With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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On the wall near my desk at home, there’s a sign: thirty-five words inside a simple metal frame.
“Let me respectfully remind you,” it reads, “life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken, awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.”
One day, I noticed the sign was crooked. I tried to straighten it, and it slipped from my hand. As it hit the floor, the glass inside the frame cracked.
Berating myself for being so clumsy, I promised I’d replace the glass. Then I reconsidered: maybe it would be better to leave the sign the way it was — the cracked glass now as much a reminder as the words themselves.
In 1971, I was hitchhiking around the United States, searching for answers. I’d just switched my religious affiliation from devout agnostic to confused seeker. Instead of deriding the spiritual life, I was struggling to make sense of it, trying to separate the real from the bogus, the flower from the thorn.
One summer day, I visited a commune somewhere in California. I no longer recall the name of the commune, or what town it was near. I remember walking down a long dirt road to get there. I remember orange groves, avocado trees. I remember a modest clapboard house.
That’s where I discovered Be Here Now. On a windowsill. Beneath a pair of lacy white curtains. Next to a shiny white commode.
Being an inveterate bathroom reader, I picked it up and started reading. It wasn’t great literature, but, from the first page, the book drew me as powerfully as anything I’d ever read. As soon as I could, I bought a copy of my own. Though more than a quarter-century has passed since then, in some ways I’ve never put it down.
Here was the story of Richard Alpert, a bright Jewish intellectual who, by the age of thirty, had climbed to the top of the academic ladder. Though he was a professor of psychology at Harvard and a highly regarded therapist, he felt that something was missing from his life, and that psychology didn’t really have a grasp on the human condition. He ate too much, drank too much, and got terrible diarrhea every time he had to lecture. After five years of psychoanalysis, his own therapist had told him, “You are too sick to leave analysis.”
In 1961, Alpert was introduced to consciousness-expanding drugs by a new colleague at Harvard, Timothy Leary. On his first trip with psilocybin, Alpert underwent a profound shift in awareness. Images of his different identities — professor, lover, son — appeared and faded before his eyes. Then his body started to fade away. He panicked, feeling more and more distraught; then, all at once, he was engulfed by a sense of calm. For the first time, he wrote, he sensed his inner self — the universal essence within each person that is “independent of social and physical identity . . . beyond life and death.” It was the most exhilarating, deeply religious experience of his life.
Eventually fired from Harvard because of his experiments with drugs, Alpert spent several years exploring inner realms of consciousness with psychedelics. There were parallels, he believed, between his LSD trips and the enlightenment experiences described in certain Hindu and Buddhist texts. There was also a big difference: no matter how high Alpert went, no matter how ecstatic and transforming his visions, he eventually came down. It was, he wrote, “as if you came into the kingdom of heaven . . . and then you got cast out again.”
After six years, and more than three hundred psychedelic trips, Alpert went on a pilgrimage to India, hoping to find someone who could give him more enduring answers. He traveled for several months before encountering Neem Karoli, an old man said to possess extraordinary powers, though he struck Alpert at first as a hustler.
After some initial banter between them, Neem Karoli asked Alpert to come closer. He then described what Alpert had been doing the previous evening. He whispered that Alpert had been thinking of his mother, who had died a year earlier. This was true. Then Neem Karoli leaned back, closed his eyes, and said that she had died of an illness of the spleen, something Alpert had discussed with no one in India.
Alpert’s mind raced, searching for an explanation, but he couldn’t come up with one. When his mother had died the year before, Alpert hadn’t even cried, believing that, as a result of his experience with psychedelics, he’d come to terms with death. Now Alpert felt a wrenching in his chest. He bent down, put his head in Neem Karoli’s lap, and started to weep. “And I cried and cried and cried,” he wrote. “And I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sad. It wasn’t that kind of crying. The only thing I could say is that it felt like I was home, like the journey was over.”
Alpert spent the next six months with Neem Karoli, practicing meditation and yoga, following a strict vegetarian diet, and taking in what he could of the guru’s wisdom. Neem Karoli — called by his devotees Maharajji, a common title of respect in India — lived simply, showed no interest in worldly possessions, and gave no lectures. But, for Alpert, just being in this man’s presence was profoundly moving. It wasn’t Neem Karoli’s display of paranormal powers that impressed Alpert so much as the intensity of his compassion. The guru seemed to know Alpert’s every thought yet embraced him anyway. Never before had Alpert experienced such unconditional love.
