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Love, Serve, Remember: Rum Dumb

February 27, 2011

Image Credit: Travelpod.com

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 island boy.”

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 the making.

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 spiritual direction.

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.

Carousel Horses

Image Credit: All Hallows Guild

“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 with equanimity.

“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, your spouse.

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.”

~ Article found at Maui News, Nov 14 2010

Image Credit: RefrigeratorDoorWisdom

Further Reading:

Ram Dass.org – The 60’s aren’t dead. Fragments of  the psychedelic message are everywhere around us – in politics, in art, everywhere.”

The 5 Stages of the Soul: charting spiritual passages that shape our lives – Harry R. Moody & David L. Carroll
IT IS NOT WHAT YOU DO THAT COUNTS, IT IS WHERE YOUR HEAD IS AT
Negative feelings or emotions are useless in themselves. Negative attitudes can become positive if one realizes that it is not actions or deeds in themselves that have value, but rather the way one feels. This is not to say actions can be independent of feelings. Harmful actions breed negativity.

 In general, a positive attitude brings more favorable results and as long as you can be objective, your circumstances will not make you anxious or depressed. You have the power to remove negative feelings and replace them with positive ones.

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