A new documentary about Ram Dass shows him to be more than your average hippie.
In 1971, a long-haired former Harvard professor known as Ram Dass first told the world to “Be here now.” These words encapsulated his philosophy of existing in the present moment and would become the seminal mantra for the burgeoning New Age movement. And it was with this simple message, as well as his yoga and meditation teachings, that Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) ushered in a new era of consciousness-raising.
Thirty years later, being here now isn’t what it used to be. In the ’70s, Ram Dass’ audience was mostly middle-class white kids interested in expanding their minds by whatever means—including drugs. Now those original disciples are aging, and their bodies are failing. But the proto-New Age guru remains relevant to this audience, especially now that he is aging himself.
In 1997, the then 65-year-old Ram Dass had a stroke that left him partly paralyzed and with vastly diminished speech capacities. A new documentary, Ram Dass Fierce Grace (PBS, April 20, 10 p.m. EST; consult your local listings), tells his story and claims that this phase may actually be the most spiritually enriching and valuable one of his eventful life. Ram Dass, the film asserts, can now help people deal with aging, infirmity, and disability by pointing the way to a higher understanding of these mysteries. The film uses extensive footage from the 1960s, as well as interviews with Ram Dass, his family, and disciples to show his life’s arc: from precocious child to brilliant academic, from countercultural guru to the physically broken but still lively man he is today.
The documentary professes the worthy aim of illustrating how Ram Dass’ own pain has lifted him to a new level of awareness and increased his compassion (after all, if anyone is going to learn a great lesson about suffering from physical ailments, wouldn’t it be Ram Dass?), but this notion isn’t illustrated in any concrete way for the viewer. Educating the audience, either by providing practical techniques of the sort Ram Dass employs for transcending illness and aging or by placing his message and spiritual work in a historical context, takes a back seat to showcasing the guru’s considerable charisma and the pathos of his situation. The end result, sadly, is a moving portrait of an old, ill man, but little else.
To understand the importance of Ram Dass’ work, it’s necessary to know the history of how he became one of the country’s most celebrated spiritual practitioners. Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert, the bright and personable scion of a wealthy, influential Jewish family. Alpert taught at Harvard in the ’60s, joining his colleague Timothy Leary in “consciousness-raising” experiments using LSD (for which they were soon fired). Unsatisfied by that research, Alpert then traveled to India where he met a man, Neem Karoli Baba, who would become his Hindu guru. Alpert stayed on to study Hinduism with this master, was renamed Ram Dass, and subsequently came back to the States to spread word of new techniques for spiritual practice based on yoga and transcendental meditation (meditation using a repeated mantra, such as “Om”).
In the late ’60s, America’s youth was ripe for anything that would allow for the exploration of human consciousness. Ram Dass’ methods—which seemed revolutionary at the time but by today’s standards are simply practical techniques for increasing awareness—made him enormously popular. His book Be Here Now sold more than a million copies. Since then, Ram Dass has written a number of spiritually themed books; he has continued to teach; and in 1996, he started plans for a radio show, a project that he was forced to set aside after the stroke.
The film lingers too long on historical footage of the hippie era and on by-now clichéd sound-bytes of Leary talking about “turning on” and dropping acid. Long sequences of traipsing Hare Krishnas, swathed in marigold garlands and singing their familiar chant, pass by without explanation. All of this, it seems, is there to provide background, but the images raise more questions than they answer. How did the experience of LSD and transcendental meditation compare, for instance? Were the drug experiments worthwhile as an introduction to opening oneself up to a different level of awareness? The film fetishizes the countercultural movement, lumping Ram Dass in among the hippie free-for-all.
The film also rather mystically (and crudely) assumes that the guru’s newly truncated speech has taken on a poetic, spiritual force. (I guiltily found myself wondering if the massive doses of drugs he had taken in his youth might have played a part in his brain condition. This doesn’t get addressed.) Though he has lost his ability to articulate, his cryptic, sometimes baffling statements are supposed to be oracular, infused with a wisdom born of suffering. This may be true, but it’s hard to tell. We are shown scant footage of Ram Dass talking at the height of his powers of articulation, so we can’t know how diminished his capacities are, or whether he has indeed become more insightful.
In failing to illustrate how his stroke has focused (or diminished) Ram Dass’ mind, and thus his message and teachings, the film basically just shows us an old guy, famous among the counterculture youth of yesteryear, who is still cool and sweet and charming and who may now be more lovable than ever—because he’s suffering.
In spite of its frustrating omissions, Ram Dass Fierce Grace is worth watching. Witnessing the guru’s struggles—especially in light of his warmth, goodwill, and buoyant ego—is sobering and moving. It’s also unusual to see the frankness with which some of the people interviewed for the film speak about Ram Dass and their own spiritual and physical pain. For example, a couple whose daughter’s violent death years ago nearly destroyed their family recall with breathtaking candor how a sympathetic letter from Ram Dass helped them begin the healing process. The agony that suffuses their faces and voices is shockingly fresh and raw.
Unlike the standard, sentimentalized portraits of grieving or the “empowering” survivor tales we usually see on television, this movie shows the face of aging with a great deal of honesty and grace. If only it had done a better service to Ram Dass himself, by placing him in historical perspective instead of in distractingly anachronistic surroundings. There is much to say about the way in which Ram Dass’ message affected our culture: He helped usher in the New Age movement, which, notwithstanding the outworn jokes of crystals and pyramid power, is a worthwhile development in an otherwise spiritually bereft society. Outside the often strangling parameters of organized religion, there isn’t much room in America for the soul’s questing; what scope there is was imported to us by people like Ram Dass. Indeed, the spiritual tools he introduced to us—for centering oneself and embracing our present experience—have stood the test of time. And now, in our culture of cynicism and violence, we need his perspective and ecumenical outreach more than ever.Siân Gibby is a Slate copy editor. She edits the “Faith-Based” column.