One night, Alpert came across the LSD he had carried in his shoulder bag to India. He wondered if Neem Karoli could tell him whether psychedelics offered a genuine mystical experience. The next day, before Alpert could say anything, Neem Karoli started teasing him. “Where’s the medicine?” he asked. Then Neem Karoli extended his hand. Would the “medicine,” he inquired mischievously, give him any special powers? Alpert handed Neem Karoli 900 micrograms of pure LSD, an unusually large dose, and watched as the guru put the pills in his mouth and swallowed. Alpert waited anxiously to see what would happen next. This was the strongest hallucinogen known to humankind. This was a drug that exploded in your brain like the most beautiful, the most dangerous, bomb in the world; sirens should have been wailing.
But Neem Karoli just sat outside all morning, chatting with visitors, drinking tea, and occasionally glancing at Alpert with a twinkle in his eye. That was his answer. Whatever states of awareness LSD made accessible, Neem Karoli lived in without drugs. “Everywhere I had gone with LSD,” Alpert wrote, “my guru already was.”
Neem Karoli encouraged his followers to “love everybody” and “serve everybody,” saying, “The best form in which to worship God is every form.” Before Alpert left India, Neem Karoli gave him the name Ram Dass, which, in Sanskrit, means “Servant of God.”
I studied Ram Dass’s spiritual odyssey as if it were a map to some mysterious continent whose existence I’d only recently discovered. A year earlier, I’d taken LSD for the first time; I, too, had experienced a radical shift in consciousness as I’d glimpsed my true self, and tasted the glory at the heart of creation. At the age of twenty-five, I’d begun to believe again — not in the storybook God of my childhood, nor in the existential angst I’d worshipped as an adolescent, but in an infinitely loving intelligence that permeated everything.
LSD was my sacrament. Under the right circumstances, it allowed me to part the curtain of everyday awareness: sometimes I’d be plunged into unimaginable grief as I faced painful truths about myself; other times I’d revel in a sublime joy that I’d never known existed. One time, I experienced myself as a point of awareness in a vast, dark emptiness. I was alone, adrift, impossibly distant from anything familiar — my familiar body, my familiar planet — with no idea of how to get back. Terror engulfed me. I was dying; I was sure of it.
I’ve never been able to remember what happened next; who knows, maybe I died. Then, somehow, I was back in my squat, little cinder-block house, back in my body, except my body wasn’t mine anymore. Though there wasn’t any music playing, I got up and started dancing. I felt as if an invisible hand had turned a rusty valve inside me, and now my world was bathed in love. The thrift-shop furniture, the droopy plants that needed watering, the ugly cinder-block walls: all was radiant. Everywhere I looked, love’s face looked back at me, even from my own eyes in the mirror. My definition of the word love was altered that day, the way a tidal wave might alter your definition of a day at the beach.
But, each time, I would come down. The white light would fade, a world shining with the joy of existence would give way to neon signs and honking horns, and I’d once again be wandering the strip mall of my desires, forced to deal with my disquieting limitations. As Neem Karoli told Ram Dass, drugs may strengthen one’s faith in higher states of awareness, but they couldn’t be a path to enlightenment. “It’s better to become Christ than to visit him,” Neem Karoli said, “and your medicine won’t do that for you.”
I, too, wanted to experience transcendent states without drugs. I, too, wanted more enduring answers. In Ram Dass, I discovered someone who spoke to me in a way that few spiritual teachers could, translating esoteric ideas into an accessible, appealing language as he discussed yogic powers and the great spiritual traditions of the East one moment, and sex, comic books, or American politics the next. I was moved by the core of earnest seeking I felt in him, and impressed by his lucidity. The facile uses to which the phrase “Be here now” has since been put belie the depth and beauty of his message: that the universe is a seamless whole; that behind our seemingly separate bodies and personalities we share one consciousness; that, if we can learn to quiet the chatter of our rational minds and the seductive crooning of our egos, we can begin to connect with the deepest truths about ourselves.
