Dass has led the life of seeker and traveler, teacher and social activist
for 45 years. The quality of his conscious-ness is legendary, not only for
the words spoken, but because of the spell that is somehow invoked in his
Ram Dass is well known for his
with LSD and his anthem book of the late ’60s
“Be Here Now”. But his life works include
much more than these. Early on he created the Prison Ashram Project,
introducing deep spiritual work in prison. To the taboo surrounding
death & dying in this culture, he responded with the Dying Project,
introducing dying people to other planes of consciousness. Noticing the
need to combine
social action with spiritual motive, Ram Dass co-created
the Seva Foundation, working with doctors and activists in India, Nepal,
Guatemala and here in the US. He’s worked with business people in the
Social Venture Net-work, and with Creating Our Future, a spiritually
questing organization for teenagers, among many other causes. The common
theme in all of these projects has been the application of spiritual
principles to social realities.
Five years ago Ram Dass suffered a massive stroke. He is in his wheel
chair a lot and has speech aphasia, so there is more space between his
words now, and the occasional unfinished sentence. I found that the
silences threading through his spoken words gave me time to dream into
our conversation which may sound weird but was quite profound. I
interviewed Ram Dass on July 29 at Breitenbush Hot Springs.
PM: The last time I saw you, you said: “Peter, be a soul.”
RD: Ah, that’s interesting...
PM: That was two years ago, right here at Breitenbush. What did you mean
RD: We have a choice as to who in ourselves we want to identify with.
Both soul and ego...and a third one... are all going on, all the time,
in every human being. But you can identify only with one of them, and
then you’re blind to the others. They are treated as static. I was
saying to shift your identification, because the only motive a soul has
is to satisfy God…or to become one with The One... it’s being One
with the Beloved. That’s the ultimate goal.
PM: The ultimate goal?
RD: So that’s what I wanted you to focus on, and then your life
becomes ... your incarnation becomes ... a step on this journey, and
it’s nothing more than that. OK?
PM: Many questions arise ...
RD: Yeah, I bet. (laughter)
PM: What journey do you speak of? Are you talking about past lives,
future lives, a whole set of reincarnations, and that’s what this one
PM: In a word … (laughing)
RD: I have bought reincarnation.
PM: Tell me about that ...
RD: I bought it from Maharaji, from books, from holy writings, my own
PM: When you were a Harvard professor, 40 years ago, had you bought it
RD: No. No. I wasn’t even open to it.
PM: So, you’ve journeyed far this life.
RD: Yeah. Because mushrooms and LSD, plus Maharaji led me to shift
perceptions to the universe about me.
PM: And those perceptual shifts weren’t ephemeral? They didn’t just
fade away like a mirage after the mushrooms, LSD and Maharaji
RD: No. No. They filled a need in me. That need was for truth, for
compassion, for wisdom, for the Beloved. I wanted to merge with the
Beloved. I wanted to be the Beloved, I guess. And, those two things, the
psychoactive drugs and Maharaji, they told me of this need. All my life
up to that point was like, mind going blindly, thinking that worldly
ecstasy was divine.
PM: (laughter) So in fact, it was the worldly ecstasy, not the drugs,
that ends up being the ephemeral experience.
PM: Regarding LSD, mushrooms and direct spiritual experience: you put
your Harvard career on the line over these issues back in the ’60s. Do
you view these kinds of psychonautical experiences, particularly the
drug experiences, as still relevant for a person?
RD: Yes. But not for all people. I mean, like, medication is relevant,
but not for all people, because of their chemical makeup, or their
mindsets, or their environment.
PM: Is the choice to use these kinds of substances to be left to the
RD: ...to the individual…
PM: ...or to the state?
RD: No… (laughing)
PM: (laughing... How’s that for a rhetorical question?)
RD: THE STATE, of course! (Much laughter)
PM: (We’ve got it on tape!)
