Ram Dass, the former Harvard professor and spiritual leader whose book Be Here Now inspired Steve Jobs to visit India (and also to try psychedelic drugs) died on December 22 at 88. He not only influenced Jobs and countless other luminaries in business and the arts, he changed American culture, introducing Eastern concepts such as meditation, mindfulness, and the practice of yoga that were unfamiliar at the time. And there's still a lot we can learn from him.
Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert to a wealthy family in Newton, Massachusetts -- his father was a founder of Brandeis University and president of the New Haven Railroad. Educated at Tufts and Stanford, Alpert became an assistant professor in psychology at Harvard. He filled his apartment with beautiful antiques and his garage with high-end cars. He even had his own airplane. Everything was on track for a highly successful, if conventional, career. But then he made friends with Timothy Leary, a colleague in Harvard's psychology department, and the two began experimenting with psilocybin and LSD (which was not yet illegal in the early 60s).
During his first psychedelic trip, Alpert described losing first his status as a Harvard professor, then the status that came with his beautiful possessions and wealthy bachelor lifestyle, then his own name and identity and finally his body -- and discovering that there was an inner being that could exist just fine without any of these. It was a spiritual experience that, unfortunately went away when the dose wore off.
Leary and Alpert continued experimenting and sharing psychedelics with others and soon enough the first item from Alpert's maiden trip came true -- he was dismissed from Harvard for giving drugs to an undergraduate. He later wrote:
Everybody, parents, colleagues, public, saw it as a horrible thing; I thought inside "I must be really crazy, now -- because craziness is where everybody agrees about something -- except you!"
And yet, he felt saner than he ever had.
Just be here now.
With plenty of free time, Alpert traveled to India as a tourist, but then left his friends to follow an American turned spiritual wanderer named Bhagavan Das who began teaching him the ways of Hindu asceticism and mindfulness. Alpert would start to tell a story about his past, and Bhagavan Das would say, "Don't think about the past. Just be here now." Alpert would ask a question about where they were going and Bhagavan Das would say, "Don't think about the future. Just be here now."
In time, Bhagavan Das brought Alpert to meet the revered guru Neem Karoli Baba, called Maharjji (great king) by his followers. Maharajji seemed able to read Alpert's mind and reach him at a deep emotional level. Alpert studied at Maharajji's ashram, learning yoga and meditation. He was given the name Ram Dass, and he learned to reach the spiritual state he'd once found with psychedelics through meditation instead. He stopped taking LSD because he no longer needed it.
In 1968, Ram Dass returned the United States. He came home a "bushy-bearded, barefoot, white-robed guru," as the New York Times put it. He immediately began to lecture about what he'd learned, and he also wrote the first of many books, Be Here Now. The book combines an account of Ram Dass's life and transformation, artistic renditions of his insights and sacred sayings, instructions for beginning a yoga and spiritual practice, and recommendations for other readings.
Be Here Now was published in 1971, when mindfulness meditation and yoga were not widely practiced in America. The book was hugely influential, notably on Steve Jobs, who read it as a teenager while attending Reed College. "It was profound," he said later. "It transformed me and many of my friends." As a result, Jobs took up meditation and, to a lesser extent, psychedelics. He also traveled to India, to Maharajji's ashram, but the guru died before Jobs could meet him. Even so, Jobs returned from India a changed person, and when he himself was ill with cancer and nearing death, he returned to visit the ashram.
Why was Be Here Now so influential? "It was written in common language for the average person," says Sruti Ram, a longtime friend of Ram Dass, spiritual leader, and author of the forthcoming book All Roads Lead to Ram: A Personal History of a Spiritual Adventurer. Like Jobs, Sruti Ram first encountered Ram Dass through Be Here Now. "It was fascinating and it changed my perception of consciousness and alternative realities, which is something he was an excellent mentor about," he recalls.
In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a near-fatal stroke which left him partially paralyzed and temporarily unable to speak. He was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. "He was a very strong personality, but when he had his stroke it completely melted that because he became dependent," Sruti Ram says. "He often said afterward that the stroke saved him because it removed his ego."
Sruti Ram remembers spending several months with Ram Dass after the stroke, helping him cope with daily life. Ram Dass was born to a wealthy family and had a large inheritance, but he had given all his wealth away, as instructed by Maharajji. "All the money of the universe is available to you, so I'm telling you, never be concerned about money," the guru had said.
"Fortunately, his intellectual property manifested some sort of livelihood for him," Sruti Ram says, "But it really wasn't quite enough after the stroke because he needed a great deal of care. One day I was looking at the bills and I went into his bedroom and I said, 'We have a problem. The rent is due and we don't have enough money to pay it."
"He said, 'Uh huh.'"
"I said, 'What do you mean uh huh? What are we going to do?'"
"He said, 'I have no idea. I never think about money, Maharajji told me not to. Besides, you're here.'"
A frustrated Sruti Ram went back into the office, where there was a picture of Maharajji. "What do I do now?" Sruti Ram asked. Then he meditated for 10 minutes, after which he got the idea to call the Social Security Administration. Perhaps Ram Dass was entitled to disability payments he hadn't been getting.
It turned out that he was. A woman at Social Security told Sruti Ram over the phone that they had been trying unsuccessfully to send checks for some time. Could the money be deposited directly into Ram Dass's bank account, Sruti Ram asked? It could. With the back payments, it totaled several thousand dollars.
"I went marching back into the bedroom and said, 'You're not going to believe what I just did,'" Sruti Ram recalls.
"What did you do?" Sruti Ram told him the whole story. "We have all this money now to pay the rent and the other bills," he said.
Ram Dass looked up at him. "See?" he said, and went back to reading his book.
Asked to describe the essence of Ram Dass's teachings, Sruti Ram says, "There's actually one word that completely covers the last 30 years of Ram Dass's life and that word is simply 'love.' He had become love incarnate."
There were some very simple mandates that Ram Dass always lived by, Sruti Ram says. "Always tell the truth. Love everybody, feed everybody, see God in everybody. And don't try to figure it out."