I was fascinated, too, by Ram Dass’s transformation from a respected Harvard professor — a man who played the cello, collected antiques, hosted dinner parties, and owned a Mercedes, an MG sports car, a motorcycle, a sailboat, and a Cessna airplane — into a bearded renunciate in a white robe and beads; in his own words, “nobody special.” That was the kind of career move I admired. I had also turned my back on a successful career when I’d quit the world of professional journalism. Instead of devoting my life to exposing the way politicians cheat the public, I wanted to expose the ways we all cheat ourselves, by identifying with a mistaken notion of who we really are. Having the facts wasn’t enough; we could fill an encyclopedia with information about ourselves and never come close to the truth. Intuitively I knew this, but I wasn’t sure how to express it without sounding naive or shrill. Ram Dass articulated ideas that were still inchoate in me, still rudimentary and confused.
In the pages of Be Here Now, I’d found my first spiritual teacher.
The divine mystery is mysteriously purposeful, Ram Dass wrote, even if that purpose is often hard to understand. The next message is always waiting for us; we’ll hear it when we’re ready to hear it. Timing is everything — and the universe’s timing is, well, impeccable. On a summer day in 1971, in a commune somewhere in California, I was reminded that, even as we search high and low for truth, truth sometimes waits for us, quietly and inauspiciously, until our pants are down around our ankles.
Two years later, in North Carolina, I interviewed Ram Dass for the first time.
I was nervous about meeting one of my heroes, worried about the kind of impression I’d make. But Ram Dass greeted me as if we were old friends. He was taller and lankier than I expected, with a bushy beard and clear, intelligent eyes. We sat outside and talked about ego and nonattachment, drugs and meditation, romantic love and divine love. Though Ram Dass knew that the magazine I was interviewing him for didn’t even exist yet, he was generous with his time and his answers. He laughed easily, especially at himself. He was wise without affecting a professorial air. Here was a man who communicated something important without acting important.
Finally, I relaxed enough to tell him a little about myself. He listened carefully, neither encouraging nor discouraging my confessions. When I mentioned my experiences with LSD, and complained about the lows that inevitably followed even the most exalted highs, he smiled. “After you’ve gone through that a few hundred times,” he said, “you start to meditate.” He hugged me before we parted: a big hug from a big man.
(Unfortunately, when the interview was published, a printing error rendered the last few letters of each sentence unreadable. For example, where Ram Dass said, “I feel better when I don’t eat meat,” the word don’t appeared as do. Appalled, I corrected all 250 copies by hand.)
Being able to include Ram Dass’s words (most of them, anyway) in the first issue of The Sun meant a lot to me. With the astonishing success of Be Here How, he had become one of the best-known spiritual teachers in the United States. His book had also helped inspire me to start a magazine.
I wanted The Sun to honor our fundamental connectedness; to delight in paradox; to look at a sad, confused world and see it as holy. But my own life was still an emotional roller coaster. A year after the interview appeared, I wrote to Ram Dass about my doubts and confusions: I was a seeker, I lamented, who didn’t know what he was seeking. He wrote back to express compassion for my predicament. He reminded me that “suffering is grace” and encouraged me to keep my heart open and do everything in my power to relieve suffering.
With his note, he enclosed a check for a subscription. I stood outside the post office staring at the check, unable to imagine a greater honor. Ram Dass a subscriber! I felt as if I’d been knighted — the sword of truth resting on my shoulder, the light of heaven streaming down. I toyed with the idea of framing the check; fortunately, I needed the money, nearly as much as I needed to deconstruct the romance I’d created, rescue Ram Dass the man from the realm of myth.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of opportunity. I’ve interviewed him on several other occasions, read all his books, listened to dozens of his tapes. More than any other spiritual teacher I can think of, Ram Dass has been willing to discuss his hang-ups and self-deceptions, to share even the most embarrassing personal stories, no matter how disillusioning they might be. Ram Dass has never claimed to be enlightened — far from it. He’s talked frankly about the difficulty of living like an ascetic when he first got back from India, of changing from holy robes to jeans before slipping out for pizza and a beer, of his embarrassment at being recognized as he stood in line to see a porno movie. More genuinely himself in front of an audience than many of us are with our closest friends, he once said, “Ram Dass wants nothing but the joy of being in your presence. Meanwhile, Dick Alpert is saying, ‘You want to come up and see my holy pictures?’ ” If his candor has made him less of a demigod in my eyes, it has at the same time made him more believable, someone who not only speaks the same language I do, but stutters over many of the same phrases.