RD: The individual, of course. I am part of the Drug Policy Alliance,
directed by a VERY smart guy, Ethan Nadelmann. He was a professor at
Princeton, and then he was selected by George Soros to direct this
group. Nadelmann is the point man against the current War on Drugs
policy, and its effects the state prohibition against marijuana, the
prison-industry connection, the link between differential enforcement of
these laws and racial injustice, mandatory sentencing the whole gamut...
Nadelmann directs an international effort to expose this war on drugs
for what it is, and to change these prohibitionist policies. Ethan is
talking about harm reduction an important concept. I back him, just all
PM: Talk to me about your own use.
RD: First of all, I use medical marijuana for my stroke…to control
spastic movements, and for pain. These are my legal reasons for using.
But that’s the minor use of it. More important, I use marijuana
because the stroke captures my consciousness and I use it to free my
consciousness from the stroke. I use it to free my words.
PM: And it works?
RD: And it works. It works. So that’s Mother healing... healing
PM: We are seeing some progress with medicinal marijuana in Oregon and
California, but the feds are heavy handed...
PM: ... in coming after it. Do you think this is the darkness before the
dawn? Are these prohibition laws ever going to go away?
RD: If you look at Europe, England has just legalized ...
PM: and Portugal...
RD: and Portugal. I think it’s darkness before the dawn, because the
next evolution is going to be a consciousness evolution instead of a
communication revolution ... it’s going to be ... we are going to
acknowledge that which is in our interests, but is not separate...
PM: Let’s see if I get this straight...
PM: In the last 10,000 years humanity’s gone through a succession of
evolutionary stages the agricultural revolution, the development of
city-states, then nation states & stratified societies & class
systems, leading to the middle class melting pot, and the revolutionary
ideals of equality and democracy. We’ve had the industrial revolution,
and the communications revolution...
PM: ...and you are predicting that beyond the communications revolution
there’s going to be a ...
RD: …A Oneness.
PM: A Oneness?
RD: A Oneness of all. An evolution in consciousness of us all that
isn’t about the egos. It overrides the United Nations, because the
United Nations is a collectivity of egos, and you don’t want ... big
PM: What about corporate states? The concentrated powers of
RD: They’re the next evolution in the bad guys... (laughter fills the
PM: At the Oregon Country Fair, you said, “Hold George W. Bush in your
heart.” Do you hold him in your heart with affection?
RD: ...No. …No. I see him as a fellow soul. And I don’t…affection
is too psychological of a word. I mean, I have opened ... with love.
Which is the most I can do to help him through his incarnation. Which is
what one soul can do for another soul.
I’ve been pushing an idea that the major institution for social change
is the human heart. And social change the social change that matters
comes heart to heart. I am talking about the heart to heart
resuscitation of society. It throws people back to themselves, changes
attitudes, and that’s what brings together social action. Social
activism and spiritual practice.
PM: The Hindu, Yogic tradition is founded, as I understand it, on right
Discernment and Dispassion. The two dis’s. Discernment: right
judgment, right thought, right awareness and perception. I can relate to
discernment. But I’m not good at dispassion. I feel enormous passion
about corporate theft and military murder and environmental destruction,
RD: The question is, do you want more to express your angst, or do you
want more to change the conditions that are creating it?
PM: I’m listening…
RD: If you want more to change it, you’ve got to be dispassionate and
PM: OK. Help me here. Today’s news from NPR and USA Today is that it
looks like the invasion of Iraq is on. They want to put 200,000 US
troops on the ground and “liberate” Baghdad, to install a regime the
USA approves of. My initial response is to publish a warning poster in
Alternatives, with George W.’s face on it, like an FBI “Terrorist
Alert”. …Is there a more dispassionate course for me to take?
RD: …That course fires the passions but it does so with humor. And
humor is the spiritual stuff in that mix. So, that would be good to do,
I think... Dispassion guides you to skillful means. You can do that,
with George Bush in your magazine, and I can have his picture on my Puja
table......they’re both doing the same thing.
PM: I love it! So I’m gonna put that poster in the middle of your
RD: You are? (laughter)
PM: We’ve talked about the War on Drugs. What about this “War on
Terrorism”? For a peacefully inclined person, what is the best action
or non-action to take, to lessen terrorism in the world?
