A Few Thoughts on the Passing of Ram Dass

Ram Dass, author of many books including the spiritual masterpiece Be Here Now, has died. He passed away yesterday, 22 December 2019, at his home in Maui. He was 88 years old.

I never met Ram Dass, or even saw him in person. My friend Mirabai Starr knew him well, so she would be in a much better position to offer a meaningful encomium. My purpose in writing about him is modest: I simply want to appreciate how he made an impact on my life and my spiritual journey, merely through his writing, his life story, and the bibliography of his most celebrated book.

As someone who grew up in a straight-laced, southern suburban home, as a child my exposure to spirituality didn’t extend much beyond Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Perhaps the first real hint I had that there was an entire world of spirituality “out there” was when the Beatles ran off to India to study meditation with the Maharishi. That came a bit closer to home for me when I fell in love with prog-rock, and discovered that the band Yes drew inspiration for their proggiest album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, from Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. I read Yogananda’s memoir while I was still in high school, and it opened up the possibility that I could find spiritual meaning in religious traditions far beyond my own. In other words, it made interspirituality possible to me.

From there I discovered Edgar Cayce, Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts, and various other writers and teachers who were associated with alternative spirituality (at least, alternative to the Lutheran/charismatic spirituality that was my home base). By the time I was a freshman in college, I was hungry to learn about spirituality in almost any form I could find it.

I cannot remember when Be Here Now first fell into my hands. I’m not sure if someone recommended it to me or if I picked it up myself in a bookshop somewhere. I do remember that it used to sell for the unusual price of only $3.33 (nowadays it still has a funky price point, I think the latest printing lists for $17.17). But when I first got my hands on it, it opened up a wonderful, and perhaps even playful, look into the world of eastern spirituality — granted, eastern spirituality as seen through western eyes, but meaningful nevertheless.

It’s a nonlinear book to be sure — perhaps my favorite nonlinear book outside of Elias Marechal’s masterful Tears of an Innocent God. And while it is so deeply informed by the culture and literature of India that I suppose it should be called a book of “eastern” mysticism, on any one page you’re just as likely to find a quote from Jesus or Teresa of Ávila as from Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharshi. But more on that later.

The entire middle section, printed on a coarse dark brown paper, read like an extended meditation on a colorful, psychedelic spiritual journey. But what impacted me the most was the autobiographical section at the beginning of the book, and the bibliography.

I loved Ram Dass’s life story because he had begun his journey as Richard Alpert, straight-laced Harvard psychologist who, as a colleague of the notorious Timothy Leary, was one of the early high-profile researchers into the therapeutic and spiritual applications of LSD. But where Leary became a celebrated (or notorious, depending on your viewpoint) advocate of hallucinogenic spirituality, Alpert turned to the east — and took his new name and identity when he realized that the spiritual masters of India could take him much further than psychedelic drugs ever could.

Reading this was tremendously validating. I had my own profound spiritual awakening at the age of 16 (while at a Lutheran youth retreat; who would have guessed?). At a later date, I briefly experimented with both LSD and psilocybin mushrooms — mostly out of curiosity. While I found psychedelics to be beautiful and the high was enjoyable, I was left with the conviction that, at least based on my experience, drugs simply could not match what the direct action of the Holy Spirit could provide.

So it was incredibly meaningful for me to have a renowned scientist in the drug world affirm pretty much what I had experienced. It probably also saved me from getting any further involved in hallucinogenics. (For the record, I am completely in favor of responsible research into both therapeutic and spiritual uses of hallucinogens, especially in dealing with issues like addiction or fear of death — but I also think that most people with a disciplined commitment to meditation and personal growth simply do not need drugs to get from here to there.)

But the other treasure for me was the bibliography in Be Here Now. And what a bibliography it is! Filled with spiritual books both renowned and obscure, it’s as colorful a collection of books as you might expect from an authority on psychedelic mysticism. It’s winsomely divided into sections with titles like: “Books to Hang Out With,” “Books to Visit With Now & Then,” and “Books It’s Useful to Have Met.”

But what really won me over was the inclusion of books by (or about) Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teilhard de Chardin, Jacob Boehme, William Law, Nicholas of Cusa, Francis de Sales, The Cloud of UnknowingThe Philokalia, and The Way of a Pilgrim. Even though there are some omissions, all in all it suggests that Ram Dass knew his way around the Christian mystics as well as the great spiritual teachers of the east.

Not only did that make me admire him all the more, but it also helped me to understand that interspirituality really is a two-way street: it’s not just about what I, as a Christian, can learn from other traditions, but it’s also about how the wisdom seekers of other traditions can be blessed by the mystical tradition that I call home.

I am sorry that Ram Dass has died, but he lived a good long life to the age of 88, so I trust that he was fully ready to dance in the light. For my part, I’ll always consider Be Here Now as definitely a book to hang out with. My life is richer for having “met” it.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.