When Ram Dass became sexually involved twenty years ago with a flamboyant spiritual teacher from Brooklyn — a married woman who claimed to have extraordinary psychic powers — many of his followers were disappointed. They felt that, in making exaggerated claims for her, Ram Dass had deceived and manipulated them. He later insisted this teacher had deceived and manipulated him. After fifteen months, he disavowed her teachings and said of the experience, “I was totally seduced by the whole melodrama, like a tourist, open-mouthed, watching a fakir do the Indian rope trick. . . . Finally, I had to admit that I had conned myself.”
In the wake of the controversy, the New York Times Magazine attacked Ram Dass as a liar and a charlatan, and a former Harvard colleague accused him of being no less power-hungry and sexually obsessed now than he had been in his days in Cambridge. But I found it hard to pass judgment: I’d recently been involved with a married woman myself, though I was married to someone else. I imagined that by living a lie I was protecting my children, but I, too, had conned myself. It was a ruinous experience, which taught me that nothing matters more than truth. Not sex. Not romance. Because sooner or later passion is spent. And love goes where love goes, from mystery to mystery. The family I tried to protect broke up anyway, because the greatest infidelity was the lie. When everything falls apart — and everything always does — truth is all that’s left. And if you’ve bartered away the truth, if you’ve convinced yourself that something else is more important, God help you then, because nothing else can.
Ram Dass wrote an apology, published in Yoga Journal, called “Egg On My Beard.” In it, he recalled how Gandhi once initiated a large protest march against the British in which many thousands were involved. After the first day, Gandhi canceled the protest. When his aides objected, he explained, “My commitment is to truth, not to consistency.”
Ram Dass continued: “Of more significance than my embarrassment is the issue of truth. Maharajji insisted that I tell the truth no matter how embarrassing. For he said, and I believe, that truth will make you free.”
But lies come in all sizes: big lies that ruin everything; little lies we carry around like loose change, not really enough to buy anything. Interviewing Ram Dass a decade after his involvement with the controversial teacher, I asked whether he was always completely honest.
He thought for a moment, then said no; he was too enamored of a good story, and was sometimes willing to trim edges to make a story more beautiful. “I’m truthful about the big things,” he said, “but not about the little things.”
I was disappointed. But I knew how tempting it was to stretch the truth, just a hair’s-breadth, for the sake of a story; it was a siren call I had to resist nearly every time I sat down to write.
“But when you’re asked a direct question,” I pressed, “do you ever find yourself not being truthful then?”
“I won’t say a direct lie,” he replied, “but I will infer something that could be a lie, make it appear a certain way by the way I use words, take the edge off, take the pain away from myself. I’m working to get straighter and straighter. But I’ve got to feel safer and safer. And sometimes I just don’t feel safe enough to be that truthful.”
Here was a man who had studied under one of India’s great teachers; a man who had chanted and meditated and endured the most rigorous monastic schedules; a man who had studied the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching, the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I still couldn’t expect total honesty from him?
His honest answer: No.
I knew Ram Dass was human. I just didn’t want him to be that human. Though not old enough to be my father, Ram Dass was still something of a father figure to me. I wanted him to be fearless, though he never claimed to be. I wanted him to be perfectly truthful, but he insisted on being perfectly himself.
Ram Dass once said, “The highest compliment people pay me is ‘Thank you for being so human.’ Isn’t that an extraordinary compliment? I mean, if I put something on my tombstone, it would be ‘He was human.’ Isn’t that bizarre? After all these years of trying to be holy?”
Perhaps a spiritual teacher didn’t need to be a saint to turn on a light for me. Perhaps he just needed to know where the switch was — and to believe less than I did in darkness.
Then, too, I wondered whether unrelenting honesty was what I really wanted. Years earlier, I’d asked Ram Dass what he thought of me. He’d said, “You’re a mensch” — Yiddish for someone with a good heart — “but you’re too mushy. You need to be more empty.” Mushy? I’d hated that. I couldn’t believe Ram Dass could be so unkind.
In January of last year, Ram Dass wrote to me to put in a good word for a young writer. His note was respectful; he wasn’t trying to bend my arm. He knew I wouldn’t publish something merely on the basis of his endorsement, but the manuscript turned out to be deeply moving. I was glad to say yes.
In his letter, Ram Dass said that, at sixty-five, he was hoping to travel less and start a national call-in talk show on AM radio. It was, he said, a “tough scene” to break into, but he was optimistic.
