Ram Dass wraps his expanded mind around the last of the truly taboo subjects–death and dying
Metroactive, Nov. 6-13, 2002
On a Monday afternoon, I pick up the phone feeling horribly nervous. In a minute, I have an interview with Ram Dass–the guy formerly known as Dr. Richard Alpert before he, Timothy Leary and other Harvard faculty experimented with LSD and magic mushrooms and were famously expelled from the university. But while Timothy Leary continued to tune in, turn on and drop out, Alpert became a beloved spiritual luminary who writes bestsellers.
I’ve spent the weekend reading two of them–Be Here Now, his 1971 classic that documents the Ramster’s spiritual unfolding, and Still Here, which he completed after a disabling 1997 stroke. All of which has made me horribly aware that he talks from the heart about matters of spirit, a subject about which I know woefully little.
And yet when I actually speak to him, I find myself quickly at ease. Perhaps it has something to do with the slow and sometimes halting voice in which he has spoken since his stroke, but as I listen to the silence between his words, I relax and realize that what I really want to do is trash all the questions I’ve prepared and ask him about what’s most troubling me–the direction our world is headed, post-Sept. 11–in the hope he’ll offer me some useful advice. So, that’s what I do.
“I’m scared, too” replies RD, an answer I find surprisingly comforting. “When I got my stroke, I finally conquered my fear by seeing it as fierce grace. Incredible grace. So, I think of Sept. 11 as fierce grace for humanity. It faced us with death and seeing all the symbols that we are powerful hit.”
He pauses, and I listen to his labored breathing on the phone.
“I’ve been going around saying, ‘I didn’t know Shiva had a pilot’s license,’ which is pretty raw humor, I know,” he says, finally. “But the questions we’ve been asking since that time are the kind of questions that try men’s souls and that’s what’s so powerful about fierce grace. All this fear we’re experiencing is people inhabiting their egos, because egos fear death.”
This Time, It’s Medical
Fierce Grace is also the name of Mickey Lemle’s new Ram Dass documentary, which premieres in Santa Cruz on Nov. 7, as a benefit for the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, a.k.a. WAMM.
Asked about the DEA’s September raid of WAMM, Dass, who uses medical marijuana to help deal with the effects of his stroke, says, “I think the Santa Cruz bust was the poster child for the war against the war on drugs. Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance says Valerie Corral is the Mother Teresa of the medical marijuana movement. My purpose in coming to the Fierce Grace benefit screening is to let people know that Valerie and Michael Corral do incredible work.”
But while Ram Dass has frequently and publicly stated that marijuana, LSD and magic mushrooms are carriers between what he calls “the two planes of consciousness,” he admits that drugs alone can’t free you from the ultimate control freak of life–your ego.
“Before the path of mushrooms, I was pretty much on the Western track, but then those experiences with mushrooms pointed to the home inside, which all my Western psychology didn’t cover,” Dass recalls. “And so we were studying, going down into our psyches, until we said, ‘Who has got the map for this domain?’ Aldous Huxley gave us the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it was a map for consciousness, and everybody, all the gang, had gone to India–Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Alan Watts–they all did, long before me. But in the end, we found that we couldn’t get through our egos with drugs, that our egos controlled the drugs.”
RD has moved on, though, to even edgier subjects. In How Can I Help? he wrote that one of the best ways to help someone is to be with them, look into their eyes, and listen. Since writing that, RD had a stroke and then finished Still Here, which deals with coping with aging, changing and dying–the West’s three great taboos.
So what I ask him now is: Does he himself fear death?
“No. I don’t think I do. To me, a death is a big acid trip, and I sort of like those. They are optimum change. The most important thing you can do in your dying period is to identify with your soul and not with your ego.”
Fierce Grace director Mickey Lemle, who has known Ram Dass for 25 years, says he’s wanted to make a film about him for years, but RD kept saying he wasn’t ready. Lemle then recalls a conversation he had with RD a few months after the stroke on the porch of Dass’ San Anselmo home.
“He pointed to himself with his left hand, the one that still works, and said, ‘This is not who I thought I was going to be. Because my vision of myself as an old man didn’t have a stroke in it.’”
According to Lemle, what RD said next altered his own view of reality.
“He said, ‘When I focus on who I used to be or on who I thought I was going to be, it brings up suffering. But if I just rest in awareness, I’m fine.’ For him the stroke was very traumatic and unsuspected, changed every aspect of his life–and helped him get closer to God. In the same way, Sept. 11 has been very traumatic for culture, but it can become fierce grace–hence the title of the movie.”