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Ram Dass Interview

Ram Dass, a former Harvard employee fired for selling psilocybin to a student, talks about LSD, Tim Leary, and meditation.

By Potent StaffPublished 8 years ago 18 min read

Michael Hollingshead, a researcher and writer, spent much of his career studying hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs. He would later go on to work with psychedelic therapists, Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) and Timothy Leary. Following his research with the two men, Hollingshead reunited with Ram Dass to interview him for Stone Age magazine.

Hollingshead opens by speaking of his colleagues.

I’ve known Ram Dass many years, and he still remains an enigma to me. When we worked on the Harvard psychedelic project way back in the early 60s, Richard Alpert, Ph.D., as he was then known, had just started using psychedelics and had begun to move away from the orthodox view of human consciousness as a phenomenon of mind that could be manipulated by behaviorist techniques of reward and punishment to a more Eastern concept that stressed the flowing cosmic nature of consciousness as the source of truth and wisdom.

As far back as 1963, Alpert had immersed himself in the writings of the Indian sage, Mehar Baba, and such works as The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching. Later, when we were at Millbrook together in the mid '60s, he gave readings from the works of Eastern thinkers and holy men. Yet there was always the problem of self-identity. How does one give up the ego, which is seen as a stumbling block for individual self-transcendence, especially when you're a Harvard professor coming up for tenure or a national figure associated with the spread of clandestine LSD? The answer, it seems, is to find a guru, which he did.

Arriving in Katmandu on vacation and too drugged out to appreciate either the mountains or the spiritual vibrations of Nepal, Alpert hung out by the pool of the Soastee, Katmandu's five-star hotel. And it was there that he met Bhagawan Dass, a young Californian who had been living in the Himalayas for several years and who was a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba. Bhagawan Dass took Alpert to meet the Maharaji at his ashram in Northern India, and he soon became a devotee.

I met him a few weeks after he had got back from India. Calling himself Ram Dass and communicating at that time via a slate board hanging around his neck, he told me that he was “in silence” for the next three months. After the three months were over I drove up to his father's house in New Hampshire, where Ram Dass lived in his former childhood playroom, and we chatted about his new-found spirituality. He told me that the Maharaji had instructed him to love and feed everybody, and that he was shortly about to embark on a nationwide lecture tour.

It was a few years later that we met up again, this time in London, and I noticed another change. Ram Dass was more confident in his new identity, and the only negative things I picked up came from the somewhat zombied devotees who sat at his feet. I was also a bit critical that he never seemed to actually do anything except talk. What, I asked, about all the sick and unwell people? Shouldn't you be devoting time to projects that might alleviate some of the suffering in the world?

When we met a few weeks ago for this interview, Ram Dass told me that he was indeed working with those segments of humanity that society largely ignored—terminal cancer patients, inmates of prisons, disturbed people in mental hospitals. This was the direction he now wanted to go. As we sat in his pleasantly furnished suburban house on the outskirts of Santa Cruz in California, he rolled a cigarette and had an occasional sip of local wine. There was the feeling that perhaps, after all this time, Ram Dass had touched the earth again with the soles of his feet. It might be nice to conclude that he has become more human, more responsible and, dare we say it, more independent of the influences that have kept him tied up for many years.

Photo via Awaken

Stone Age: I suppose your perceptions of people are different today than they were when you worked as a clinical psychologist at Harvard back in the early 1960s.

Ram Dass: Yes, entirely different. Its from a different place. When you're a psychologist you have a theory, first of all, about personalities. The personality is very real and very solid—it's a reality. So that when the person is presenting himself you're already categorizing, labeling: you're saying, "paranoid schizophrenic with delusional overtones" or something like that, and I will do this, and I will move the person here, and it's all this kind of horizontal movement of substituting one psychological structure for another.

This other place I'm in is very interesting because what I'm doing is I'm looking right between their eyes, just like I'm doing one point in meditation, and I just sit there all the time looking right there. Then they look away and they look back and look away and look back. They're not used to that. It's not a social thing. I'm not saying hello, are you in there, hello, I love you, or that I understand or I'm wise or I'm good or any of that bullshit. I'm just looking there between their eyes, doing my breathing, just empty all the time. So that their mouth is moving and all these words are coming out, but it's almost like spaghetti. It's just stuff. The personality—I'm not investing it with a solidity they're investing it with or, if they went to a therapist, the therapist would invest it with. To me, it's merely the product of mind. When they get all done with speaking, we just keep meeting in this place—the melodrama. Say, well, that was a heavy one. Are you still here? I'm still here. Now what? What else is new? It's a vertical process in which there are two planes going simultaneously.

Isn't that, too, a bit like playing a game?