Talk radio! It didn’t fit the image I had of one of America’s countercultural icons, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Gone were the beard, ponytail and beads; these days, Ram Dass was a casually dressed, clean-shaven man (only the mustache remained), whose audiences were more conventional-looking, too. Most of them had never taken psychedelics or studied Eastern mysticism. (“You can get to God standing on one finger and eating a steak,” Ram Dass insisted. “There is no route to God that is the way.”) Some radio listeners would likely find his relationship with his guru distasteful, but I knew Ram Dass could handle tough questions, having lobbed a few at him myself over the years. Nor was he defensive about his status as a new-age leading man. “I’m a philosophical slob,” he once said. “I really don’t know what I’m talking about most of the time.” No, Ram Dass had never been reluctant to toss a few rocks himself at the lovely temple of words he’d built. If a window broke — well, maybe the question was more beautiful than the answer.
I knew that Ram Dass was still writing and lecturing and, true to his guru’s injunction, devoting a great deal of time to serving others. He started the Hanuman Foundation, which has supported spiritual work with prisoners and with the dying. He helped form the Seva Foundation, which has worked to eliminate blindness in Nepal and to aid poor villagers in Guatemala. And he had extended a helping hand to many other, smaller organizations. (Twice, in the early eighties, he did benefit lectures for The Sun.) [“An Evening with Ram Dass,” July 1980; “An Evening with Ram Dass,” November 1981]
For Ram Dass, individual change and social change have never been mutually exclusive; he’s insisted that the spiritual and the political can’t be separated. “Suffering hones our relationship with the mystery of the universe,” he has said. “If we try to close our hearts to it, we cut ourselves off from the boundless spiritual energy that surrounds us.” (During the most recent presidential election, Ram Dass had images of his guru and Christ and Buddha — and Republican candidate Bob Dole — on his meditation altar at home. He said he’d feel his heart open as he greeted the first three, then tighten when he came to Dole. It showed him where his “spiritual homework” was.)
Just as surprising to me as the idea of a radio show was Ram Dass’s desire to travel less, to slow down. He’s only sixty-five, I thought. Now that I was in my early fifties, sixty-five no longer seemed that old to me. Maybe Ram Dass had just been weary the day he wrote me; even his handwriting looked less confident than usual. He’d always struck me as a healthy, energetic man, someone likely to keep up a busy schedule for years to come. Naturally, I’d imagined the same about myself: that by dint of right thinking and right effort and the right combination of vitamins and minerals, I’d keep going right up to the finish line, right through my vigorous sixties and seventies and — yes, honey — my vigorous eighties. No, old age wouldn’t be a muddy rest stop on a forgotten road, weeds poking up around the picnic table like unsightly body hair. Old age would be a joyous culmination of a life’s work, a triumphant final chorus.
A month after receiving Ram Dass’s letter, I was putting the finishing touches on the 256th issue of The Sun when the phone rang. It was my friend Van. He and I had met several lifetimes ago, when we both were shoveling manure and digging ditches for a landscaping company. Van is one of the strongest men I’ve ever known, but his voice didn’t sound strong that day.
Ram Dass had suffered a major stroke, he said. It didn’t look good. The stroke had left Ram Dass virtually without speech and paralyzed along the right side of his body. It was too soon to say whether he’d recover, or how complete his recovery might be.
I started asking Van questions I knew he couldn’t answer — one way to keep bad news from sinking in. I didn’t know much about strokes, only that someone could be healthy one day, cheerful and vigorous and full of life, and the next day be reeling as if from an ax blow. I knew that, even if a stroke didn’t kill you, you might wish it had — rather than spend the rest of your life unable to go to the bathroom by yourself, unable to finish a sentence, unable to keep your muscles from trembling or spittle from running down your chin, unable to do anything about the pained look in a loved one’s eyes.
I didn’t want to cry. To most of the people around me that day, Ram Dass was just a name. If I started to cry, I’d have to explain, and I didn’t want to explain. Instead, I just stared out the window at the trees, the traffic, the church across the street. Just by turning around at my desk, I must have seen more than a hundred funerals over the years. Thankfully, no one was being mourned that day.
