Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert, is the author of Be Here Now, and The Only Dance There Is. He and Timothy Leary, both Harvard professors in the early sixties, helped to make LSD a household word. Ram Dass went on to India, where he met his guru and went through a profound spiritual transformation. He was instructed in yoga and returned to the West to share his teachings. He will be in Durham April 26 to give a public address at Duke University.
Dear Ram Dass,
It’s been more than a year since we met. Unless your recall is better than I imagine, I doubt you remember me. We talked for an hour; I was, ostensibly, interviewing you, for the first issue of THE SUN. In fact, I just wanted to be with you, and needed a good excuse (not quite trusting Spirit to bring us together, which, of course, it ultimately did). I didn’t write much of a story. Oh, I reported what you said, about attachment and psychedelics and the energy crisis, but it was the bones, nothing more. I didn’t trust myself to climb out on that limb of personal journalism, to record how, after half an hour, I finally took off that fool’s cap, that questioner’s hat, and talked about my own confusions, the turnings of the heart and the woundings by pride, and envy, and ambition, and how you listened, carefully, neither encouraging, nor discouraging, further confession, and not advertising your interest either, in that burlesque of concern that passes, too often, for love among friends, but attending, patiently, to my sorrows. You offered, finally, nothing but understanding, and the somewhat wry, though accurate, observation, that my sorrows were far from over.
Now my sister writes, from New York, about your sorrows. On the radio you spoke, she said, of the desolation and unconnectedness you felt last summer at the Naropa Institute in Colorado. I was there for a while, to visit a friend, and caught some of that whiff of sexual promiscuity and attachment to possession of which she writes. That, “and the physical death of his guru, all illuminated by the very worldly atmosphere around him, brought him to great inner turmoil. He felt he had to make a greater commitment to God. ‘Shit or get off the pot,’ and I quote him on that. He’s been in retreat and seclusion for some time . . .”
You warned them, at Naropa, not to treat you as a guru, telling them, as you told me, that you were not a realized being, but merely someone working on himself. Of course, the disclaimer was ignored. We each of us look for models, heroes, fathers, even as we turn a sarcastic eye on our fishing for a god we can see, touch, and usher into the confessional. Anyone who becomes a star, by virtue of talent, or the needs of history, or plain dumb luck pays the price. It’s hot under the lights, and the backstage door is mobbed. I’m told that after day-long meditation, everyone at Naropa would rush to the bars at night to get laid. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but maybe not too far off the mark. A piece of ass, a better way to meditate, and those Rocky Mountains rising jaggedly, ambitiously, towards a sky whose blue was never adequately explained — isn’t this the flavor of our New Age? Or was something else, perhaps, never explained — about how the arm goes stiff from too much grasping, for truth no less than money; about the demands of freedom, not political so much as existential, rooted in flesh and memory, and which all kinds of false obligations have obscured; and about love — what was ever explained about love but those twin romances, separateness and union, when our humanness suggests something infinitely more mysterious, the way a tooth suggests the nerve beneath. Yes, who will remind us that love is, perhaps, simply the nothing that’s left when everything else fails, when every last wanting, for meditative peace no less than for sex, is exhausted (through satisfaction, or frustration) and we move, somehow, out of ourselves, like ships finally sailing off the edge of the Earth.
On the radio, my sister said, you offered this advice: that one cannot follow the path of truth alone towards enlightenment, for one needs love equally, and with that love, discipline. She also said you’d given up sex completely. I remember something else you told me. “Hurt is a grace for teaching.” Some of my friends didn’t understand that, so I’ll take the liberty of paraphrasing it: getting knocked on your ass is a gift, because it wises you up.
As we are reminded, again and again, by those who love us, of what we already know, so do I remind you (who once I foolishly supposed didn’t need reminding) of this wisdom. When we rose to part that day, you hugged me and told me I was beautiful. As mirrors reflect back what is before them, so, I trust, do you turn your eye back upon yourself, not as a god, or a guru, but as a man, beautiful in his sorrows as he is in his understanding.
For “Response to Sy Safransky’s ‘An Open Letter to Ram Dass’ ” click here.