Ram Dass recently died at the age of 88 in December, 2019. It caused many of us to remember his work and his influence on us boomers. The “okay bomber” phrase, might be “okay Ram Dass”. But I think there is much to celebrate in Ram Dass’ teachings.
Many people know his life story. Richard Alpert was a Stanford PhD in psychology and became a professor and therapist at Harvard. He wrote a book about child development. At Harvard, Richard Alpert met Timothy and began experimenting with LSD, hence my proposition that Ram Dass might be an archetype of highs.
I was drawn to Ram Dass during graduate school, as I was getting my PhD in psychology and child development and practicing yoga. I had spontaneous “highs” from yoga practice without LSD or other hallucinogens. Ram Dass’ book, The Only Dance There Is, spoke to me in many ways. It documented what “highs” were like, feelings of bliss, timelessness and interconnection with other life, and the loss of ego boundaries. With LSD there were hallucinations, but I was not so interested in that hallucinations. I was interested in changes in consciousness which I had experienced through yoga practice, contacting human potential.
LSD for Ram Dass was a way to open the inner world to love as a state of consciousness. He saw that this individual work was a way to change group consciousness as well. Similar to the Beatles’ spiritual teacher, Maharishi’s ideas. Maharishi, the Transcendental Meditation guru,a said that if 10% of people in a city meditated that crime would decrease. An unverified claim, but notable to show that Ram Dass, and other spiritual teachers of the time, were interested in a bigger picture than “highs”.
Ram Dass went to India because he realized that the highs he found through LSD wouldn’t last, as he would always come down. He wanted something more sustainable, a true transformation of consciousness. He found his teacher Maharajji who gave him the new name, no longer Robert Albert. Now called Ram Dass, he reported that the yogic breathing practice of pranayama created the same changes in consciousness as LSD. He also said there were another means to change consciousness including “right action” and “karma yoga”, Buddhist and Hindu concepts of acting in service to others. In my work with storytelling, I have found telling stories and listening to stories also changes consciousness. Joseph Campbell the wizard of stories, says that the hero in stories goes through “process of self-annihilation, and undergoes a metamorphosis” (pg 77).
Michael Pollan in a 2019 book, How to Change Your Mind, has rekindled public interest in psychedelics making a case for psychological healing and ways to expand consciousness including a method to move beyond an ego-restricted perception of reality. In his own experience of taking azzies, a nickname for Psilocybe azurescens, a psychedelic mushroom, Pollan says, “I had “a drug experience”. The psilocybin in the mushroom unlocked 5-hydroxytryptamine 2-A receptors in my brain…waking dream, interesting and pleasurable.” (Pg. 135). He details research and many people’s experience with hallucinogenics. But he is not only interested in “highs”, Pollan says that his experience was not magical or divine, but a new slant on reality.
Ram Dass’ initial interest in highs mutated to an interest in altering and sustaining a changed consciousness, that of love. He says, “The only thing you have to offer to another human being, ever, is your own state of being…. But everything you do…. You’re only manifesting of how evolved in consciousness you are.” (Pg. 6)
So the point of Ram Dass’ early psychedelic experiences, and even possibly Pollan’s interest in the same, may not be about the highs, but changing human consciousness for healing and opening the potential of love and service to the self and other. Ram Dass changed his journey from the highs of psychedelics to the meditative practice of pranayama. For me, I’ve moved from yoga to Zen meditation to storytelling. The point isn’t to create “highs”, but finding ways to move human consciousness to the energy of love and service to others through a sustainable practice. And truly, Ram Dass is not the archetype of highs, but the archetype of the transformation of consciousness.
Ram Dass, (1974). The only dance there is. Anchor Press
Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Yogi Impressions.
Pollan, M. (2018). How to change your mind. Penguin Books.