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Spiritual Gurus: Ram Dass

Ram Dass was a luminary of enlightenment amidst a whirlwind of countercultural experimentation. His journey to becoming one of America’s most celebrated spiritual teachers was woven through seemingly contrasting ways of being; academia and spirituality, psychoanalysis and mysticism, psychedelics and meditation. Despite these apparent contradictions, he made a substantial impact on popularizing Hinduism in the Western world, and his teachings on compassion, service, meditation, and conscious living continue to inspire spiritual seekers around the globe.

An image shows the iconic spiritual teacher Ram Dass giving a lecture while sitting in a meditative posture with a large and unique looking candle fixture on the wall behind him.Ram Dass Profile:

Born: April 6, 1931
Died: December 22, 2019 (aged 88)
Profession: Spiritual Teacher & Author
Key Teachings:

The Life of Ram Dass:

It was in 1931 when a Boston-based couple Gertrude and George Alpert gave birth to a boy named Ricard. Although the idea of a young child being born to wealthy conservative Jewish parents becoming a great Hindu spiritual teacher would’ve been seen as preposterous at the time, this is precisely how things played out as Ricard’s life path led him to become the one and only Ram Dass.

Throughout his youth, Alpert showed great academic potential during what was a seemingly normal upbringing for a child born into a middle-upper-class American family. After attending the Williston Northampton School, where he graduated cum laude in 1948, he’d go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Tufts University in 1952, despite the fact that his father dreamt of his son attending medical school. Two years later, Alpert earned a master’s degree in Psychology from Wesleyan University, and then a Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1956.

After spending the first year of his teaching career at Stanford, Alpert accepted a position as a university professor some 2,700 miles away at Harvard University. The cross-country trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, would prove to be an important one, as his life path would take a drastic turn while at the prestigious institution. Over the course of a five-year tenure, he’d work as a therapist, focusing on human motivation and personality development. Although Alpert co-authored his first book, Identification and Child Rearing”,  during this time period, it was the friendship and professional partnership he developed with a charismatic and controversial colleague named Timothy Leary that would prove to be most impactful.

It was in the fall of 1960, while Alpert was away teaching as a visiting professor at the University of California-Berkley, Leary began consulting with the iconic writer and MIT professor Aldous Huxley about establishing a study to research the effects of psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, had on a variety of social groups: artists, musicians, philosophers, and prisoners. By the time Alpert returned to Harvard, the experiment was fully underway. Although he had never taken psychedelic drugs before, Alpert’s interest in uncovering the mysteries of the mind coupled with his growing discontentment with life and admiration for Leary, who had previously told him stories about the mind-altering experiences he had while tripping, naturally drew him towards the project.

At a time when much of the American public looked upon the idea of using recreational drugs for medicinal purposes with skepticism if not disdain, it would seem foolish for two Harvard faculty members to stake their professional careers on researching the therapeutic effects of hallucinogenic substances. Yet, because they were both deeply motivated to explore the ideas of enlightenment and freedom of mind, it was an easy decision to make.

The inevitable end to the duo’s time studying psychedelics under the crest of the distinguished university came to an end in 1963, as school officials chose not to renew their contracts. This, however, had little effect on the men, whose passion for the work had only grown stronger. To keep their efforts on track, Alpert and Leary, with the help of a follower, formed a communal group at the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook, New York, where they held weekend retreats and tested the effectiveness of psychedelic therapy while personally seeking to achieve altered states of consciousness.

After experimenting with a variety of hallucinogenics over the course of the next four years, however, Alpert came to understand that the blissful feelings and enlightened mental states, experienced while tripping, would never become permanent and his desire to continue taking the drugs began to wean. Of coming to this realization after years of regularly using the intoxication, he told us:

In these few years we had gotten over the feeling that one experience was going to make you enlightened forever. We saw that it wasn’t going to be that simple. … For five years I dealt with the matter of ‘coming down.’ The coming down matter is what led me to the next chapter of this drama. Because after six year, I realized that no matter how ingenious my experimental designs were, and how high I got, I came down.”

