find their own intuitive way."
Your life has always been very public. But how was it being the sole subject of a movie?
I like the movie as it came out, but it doesn't show me. It shows a certain aspect of me, but not my rascality, not so many parts of me. That ended up on the cutting room floor. But I understand what Mickey [Lemle, the director] was trying to do. I'm satisfied that it focuses on death, sickness, and suffering and that it makes dharmic points about these things. That part is fantastic. Fantastic.
You say in the film that during the stroke, "there I was, Mr. Spiritual, and in my own death, I didn't orient toward the spiritual." What was going on?
I wasn't conscious. When it started happening, I never thought it was a stroke. I thought it was a weak leg. I thought I was having this fantasy of being an old man.
Before the stroke I was on a very spiritual plane. I ignored my body, took it for granted. When I look at my life, I see that I wanted to be free of the physical plane, the psychological plane, and when I got free of those I didn't want to go anywhere near them. But the stroke reminded me that I had a body and a brain, that I had to honor them.
That took some time. After my stroke one of the hospitals had a conference about me and very kindly invited me. I was continually surprised that they were thinking of me as a brain and a body, and I was thinking of myself as non-material! I said to them, "You're not getting at the root of it." And they looked at one another and must have thought, the patient is sicker than we thought!
Were you angry afterwards?
I was depressed. It was like I'd lost my guru. When I got the stroke, I was surrounded by people with negative takes on it. That is our culture's attitude toward stroke and I had that attitude. I had to wiggle my way out of it.
When did you begin to view it as the "fierce grace" of your guru?
At first, I couldn't find my guru's grace because of my wavering faith. The stroke got to that. Then I shot above that to a higher grace, and realized that the stroke had been grace-full. That took a tremendous amount of faith. And once I flexed my muscles in that faith, it began to be intriguing. I could see that my guru had the stroke in mind as part of a sequence. I could see it like a surgeon plunging in the knife for the sake of compassion.
Your "sequence" definitely didn't include a stroke!
Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality. When I look back at where my life was leading at Harvard, and then as a psychedelic person, I feel I've been really pretty lucky. They were tracks in my life that I felt were full but they didn't have spirituality in them.
My guru said that when he suffers, it brings him closer to God. I have found this, too. The stroke is compassionate because the suffering has brought me closer to God. It got me to a place that is deep, deep, deep.
What is grace?
I call it presence. It's a space where I'm loving and truthful and wise and compassionate and I'm not even trying. A friend of mine who's a doctor describes the grace of being with our guru like this: "It wasn't just that he was loving, but that I was loving in his presence." My impression is that's grace.
Illness and aging and death are going to be in their present much sooner than they think. We need to identify with something that's not subject to those three things, such as the soul. Learn how to witness your thought process and your attitudes. Then at least you can be a witness rather than a participant swept up by the trauma.
Do you still use psychedelics?
Heavy psychedelics I'm reticent to use because my brain is damaged. Medical marijuana, however, is amazingly helpful. It helps with spasticity and pain, and it gives me a different perspective on the stroke. I'm able to witness it.
I started my spiritual journey in this lifetime with hallucinogenic mushrooms. That plus Maharaj-ji [my guru] is enough for one incarnation!
You've said that your teacher is more present to you now than when he was alive.
I'm sure I can't convey the relationship with my guru now that he's been dead for so long. It's like a buddy, a friend, a compass. It's like a depth, a depth that identifies with all and everything. Our relationship is all and everything. And the ground of our relationship is my life. It's been a good trip.