RD: I saw a sign in a tenement window in Chicago. It was a red sign with
black lettering and it said, “Stop Terror.” That’s all. And I
thought....to stop terrorism you’ve got to stop terror. You’ve got
to have a population who are not terrified to stop terror.
PM: How close do you think our population in the United States is?
RD: Not ... but, I would like to invite the populace to look within, to
a place where they are peaceful and they’re in a peaceful universe.
That would be a population that would not be stopped with terror.
Because, like, death is terror. Death’s the basic card. But souls
aren’t terrified of death.
PM: Back to “be a soul…” (laughter)
RD: I was giving a talk in Los Angeles, and Laura Huxley asked a
question: “what would you say to both sides, Arab and
Israeli?”...and I said. …I’d say to them, “One God”.
They’re both talking about “their God”, based on a few miswritten
mystics. So we got two mystics, with two takes of God…and that’s
what we’re fighting for. Now I would say to them: with this conflict
you are shooting yourself in the foot. Your resources… your
manpower… your culture…
PM: What about 911?
RD: I saw September 11th as a fierce grace. I see it waking people up
not just the United States, all the world. That act changed the feeling
of security in the world ... because Big Brother is vulnerable.
PM: Yes, but Big Brother has also been busy. Since 911, we’ve got the
Patriot Act, and now TIPS, the national snitch project to get the
mailman and PGE meter readers anybody with access to homes & offices
to spy on people. But fierce grace... You mean that, with all this
darkness, you’re an optimist?
RD: Yeah, I am. There is something in humanity that goes to the brink
then pulls back.
PM: If reincarnation is true, why do we keep coming back again and again
to all this?
RD: Somehow I figure that why we take incarnation is because we learn
about two things in this life: suffering and love.
PM: What about ecstasy? Or, the pleasures of success?
RD: That’s the love category. Love and joy.
PM: Love and joy together. OK. How about the corporate crooks who loot
their companies and steal everything from their workers and investors?
Is their success and joy being deposited in the suffering category then?
RD: ...that can’t be joy. Because they know in the back of their mind
how uncompassionate they are. And you can’t build joy on a feeling of
PM: Suffering and love... You’ve gone the Buddha one extra. He said
it’s all about suffering, period.
RD: Yeah. Maharaji drove me to this. Once, this woman came before him
and she said, “Maharaji, my life is so much suffering”. She was so
sad ... and everybody around was so sad about her story and then
Maharaji said, “Suffering brings me closer to God”. See, suffering
is because of attachment. So suffering means you better get stepping on
your attachments. Therefore it’s a wake-up call to get you to God.
PM: For the past 40 years you’ve taught and been identified with
“baby boomers”. What are you seeing in the generations following,
the ones that don’t necessarily identify with the sixties
“revolution”. Are you talking to them, are they listening?
RD: …Rock and roll, that’s it… That’s it. It crosses
generations, and it also crosses nation states…The wall came down.
Before that happened, the Beatles, and the ... So, now, what was the
PM: The question was, what do you see with these upcoming generations?
And I liked your answer, by the way, even if it didn’t directly answer
RD: For a long time I’d been thinking I was going to get old along
with my audience. Now, however, I’m hearing rumblings from the high
school kids. They want to know what happened in the sixties. They want
to…they want a spiritual life.
PM: So it’s perennial, not just generational! I once heard Newt
Gingrich say that the sixties was an “aberration of history”. He
inferred that teachers like you, the anti-war movement, experimenting
with consciousness was a mutation, but it’s over now, the country is
back on track, doing what’s good for business. Do you think it was an
aberration of history?
RD: No. It was a corrective mechanism.
PM: Thank you for setting the record straight! Speaking of the sixties,
what got you going to India from Harvard?
RD: I was bored at Harvard. The guy down the hall was more interesting
than most at Harvard. He taught me to function in a way at odds with the
society. He was the Irish taking on the English. He had cultural stuff
PM: ...he was a warrior ...