During the past year, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary — two of Ram Dass’s oldest friends — had died. Now Ram Dass had been crippled by a stroke. I knew that none of us would be here forever. Still, the truth of impermanence was like a banner headline I ignored until someone picked up the newspaper and whacked me in the head: Wake up! Maybe I was dreaming I could protect myself against life’s uncertainties by eating less, by exercising more. Beautiful dreams.
I called the Hanuman Foundation. I found out that the stroke hadn’t affected Ram Dass’s memory or his ability to understand what was said to him. He was, however, suffering from “expressive aphasia,” an inability to put his thoughts into words.
When the stroke occurred, Ram Dass had been at home in San Anselmo, California, with his portable computer on his lap, rewriting a chapter for an upcoming book on “conscious aging.”
Did I need a more dramatic reminder that the next unexpected change was only a breath away? For decades, there had rarely been a topic on which Ram Dass had been reluctant to speak. Now he’d been silenced — not by a government censor, not by an angry ayatollah, but by a blood clot in the left hemisphere of his brain.
“The paradox,” Ram Dass once said, “is that it’s all perfect and it all stinks. A conscious being lives simultaneously with both of these.”
Ram Dass spent two weeks in the hospital and another two months at a rehabilitation center before being sent home in a wheelchair. “We have no idea what his recovery will ultimately look like,” said Marlene Roeder of the Hanuman Foundation. “It’s such a person-by-person thing.”
Cards and flowers poured into the Hanuman Foundation office in San Anselmo. Around the country, people gathered for prayer meetings and healing circles. I, too, prayed for a miracle. I believed in miracles, all kinds of miracles: dramatic miracles performed by saviors and saints, and more ordinary miracles — a scientific discovery in a pharmaceutical lab, a physical therapist’s healing touch.
Though Neem Karoli was dead, I prayed for his help, too. According to Ram Dass, Neem Karoli often used his powers to protect devotees, though he’d deny this and yell at those who spoke of his miracles. “It’s all God,” he’d insist. Then again, Ram Dass said, Neem Karoli sometimes sent sick disciples away, saying there was nothing he could do for them. His healing acts seemed “intimately related to the karma of the individual. . . . While most people did not want to suffer, Maharajji now and then reminded us that suffering brings us closer to God.”
Even after Neem Karoli’s death, many of his devotees continued to feel his presence. I felt it, too. I believed, perhaps naively, that Neem Karoli was everything Ram Dass had said he was: a real master, not a master of deception. Was that improbable? So is a great concerto. Am I hallucinating when I listen to Bach? Many of my friends view surrender to a guru as evidence of moral weakness, or perhaps neurosis.
Still, I prayed.
Last May, three months after the stroke, Ram Dass was interviewed by Don Lattin, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Reporters often smooth the rough edges of their subject’s quotes,” Lattin wrote, “and that’s especially the case in this story. But it’s also important to understand the degree to which Ram Dass must struggle to convey an idea. For example, when explaining how he must now be eloquent with silence, rather than with words, Ram Dass takes a minute and actually says, ‘If you . . . if you . . . like a friend of me, of mine, said . . . you’ve been so eloquent . . . um . . . aren’t you eloquent with words, uh, with silence . . . eloquent with silence.’ ”
The stroke and the death of his friends, Ram Dass told the reporter, had helped him understand why so many old people seem to live in the past: getting older has nothing to offer them.
“Before my stroke,” Ram Dass said, “I was looking forward to the things I wanted to do.”
“Are you still?” Lattin asked.
“No,” Ram Dass replied. “But I’m still committed to being here now.”
A card sent to well-wishers by the Hanuman Foundation said there were three things sustaining Ram Dass during this crisis: the love of friends and strangers, the care of skilled attendants, and the fact that he wasn’t identifying with his physical body. On the card was a photograph of Ram Dass smiling at the camera, his face bathed in sunlight, his useless right arm held down by a strap.
I keep this card on my desk. It reminds me, like the sign on the wall, that nothing lasts — not our highs, not our lows, not the luminous moment that seemed to embrace all moments: that was yesterday’s ecstasy. Amazingly, at a lecture just a week before his stroke, Ram Dass had said, “Somebody is healthy one week, then goes for a checkup, now has a serious illness. The intensity of his suffering lies in how much he’s holding on to who he was a week ago.”
Here we are, in this irreplaceable moment. This is it! While we argue about what it means, it slips out of our grasp.
