The story it told perfectly mirrored the era it sprang from: The scion of a prominent Jewish family in Boston, Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert, had his life turned around when Timothy Leary moved into the office next door and turned him on to LSD. This foray into acid blew Alpert's scientifically trained mind off its hinges and led to his founding, along with Leary, the Harvard Psilocybin Project--the first attempt to induce, quantify, and compare religious experiences, in a laboratory setting--and to becoming the first tenured professor in this century to be ousted by that institution.
Turned on but disillusioned, he wandered through India, underwent mystical initiation with Neem Karoli Baba, and returned home at his guru's instruction (with a new name--Baba Ram Dass--meaning "Servant of God") to write a book and teach what he'd learned to Westerners craving enlightenment. Thus "Be Here Now" was born, transforming its quirky author into one of the foremost spiritual pioneers of the baby-boom generation.
I was a distant, second-generation fan of Ram Dass' work (I was finishing kindergarten the year Alpert was fired from Harvard) when his editor contacted me in autumn 1998 to ask whether I would be interested in helping him finish his book on conscious aging and dying. The previous year, at 67, Ram Dass had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage that placed 9-to-1 odds against his survival; he was confined to a wheelchair, suffered from severe verbal aphasia, and was physically incapable of writing. Without assistance, this manuscript--a message to his now middle-aged followers on how to meet the challenge of growing old awake--would not see the light of day.
"I've attempted extremely consciously to make my inner and outer lives one life," Ram Dass has said. He is a self-admitted "people person" and has rejected all attempts to set himself on a pedestal--beginning by dropping the honorific "Baba."
"This refusal is what sets him apart from other spiritual teachers," according to veteran director-producer Mickey Lemle, whose feature-length documentary of Ram Dass' life, "Being Here Now," will be released later this year. "I've been around lots of heavyweights," says the filmmaker, whose previous subjects include the Dalai Lama and author Sir Laurens van der Post, "but Ram Dass' talks about spirituality are all drawn from personal experience. We get to see him fall off the path."
Harvard-trained author and psychiatrist Mark Epstein, who had his first life-altering encounter with Ram Dass in the '70s, agrees. "He had a big ego and loved to poke fun at himself. That's what people could relate to. Ram Dass was real in his attachments--to fame, narcissism, and lust. He was out there with it. His enduring charm and authenticity have to do with his humor and shameless candor."
Like most pioneers--first with drugs, then mysticism, public service (through the Living/Dying Project, Hanuman and Seva foundations, and Social Ventures Network), and now with the lightning-rod issue of aging and mortality--Ram Dass came into his role as icon accidentally. He was simply the right person at the right time with the right set of hang-ups. This has turned his life into an archetypal hero's story for his contemporaries.
Though it seems unlikely that Ram Dass' new book, "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying," will have such a megalithic impact, his continued popularity is impossible to deny, as a recent standing-room-only appearance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York proved. The throng of well-wishers cheered and wept when Ram Dass was wheeled into the church, looking like a battered war hero, then pulled himself up and walked to the stage with the help of a cane and railing.
Having observed Ram Dass up close in periods of intense discomfort, irritation, and worse, I can attest to the fruit of his spiritual labors. His willingness to surrender to the help of others, and to his own disability, with lightness of heart is enormously inspiring. As Mickey Lemle puts it, "The way he's dealing with his stroke is his greatest teaching. It's validated the currency of all the work that has come before this. He's really living his teaching now, and by so doing, it is grace."
Even in our fast-moving times, when obsolescence comes built-in with fame, grace remains a quality that never goes out of style. Ram Dass has made that rare transition from renegade youth to cherished elder and in the process has proved to us that suffering, no matter how grievous, can be used as grist for the spiritual mill.