If you're playing tennis, you and I might be competing in the tennis match, but we are also collaborating to compete. So you have two levels at once, in this collaborative effort. And the eyes really become the collaborators and the mouths become the competitors.

Your transition from clinical psychologist to Hindu saint is pretty fantastic. Were there moments during your psychedelic days when you had intimations of what your future life might hold?

You can go back in your life and find something that was certainly suggestive that that would happen, but you see how that same suggestion could have led to a dozen other places, too. There were moments when the group at Harvard or at Millbrook all said things that would sound like we were all seeing the world the same way, but we all then went off into entirely different worlds—Tim Leary and Ralph Metzner and Al Cohen and George Litwin and Gunther Weil and all those people. It almost appeared like it would be hard to go in such different directions, when we were sharing the same incredible space.

I understand that you have become increasingly involved with dying people. Didn't you start a death center?

Yes. That evolved into Dial-A-Death, where we had a telephone thing where people could call up and have someone come and hang out with them while they died. And then that evolved into our dying club, which we have now, which is a kind of network of people who are interested in using their dying as a vehicle for awakening, whether they're dying or they just want to hang out with someone else who's dying. But it's primarily a spiritual trip that I'm involved in, of dying.

Do you save people from death?

I'm not really that committed to life, so I don't jump when somebody's on the edge of death. A girl's calling from New York and she's walking the streets and I'll talk with her for awhile, but I'll say, well, it's an option and I'll be there. The warmth will maybe stop her, but I'm not attached to her not killing herself.

We just had a fellow here at Santa Cruz who was dying of Hodgkin's disease. He was about thirty-one, an engineer. We started to spend more time with him and pretty soon we helped arrange for the care of him, and then as he died we were really—everybody was right there holding him. After he died, the next day his body was kept there. We sat singing around him. And his parents were involved in the whole scene.

You have spent a lot of time and thought learning to guide people through LSD sessions...

This is not dissimilar—you do the same thing. Very laid back. You don't come on to people, you just do your own meditation. You just become like a rock. Very, very powerful—extremely so. Now what I find is when I sit with people and just work with eye-contact with them, we know pretty soon where we're at. I feel very little desire now to work with acid. Just working with people.

What about working with grass?

There's an awful lot more paranoia with grass these days, which I don't understand. People who have been using grass for years—they're not getting off like they used to, and they tend to get slightly paranoid. I can't tell whether it is a cultural shift or a chemical shift... I really don't know. I know that something is happening, but I can't quite sense it.

Tell us about your working in prisons and with prisoners.

We have a prison project that puts out books like Inside Out, which is a spiritual manual for prison life, and newsletters to help inmates. We have a tape series that they get to work with. We carry on a long personal correspondence with hundreds of prisoners. We give guidance to groups to start their own programs within the prison.

We were originally working with the Bureau of Federal Corrections in Washington. They were setting up an experimental prison in North Carolina, and a quarter of it was going to be an actual ashram. We were going to train the guards. The warden was a very hip guy. The Congress then freaked at a certain point about something and got very uptight, conservative—after money had been allotted and all that—pulled back and the thing was canned. So the warden quit at that point. He and I had a nice meeting, and he said if you're going to do this, the thing to do is set up a private prison, which is a bizarre thought. Then we'd lease out space to the States and federal government. But we'll run it the way we want to run it, with the right kind of guards. And that fascinated him and it fascinated me.

The original scene that we had designed was for the prisoners to grow their own food. It was to be just like a straight ashram. All the guards were trained and would participate in the same way as everybody else. The whole thing was an entirely different space... Different space than saying you've got to be in prison anyway, society says we want you off the streets. But what you do in prison—that's up to you. We're going to help you do whatever you can do to become more conscious.

Image via Transpersonal Spirit

Have you considered the possibility of opening a dialogue with the established churches that already have places of worship inside prisons?

It's a possibility, but they're very conservative. My status with the church is bad.

During your Harvard psychedelic days you were involved in a project giving LSD to inmates of a maximum security prison as part of a rehabilitation project. How did that fare?

The rehabilitation was incredible. When you're batting against that 71-percent recidivism rate, you don't have to do a hell of a lot to change the whole game. You just have to get to any human being and give them a probability report.

So it did reverse the recidivism index?

Well, the results were so crapped up you could never really tell what was going on. Half of them Tim was supporting, and they were living in his house and he was getting women and everything.

And, of course, the LSD prison project stopped after you were thrown out of Harvard. It seems a great pity that both prison officials and even the church didn't support these attempts after you had gone.

I find bureaucrats in the government of the church very dull. All the way up. I used to hang out with people like Governor Jerry Brown, and I find them all very dull because you feel that they're constantly testing you. They're so vulnerable, you know, and we're so used to being free we don't remember what it's like to be that paranoid all the time...