I don’t want to be . . . mushy. I want to see Ram Dass as he is here and now: not the barefoot pilgrim, not the psychedelic outlaw, not the consummate storyteller sitting cross-legged on stage in front of a thousand admiring faces. It’s hard for me to accept that half his body has left town, no forwarding address. But that’s my spiritual homework. Didn’t Neem Karoli say the best form in which to worship God is every form? God isn’t in heaven, stroking his beard like some grand chess master. God is right here, right now. God is the luminous mystery at the heart of creation and God is here in the joys and sorrows of the world.
As I write this, nearly a year after the stroke, Ram Dass is still confined to a wheelchair, though he’s learning to walk with a special cane. He can read or write only with great difficulty because his vision was also impaired by the stroke. His speech has improved dramatically, but the effects of the aphasia are still apparent.
Everything in life can teach us something, Ram Dass suggested, if we see our lives in spiritual terms. In a sense, Ram Dass has been preparing all his life for this challenge. I’m sure he wishes things were different, but I suspect he’s able to observe those wishes for what they are — wishes.
At least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. When a friend jokingly suggested that he go on the lecture circuit with Stephen Hawking, the paralyzed physicist, to help pay his medical expenses, Ram Dass laughed. Then, waving his functional arm in the air, he said, “Finally, the sound of one hand clapping.”
The last time I interviewed Ram Dass, more than ten years ago, he told me about attending a three-month meditation retreat in Burma, where he’d meditated from three in the morning until eleven at night. The only interruptions were two meals a day, at 6 A.M. and 11:30 A.M., an afternoon nap, and a brief meeting with the teacher. That was it: no phone, no books, no newspapers, no correspondence. Ram Dass, however, had snuck in a picture of his guru, a book of poems by Kabir, and two one-pound bags of M&M’s. Each day, he’d allow himself one look at the picture, one poem by Kabir, and four M&M’s — two peanut and two plain.
We went on to talk about other things, including Ram Dass’s painful breakup with another man. Ram Dass, who is bisexual, told me he’d worked hard to give up romantic images, and no longer felt the need to be in an exclusive relationship.
Me: So you don’t miss anybody and don’t miss missing anybody?
Ram Dass: That’s exactly right.
Me: It sounds pretty good.
Ram Dass: Yeah, I know, but . . .
Me: Where are the M&M’s?
Ram Dass: [Laughs.] I shouldn’t have gotten off so easily. Maybe I’ll end up a bitter old man, alone in an old folks’ home, rocking back and forth, everybody having forgotten me. My Jewish training isn’t letting me off the hook just yet. “Sure,” (in a Yiddish accent), “he didn’t need anybody! Sure!”
Ram Dass hasn’t gotten off easily. Maybe he will end up a bitter old man, though I doubt it. Certainly, he won’t be forgotten.
As Ram Dass struggles to remember the words that once came so effortlessly to him, I think of all the people who’ve been touched by his words. I’m grateful to be one of them.
Ram Dass showed me it’s safe to let my heart really open — not open just a crack while I try to wrangle some guarantee that the day won’t betray me. Ram Dass showed me I can love the world the way the sun throws out light in all directions — or endlessly footnote my imperfections, devote myself to being a Sy scholar, the foremost authority on how unworthy I am.
Is it any surprise that I see nearly twenty-five years of The Sun as a conversation between us? Inspired by Ram Dass’s commitment to selfless service, I’ve wanted every issue of The Sun to be a reminder that, even as we celebrate life, we must do everything possible to reduce suffering. Encouraged by Ram Dass’s candor (even about his lack of candor), I’ve tried to make The Sun a place where we can come together without masks — or, if we can’t face each other without masks, at least be honest about it, and describe our masks with some tenderness and humor. If, in recent years, Ram Dass has been quoted less frequently in The Sun, it’s not because I honor his teaching any less. If The Sun has become less overtly spiritual, it’s because I’ve wanted to make the magazine’s spirituality as subtle as possible; we can be more loving, I believe, if we don’t always advertise how loving we are.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that, in the wake of Ram Dass’s stroke, I’ve become more devoted to my own spiritual path. On LSD, I used to race up and down the halls of my psyche trying every single door, and sometimes I’d discover heaven, and sometimes I’d stumble into hell. These days, instead of tearing around the house, I sit in the corner every morning with my eyes closed: heaven and hell are there; every truth, every falsehood. I’ve meditated sporadically for years. The difference is now I do it every morning — no matter how I’m feeling, no matter how late I’ve been up the night before. When the alarm goes off, I don’t pretend it’s a mistake. The alarm is rude — like birth, like death — but never a mistake.
