Personal Growth

Spiritual Luminaries: Ram Dass

Morning fog over a beautiful lake surrounded by pine forest
Morning fog over a beautiful lake surrounded by pine forest

Although he may never have thought of himself as such, Ram Dass was a spiritual giant. A trained psychologist, author, teacher, and counterculture icon, Ram Dass was a driving force behind the evolution of spirituality in the West. Known for his pursuit of a wide array of spiritual practices and teachings, he led the way for countless seekers to find and explore their spiritual path.

Be here now. - Ram Dass

Whether through Buddhist meditation, chanting, Sufi mysticism, Christ consciousness, devotion to the divine, or karma yoga, Ram Dass’s philosophy embraced all approaches as legitimate tools to awaken our spiritual heart. Freely sharing his lifetime of knowledge, compassion, and love for the sacred in all things right up until his death in late 2019, Ram Dass’s iconic teachings will undoubtably be a rich and abundant source of spiritual inspiration for generations to come.

The Life and Times of Ram Dass

Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert on April 6, 1931, to a Jewish family in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his degree in psychology from Tufts University in 1952, his PhD from Stanford in 1957, and eventually landed an assistant professor position at Harvard University. Up until that time, despite his success as a young professor, Alpert began to feel caught up in a meaningless game of positions and possessions that left him feeling increasingly unfulfilled.

Things changed after meeting Timothy Leary, a Harvard clinical psychologist known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs. In March of 1961, Alpert ingested psilocybin for the first time, leading him to experience a shift in his consciousness. That experience led him to partner with Leary in Harvard’s Psilocybin Project in which they performed research on the effects of psychoactive drugs. These studies were some of the first of their kind to use controlled, double-blind methodology to explore the connection between drugs and the mystical experience. Unfortunately, Alpert was dismissed from Harvard in 1963 for allegedly giving psilocybin to an undergraduate.

Alpert was undeterred in his quest to explore higher states of consciousness, traveling with Leary to Mexico and the Bahamas to conduct their explorations in psychedelic living. However, Alpert eventually became frustrated and disillusioned with psychoactive drugs as a route to expanded awareness as they always involved having to come down from the high. Thus began a spiritual quest from which he would never have to come down. Traveling to the East, Alpert visited with holy men, monks, and seers in hopes of better understanding the experiences he had with psychedelics. Eventually, through a series of coincidences, he ended up at the feet of Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian guru also known as Maharajji. Alpert apprenticed himself to his new teacher and dove into a rigorous practice of spiritual discipline and was given the name Ram Dass by Maharajji, meaning “servant of God.”

Upon his return to the United States Ram Dass began to share the lessons he learned from the East with the American counterculture via lectures, workshops, and books, most notably his seminal work, Be Here Now, which has and continues to be the definitive instruction manual for spiritual seekers. To many people, Ram Dass was one of the founding voices of spirituality, serving as a bridge between the ancient wisdom traditions of the East and the modern world or the West. Had it not been for his pioneering spirit, an entire generation of seekers might not have begun their journey of awakening.

As part of his calling to serve others, Ram Dass also became influential in co-founding several foundations and spiritual organizations such as the Hanuman Foundation, a non-profit established to promulgate spiritual well-being among members of society through community service, education and media programs; the Prison Ashram Project, which helps convicts through meditation and other spiritual practices; the Living/Dying Project, an organization dedicated to providing compassionate care and support to those facing life threatening illness; and the Seva Foundation (“seva” means “spiritual service” in Sanskrit) dedicated to help end curable blindness in impoverished countries.

I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion--and where it isn't, that's where my work lies. - Ram Dass

In addition to authoring books and articles, Ram Dass also produced a library of both audio and video recordings in which he shares lessons on awakening our spiritual potential, meditation and mantra practice, the yoga of service, and conscious dying. In addition, in more recent years, a large collection of Ram Dass’s teachings have been made available via the Ram Dass – Here and Now podcast.

In 1997 Ram Dass suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and with expressive aphasia that made it challenging for him to speak. Despite these setbacks he continued to teach, write, and share with a dedicated community of followers worldwide. On December 22, 2019, Ram Dass passed away at his home in Maui.

We're all just walking each other home. - Ram Dass

Key Teachings

The most notable lesson we might take away from Ram Dass’s teachings is the incredible variety of spiritual experience available to each of us. There is no monopoly on the truth, no one way to God, and Ram Dass’s voice is a reminder to listen to and trust your own heart for what calls to you. My first exposure to Ram Dass came in the form of an audio recording titled “Finding and Exploring your Spiritual Path.” During this talk he described giving a lecture in the 1970s to a group of young people, but in the front row sat an older woman who simply smiled and nodded as he described varying spiritual experiences he had had.

As he told more and more outrageous stories, the woman continued to smile and nod, until after the lecture Ram Dass could no longer contain his curiosity and approached the woman. She told him she understood everything he said perfectly to which he asked her how she knew these things. The woman leaned in and smiled coyly saying, “I crochet.” Ram Dass told this story to emphasize how anything we do has the potential to be a spiritual practice. There is no need for dogma, rules, or doctrine. You only need to listen to your own intuitive heart for guidance. Spirituality is everywhere; you simply have to look through the eyes of awareness.

Quotes

The spiritual journey is individual, highly personal. It can't be organized or regulated. It isn’t true that everyone should follow one path. Listen to your own truth.

Ram Dass

Another foundational teaching is that of service, compassion, and love for all beings. Ram Dass lived the essence of Karma Yoga or selfless service. He saw the divine in everyone and everything, making it only natural to wish to serve others. One of his most iconic quotes wryly captures this notation perfectly: Treat everyone you meet like God in drag. With the heart-opening unconditional love that comes from seeing the divine in all things, all of life becomes, as Ram Dass puts it, grist for the mill of awakening.

And of course, we can’t forget, as the title of his best-selling book reminds us, the key teaching of being here now. Ram Dass was passionately committed to teaching and embodying present moment awareness. He encouraged cultivating witnessing consciousness that is detached from the ups and downs of life that buffet your ego back and forth.

Now is now. Are you going to be here or not? - Ram Dass

Recommended Resources

Ram Dass left spiritual seekers a significant library of books, recordings, and videos sharing his teachings. Many of his collected works can be found by visiting ramdass.org, the home of the Ram Dass Love, Serve, Remember Foundation. Some of his most notable works include:

  • Be Here Now
  • The Only Dance There Is
  • Journey of Awakening
  • Grist For the Mill
  • Cookbook for Awakening
  • Still Here

In addition, Becoming Nobody, a DVD documentary of Ram Dass’s life and key teachings presents an illuminating and poignant glimpse into Ram Dass’s impact over several generations of spiritual seekers. Lastly, the YouTube Baba Ram Dass Channel hosts a wide variety of talks, reflections, and meditations to help you on your spiritual journey.

The Legacy

Ram Dass was a one-of-a-kind spiritual pioneer; one of the first Westerners to travel to the East and return with mystical teachings that helped transform a culture and ever so peacefully bring about an evolution in our collective consciousness. He taught us that the quality of our awareness mattered more than a religious affiliation, that love mattered more than positions or possessions, and that listening to your own intuitive heart mattered more than following the crowd. He will be remembered for a smile that lit up a room, a penetrating wit and wisdom, and a wealth of knowledge and experience that helped to reshape the world.

I would say that the thrust of my life has been initially about getting free, and then realizing that my freedom is not independent of everybody else. Then I am arriving at that circle where one works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn't create more suffering. I help people as a work on myself and I work on myself to help people. - Ram Dass


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