RD: ... yeah, but I couldn’t follow him to the letter. The
psychedelics allowed me to touch the still small voice within me the God
within me. Then I wondered what to do with that. My psychology wasn’t
a map for this territory. So I decided I had to go and look for maps.
Then Aldus Huxley, a colleague at MIT, gave me one. He gave me the
“Tibetan Book of the Dead”. I remember, I had had an LSD session on
Saturday, and Huxley gave me this book on Tuesday. And in the book were
descriptions of my session on Saturday. They were accurate, down to
minute details…so I knew that drugs were on to something. But then I
knew that “they”, meaning the people from the Far East, have the
maps that we don’t have, because they’ve been studying the territory
for so long. So I went to the East to find a teacher, because I figured
my ability to read these maps is curtailed by my cultural training, and
I need to find a “reader” of these maps. And Maharaji was who I came
to next. Maharaji from then on guided me, because from then on I am
living his business. Okay? I am. He’s responsible.
PM: His business…well, you’ve been giving out these same maps to
millions of others for 35 years. You’re a “reader” of these
psychonautical maps for others, just as Maharaji was for you.
RD: Yeah. That’s just a sort of personality thing.
PM: (laughing) well, how perfect...
RD: Yeah, it is perfect. See, Maharaji saw that in me.
PM: I get it.
RD: You know, when I left India the first time, Maharaji said, “You
are not to speak about me.” ...but I did. Now, that’s interesting,
because I couldn’t let that information go when it would help people.
PM: So “his business” has impelled your life’s work. What’s your
RD: I am exploring my own dictum. ‘Be Here Now’. That’s what I’m
doing these days. And I’m having lots of trouble.
PM: Really? I thought you were going to say you are having lots of fun!
RD: Oh, well, it’s lots of fun, but, trouble too, because, to be here
and now, I have to break time-binding. Everybody and all things are a
playground, and I am driving myself crazy because ... and this is over
simplistic, but ... I go out for two weeks, and then for two weeks I’m
home. The two weeks I’m home, I’m yearning for freedom, just
yearning for it…just luxuriating…just, freedom…here, and here, and
here, all the baklava, you know... and, that time is like a temple,
it’s my temple…. Then the next period starts up and it’s about,
you know, “hurry up, we’ve got to…”, and, “is the coffee
ready?” I can make the shift, but, those shift periods ...
RD: Demanding. But, I have a beautiful, big picture window at my desk,
and it’s got the bay, and the mountains, and the sky, and the clouds,
and the trees, and the birds, and everything out there and I sit, I sit
looking out the window. That’s my whole occupation…because I’m
contemplating. I’m meditating ... I do that, you know, and I’m going
like, like the birds, you know…with my consciousness. I love that
freedom. I love it. I’m addicted to it! But it’s hard to get the
PM: (laughing) ... out on the road again? ... but see, you do it, even
if it’s hard! I mean, you’re here!
RD: Yeah. Yeah. We all have these things...and what I’m doing, I’m
teaching these two planes at once, two planes at once. It’s a karma
PM: It’s a gift. In your touring out, I’ve noticed for years that
you show up at events like the Rainbow Gathering, the Oregon Country
Fair, and here at Breitenbush. Why these events and places?
RD: These fairs and gatherings, they are where America’s sadhus come
together. They are the Kumbha Melas of our culture.
PM: The Kumbha Melas of America. (laughing) What a great parallel!
RD: ...I do know why I go to the Rainbow Gathering and these other
events... they’re my people.
PM: You come as a giver, a teacher but you’re saying that the quality
of what you receive is important too?
RD: Yes. Yes. Very much. Those festivals feed me tremendously.
PM: You’ve spoken of planetary things, like the next evolutionary
stage, and of local things, like these gatherings. What is the
relationship between them?
RD: These gatherings, and what you here at Breitenbush are doing, it’s
the right thing... This is what a thoughtful heart does under these
conditions. And it’s true, these little, little, little things
...beautifully add up.