How do you see your image in America at the moment?

I really think I'm kind of passé. I really think I'm over the edge. It's interesting because at the same moment there's more publicity than ever before, and I'm getting calls, like two or three a day, for endorsements for political candidates. I mean, that's bizarre, for Christ's sake. I must have lost all my sharp teeth. I don't know. I think it's because I don't care anymore, so it's getting to be fun. I'm just playing. The more exposure there is about me, the more I turn out to be fallible, and the more attractive I become to the public. As long as I was this kind of holy person, untouchable, you know, pure as the driven snow, no one was interested. I'm doing just the reverse of what used to do. I used to cover over all my absurdities, but now I make as much of them as I can.

When I got to Harvard in 1960 the place was just incredibly dull, you know, all teeth and tweeds and sporting jocks. I remember Tim used to walk around wearing red socks and torn sneakers, and this was considered at that time to be very far out. And, of course, acid helped change all that.

Well there was a period of time we all thought the world was going to change by everything we did, immediately—and it didn't.

How many times have you had LSD?

I've had 300 I guess. And PCP and DMT.

Have you noticed any physiological impairment or change in memory?

I think I'm sharper and clearer than I ever was in my life.

Do you plan to spend time again at your guru's ashram in India? Is that an important part of your life?

Well, I'm going there. I go about every two years or so. I don't know whether it's an important part anymore—I really don't. I haven't slowed down enough to listen. In some ways I feel like that chapter's over, and in other ways I feel I could still learn something important.

Do you still take LSD?

I only usually take it when I know that it's pure acid. Every now and then it comes through from somewhere and I know it's pure. It's interesting because in the world I live in, I never hear any of that LSD stuff because it just isn't relevant. I don't live in that world. I'm just working on a preface for a book on voluntary simplistic lifestyles, which is coming out of the Stanford Research Institute Center for the Planning of Future Worlds, and what happens when the energy situation changes in the world and things like that in terms of various patterns or options of lifestyle. Those things interest me a great deal, and it's based on preserving a set of human values that feel to me very desirable. The chemical longevity of life doesn't seem to be doing that. It doesn't alter the quality of life one bit.

Image via Zeitgeist Films

Since you are now a public figure, this gives you a certain amount of access to other public figures who have some control of the environment. But you haven't moved into too many areas, it seems to me.

If you notice, by working in prisons I'm working in areas of the culture that the culture doesn't consider of any value at all. Prisoners and dying people are not a constituent. They're not a voting constituent and so they don't have any value. Recently I gave a lecture on fifteen-year-old girls' perceptions of pregnancy and giving birth. More specifically, I spoke about when you're dealing with unwanted children and battered children and what happens to kids born where the parents have very unrealistic expectations of what it's going to be like to be a parent. What we ended up setting up, which we ran as an experimental study in the Los Angeles school systems, was a scene attaching the nurseries or child-care day centers to junior high school, where the students work in taking care of the babies. So they started to get much more realistic understandings of what it's like, because they're the ones that are dealing with whether they're going to get pregnant or not.

And it would be of help if they had less of a television image of what the whole game is about. Because what happens is they have this dreamlike image of “baby will be wonderful." They have the baby, and then they're ill prepared for the frustration and the daily life and all the shitting and all of the stuff, and they end up battering their kids to hell. And battered children is a major problem in the society at the moment.

And battered wives, too?

Battered everybody, actually, but to that extent I am involved with school systems very minimally, because it doesn't feel to me like a viable place for social change. It's like I'm not involved in politics. I don't find it a viable place for social change. You'd think it would be, but I don't think it is, isn't it funny?

Can you envisage at some point having your own program, a once-a-week thing?

I can envisage anything. Sure, I can envisage it. It would be a natural in a way, because I would like to create that space. The media is an interesting vehicle—the television media—for creating a mass-shared higher-consciousness space, and it's not been used that way yet. But until I'm invited to do so, I won't lift a finger to do it myself. I’ll only do it when I can play it my way. I just decided I didn't want anything that much. I get myself into these positions where I was such a whore, I was so on the make that I found myself making compromise after compromise until I was miserable. Now, I can say anything I want. I feel much freer. I'm not sponsored by anyone, ever.

Do you think about the future and not just “here now"?

I only set up projects to seep an idea into a culture, and then I want to disappear as quickly as possible.

Erik Erickson, the Harvard psychologist-guru, says we change every seven years during our life cycle. You've been through one phase during the Harvard psychedelic period and another when you returned from India. Does this freedom that you have now represent the beginning of a new phase in your life?