Having already thrown away a career in academia, and coming to realize that his time pursuing fulfillment through psychedelics was ending, Alpert fell into a deep state of depression, with no clear vision for his future. To make matters worse, it was just one year later when his despair was exasperated by the news that his mother had passed away. Looking for a change of scenery and desperately in need of a new perspective, he jumped at the opportunity to travel to India with a friend in 1967. Unbeknownst to him, the trip to the land of Hinduism would mark a monumental shift in his life and consciousness.

Alpert fortunes began to change while visiting the sacred Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, as a chance encounter with an American yogi named Bhagavan Das would lead him closer to his destiny. Despite having reservations at the time, Alpert agreed to travel with Bhagavan Das to visit his guru Maharajji, who’d soon be Alpert’s guru too, at the Kainchi ashram in northeastern India.

During their first meeting, Maharajji astounded Alpert by divulging details about his personal life that he had kept private; revealing that Alpert had been thinking about his mother under the starlit sky the previous night and that his mother passed away from a spleen-related medical issue. This encounter sparked an intense emotional release in Alpert and he’d spend much of the next two days sobbing in a state of deep liberation. Of this first meeting, the now immortalized spiritual teacher recalled:

It was like something opened that was very ancient and closed, and I started to sob and sob. I cried for about two days, and don’t even know what it was about. It was like I was home or something like that. And they took care of me, and I didn’t leave that place for five months except to renew my visa.”

After this profound encounter, Alpert made the decision to stay at Maharajji’s ashram for the next five months, only departing briefly to renew his visa. In this pivotal moment of his spiritual journey, Maharajji bestowed upon him the name “Ram Dass,” which translates to mean “Servant of God.”

An image shows the iconic spiritual teacher Ram Dass with his equally celebrated guru Maharaji.

Ram Dass with Maharaji

Upon his return to the United States, Ram Dass, now donning white robes and a long beard, embarked on a mission to share the wisdom he had acquired in India by giving lectures about mindfulness and spirituality throughout the country. He’d also be instrumental in establishing a number of foundations and charities that served the incarcerated, the blind, and especially those nearing the end of their lives.

The year 1971 marked an especially important year in the life of Ram Dass, as his celebrity reached new heights after publishing his most successful book “Be Here Now.” The comprehensive 416-page guide for consciously living encapsulates Ram Dass’s spiritual journey and offers readers an array of thought-provoking quotes and instructions for how to become a yogi. Amazingly, the book has remained in print since its initial publication, selling over 2 million copies and becoming a defining text of New Age spirituality in the process.

Over the course of the next 25 years, Ram Dass would cement his legacy as one of the Western world’s most iconic spiritual teachers. In addition to devoting much of his time to teaching and philanthropic endeavors, he’d write seven additional books including “Grist for the Mill,” “Journey of Awakening,” and “Compassion in Action.” Ram Dass’s life, however, changed forever at the age of 66, in 1997, after the beloved figure was left partially paralyzed after suffering what would be the first of two strokes, with the second coming in 2004.

Despite his deteriorated state of health, Ram Dass would continue inspiring spiritual seekers and living a life full of free-flowing love until passing away at the age of 88 in 2019. Throughout his lifetime, he published over 15 books and touched the lives of countless followers. In addition to his writings, Ram Dass’s life and teachings have been featured in a number of documentaries, including “Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary” and “Ram Dass, Going Home.”

3 of Ram Dass’s Most Important Teachings:

An image shows the iconic spiritual teacher Ram Dass giving a lecture while sitting in a meditative posture.Over the course of roughly 50 years of living as a spiritual teacher, Ram Dass significantly influenced millions of lives worldwide by sharing life-transforming wisdom and serving as an exemplary figure for loving freely. His teachings on compassion, service, and meditation have been a guiding light for countless spiritual seekers and truly embody the essence of his transformative teachings.