Ram Dass taught me not to be prejudiced against the invisible. Coax it, he said. Be patient. Everything will reveal itself.
Ram Dass taught me to think in ways I’d never thought before. My thoughts became bigger than my life, and my life changed.
If Ram Dass couldn’t always give me what I longed for, that’s as it should be. As someone once said, the goal of spiritual practice is to love the pitcher less and the water more. I love the water. And the man who filled my cup, the man whose body is broken now — I love him, too.
Ram Dass, who over the years has given away nearly all his money to charitable causes, continues to require expensive round-the-clock care. Donations may be sent to the Hanuman Foundation, R. D. Medical Fund, P.O. Box 478, Santa Fe, NM 87501. For a list of his books and tapes, write the Hanuman Foundation Tape Library, 524 San Anselmo Avenue, San Anselmo, CA 94960, or call (415) 457-8570.
I am a longtime subscriber to The Sun and especially enjoyed the long essay about Ram Dass in the May 1998 issue [“One Hand Clapping,” Sy Safransky]. I left that issue out and encouraged my family (including my children) to read it. When the June issue arrived, I left it out, too. I was surprised to find later that the June issue contained explicit material, in particular, “To Be a Sexual Son,” by David Steinberg. I wish you would indicate on the cover when the magazine contains subject matter not suited for children.
Sy Safransky’s “One Hand Clapping” reminded me of the powerful influence that Ram Dass has had on my life. I would like to point out, however, that one significant aspect of Ram Dass’s life is often glossed over or not openly discussed: his sexuality. In Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature, by Mark Thompson, Ram Dass tells the author that it was not only his experiments with drugs that got him fired from Harvard, as Safransky says, but also his sexual encounters with young men:
Ram Dass: Harvard started to get so freaked about the drugs [Timothy Leary and I] were using that they asked us to stop doing any research using undergraduates . . . because it was too risky. But I had all these relationships with young men whom I really wanted to turn on with. And it had nothing to do with research; it was my personal life, so I went ahead. It turned out there was another student who was very jealous of this . . . and he created a huge exposé.
Mark Thompson: So it was gay eros and not LSD that got you thrown out of Harvard?
Ram Dass: It was a combination of all of those things. In a way, LSD had given me the license to be what I am . . . to say I didn’t want to hide anymore.
In no way does Ram Dass’s physically loving men detract from his remarkable spiritual journey.
I enjoyed “One Hand Clapping,” and was drawn along comfortably by the story — until I read that Ram Dass was bisexual. Whereas, in the past, I might have stopped reading, this time I thought about my “spiritual homework,” and, as if my hand were guided by some mysterious, uncontrollable force, I wrote a check to the Ram Dass Medical Fund.
When I opened the May 1998 issue of The Sun and saw Ram Dass’s wonderful face, I got worried. Having heard about his stroke, I thought, What if he’s died and nobody has told me? I skipped to the end, just to see. Nope. He was still alive. So I went back and started from the beginning. I already knew all of Sy Safransky’s stories about Ram Dass, but it didn’t matter. With Ram Dass, somehow the old stories always seem new.
In the June 1998 issue, a very different photo caught my eye. Having berated The Sun in the past for publishing a photograph of a tiny infant about to be circumcised at a bris ceremony (as if it were OK to cut someone’s genitals without his permission), I was overjoyed to see the full-frontal shot of a gloriously intact nude man on the inside back cover.
The photographs mentioned above are available as PDFs only. Download the May 1998 issue here, June 1998 here, and January 1998 here.
For months now, I have more or less shuddered at the arrival of The Sun. Some issues go unread, because I just can’t lower myself back into the pit with the junkies and winos (having spent a little time there myself).
But when the May issue came, I was delighted to see a story about Ram Dass [“One Hand Clapping,” by Sy Safransky]. He was an early teacher of mine, a guide on the long and winding road of spiritual seeking. That Ram Dass is able to maintain his humor and lightness after such a debilitating stroke is a teaching for us all. No matter what happens in his life, it seems, his purpose will always be to guide and inspire.