I certainly feel that I'm in a different part of the process now than I was before. Perhaps my faith is now stronger that in goodly measure I have become more unified with the spiritual path, and I need not protect myself from myself. For even when I would seem to be going in a direction 180 degrees away from God, I keep finding God. With this relinquishing of a holy stance, my behaviors become more unpredictable and inconsistent, for at one moment I feel the pull towards meditation and devotional practices, and almost the next moment I am involved in what Seems like the most outrageous participation in the marketplace.

You have been very prolific. How many books have you written now?


Do you see Tim Leary at all?

I haven't. We've gone in different directions. I haven't seen him for years and years. He's quite open. He made some kind of scathing comment about me in some recent article.

It is a bit strange isn't it, that you two interesting people don't get together more?

I don't think of myself as a very interesting person. I saw Tim as a very interesting man. But if you live long enough you amass a lot of something or other and you become wise. If you don't blow it, you just become wise. It sort of develops out of nothing. If you survive you just keep surviving, and it just keeps getting deeper and deeper and deeper.

For a long time I was only involved with the spiritual—that was my karma. Now I'm involved in solar energy and battered children and the dying thing. I gave a seminar retreat last summer in Mexico on Karma Yoga—how to live in the world and awaken while you're living in the world. And that's more what my trip is rather than like the Tibetans, which is a much more monastic tradition. And so I'm very suitable to the Western kind of compromise strategy of wanting to take a role in which we end up with nothing. So I don't know what I'm offering, because I'm not offering liberation. I may just be offering a false feeling of well-being.

What led you to be part of the public press conference attacking Tim in San Francisco?

What led me to it was that that lawyer in San Francisco, Michael Kennedy, called me and told me that Timothy was speaking to the grand jury in Chicago. He told me he was giving testimony that would implicate himself and other lawyers on the West Coast who had been very helpful to a lot of people, and that are involved in the weathermen and all that stuff. Allen Ginsberg and Jerry Rubin felt strongly that these lawyers should be protected from Timothy, and they wanted to hold a press conference—I understood the predicament and I realized that I had the power of having known Timothy intimately. That was the reason I did it. Because Allen had made the effort to go down to the Orange Country courthouse and read the testimony Tim had given against his lawyer in which he described how the lawyer had brought some hash to Timothy in prison.

See, I had brought acid to Tim at prison, and so I figured if he's doing that then I'm about to go anyway, and I was a little pissed at Tim for doing that. Later, when I confronted Tim about it—that's why Tim and I are two close friends now—Tim said, "Oh, wonderful seeing you Dick, we're going to be good friends." I said, “Tim, if we're going to be good friends we've got to get things straight, and I'm sorry I had to do that press thing.” I said, “Well, we did find that you had given that testimony to Orange County." He said, “Oh, lawyers, they're all—" the way he goes on about lawyers because he never pays bills anyway. So he's very bitter towards lawyers. We did it for one purpose only, to raise doubts in the grand jury's mind about the veracity of Tim so that they wouldn't use his testimony to indict anyone, and it did work.

As Tim said, no one's gone to jail because of anything he's ever said.

But I think we helped in nobody going to jail because of what he did.

It seems to me that no one was coming to his help.

I don't know whether you can justify, even if nobody comes to your help, going after other people's freedom.

No, you can't. But he'd given 17 different variations of each story, thereby invalidating his testimony himself. It wasn't a sinister kind of thing.

No, Tim wasn't sinister. Tim was just Tim. The worst he would have had to do was a couple of more years, and that's not pleasant. But the mood was changing, the whole thing was changing. I'm sure they convinced him that they were going to keep him there for life. They brainwashed him and I think he bought it. I just wanted to raise doubts in the mind of the grand jury. I kept my eye on the mark. I think if we're doing something for Stone Age we should be talking more about drugs.

What happened on your most recent trip?

It was as if I had experienced that feeling that Buddha had of looking out at humanity, the quality of suffering and what suffering meant, and the image I would get looked like an incredible Russian movie—millions of beings turning this wheel, and every now and then one of them would reach out to catch a golden ring that would go around. It was incredible. For hours.

I really honor acid, and it's played and I think will continue to play a major part in my life. It turns my head around every time and reminds me of stuff that I had forgotten.

A lot of people are saying that in the future we are going to have a whole range of drugs—mood-changing and recreational drugs, such as those coming from Dr. Sasha Shulgin in Berkeley.

But that's the issue—the political use of control of mind. I think that Tim has raised some interesting issues about the freedom of human consciousness, and I think that Stone Age should concern itself with the political aspect of the freedom to alter your consciousness, but in a direction you choose rather than having a benevolent dictatorship.

It's got to be that chemicals can be used to increase the heterogeneity of the society rather than just homogenize it. It seems that chemicals are only thought of nowadays by the establishment as getting you to cope or adjust. That's the problem.


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