The Bountiful Benefits of Compassion & Service: 

Ram Dass was an ardent advocate of compassion and service as transformative forces in personal growth, aligning with the Hindu path of Karma Yoga which emphasizes selfless service. He viewed acts of selflessness as being key to transcending our ego-centric desires and that true fulfillment could be achieved by shifting our focus from self-concern to a genuine desire to alleviate the suffering of others. It was these beliefs that led the iconic spiritual teacher to encourage his followers to find joy in service by actively putting compassion into action and ultimately fostering a greater sense of interconnectedness amongst all beings. He told us:

We are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we are so deeply interconnected with one another… By acting compassionately, by helping to restore justice and to encourage peace, we are acknowledging that we are all part of one another.”

To develop genuine compassion and merge with the universal sense of oneness, Ram Dass pointed to a number of activities and spiritual practices we can incorporate into our lives. Obviously, volunteering your time, donating money, and helping a stranger in need are three ways we can help the greater good. Additionally, Ram Dass told us that by reflecting upon the human condition, trading our judgments for appreciation, and avoiding the ego’s self-righteous trap of being labeled a helper, we could move closer to our spiritual goals. In this 1998 interview from Jeffrey Mishlove’s Thinking Allowed television series, the legendary teacher expands upon these ideas:

Finding Your True Self in Meditation:

Like many of history’s greatest spiritual teachers, Ram Dass told us that the practice of meditation can be a vital tool for uncovering one’s true nature because it allows us to see how our thoughts impose limitations on us, and ultimately gives a gateway to extract our awareness from identifying with these limiting ways of thinking. Yet because of the mind’s persistently active and cunning nature, the iconic teacher knew that the path of meditation is rarely straightforward. This is why he told us that it’s vital to develop acceptance of our current circumstances and take all experiences, including the negative ones, as nothing more than steps along the way. When speaking about the natural progression of spiritual growth provided by meditation, he told us:

After meditating for some years, I began to see the patterns of my own behavior. As you quiet your mind, you begin to see the nature of your own resistance more clearly, struggles, inner dialogues, the way in which you procrastinate and develop passive resistance against life. As you cultivate the witness, things change. You don’t have to change them. Things just change.”

While there are a wide variety of meditation techniques one might practice on their spiritual journey, Ram Dass told us what’s truly most important is to stop associating ourselves as being the ego, as everything changes once we start identifying as the witness to the story instead of acting as the main character. To foster this shift in perspective, he told us that we must continuously extract ourselves from the clinging mind and commit to meditating even when we don’t feel like it. In the following guided meditation, Ram Dass offers some additional insights and instructions about the ancient practice:

The Art of Living in the Moment:

In Ram Dass’s best-selling book ‘Be Here Now,’ he talks about the heightened levels of happiness individuals experience when they’re living fully in the present moment. Yet, because the incessant chatter of the mind clouds our natural capacity for mindful awareness, this is easier said than done. This is why he told us that our aim should be to offer the gift of our being in the fullness of the moment, becoming deeply involved with life, yet less attached to it. This is the ultimate goal of walking the spiritual path. The great master told us what lies ahead: 

Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW.”

Taking the initiative to cultivate compassion, dedicate ourselves to service, and practice meditation, so we can start identifying with our true nature rather than our ego or body, will certainly move us towards a more joy-filled existence of living in the present. Additionally, we can mindfully analyze the circumstances and habits that make up our daily routines and creatively find ways to change or replace the activities that don’t serve our spiritual well-being. In the following compilation of videos from Ram Dass’s later years in life, you’ll see what it’s like to truly master the art of living in the moment:

Inspirational Ram Dass Quotes:

A feeling of aversion or attachment toward something is your clue that there’s work to be done.”

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.”

We’re sitting under the tree of our thinking minds, wondering why we’re not getting any sunshine!”

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