We never know the impact one person may have on our lives until we look back over the timeline and note the connecting dots. Such is the case of a man I encountered a few times over a 40 year period. The first time I heard the name Ram Dass who died 12/22/2019 surrounded by loved ones, was in a college classroom in the 1970s. A student at Glassboro State College, I was earning my B.A. in Psychology. My favorite professor was Vicky Morford. A peer of his, she spoke about the LSD experiments he did with his colleague, Timothy Leary. It was a class in which I learned to meditate as well. I became curious about this hybrid spiritual teacher who was born Richard Alpert, into a family of wealth and privilege; a lifestyle that rang hollow for him after a while. His foray into drugs was mind-opening, but his venture into spirituality was heart-opening. Judaism was his religion of childhood and he embraced Eastern spirituality following a trip to India in 1967 where he met his lifelong teacher Neem Karoli Baba who bestowed on him the name Ram Dass which translates to ‘servant of God’. That he became, turning to the offering of Seva (selfless service). He made no claims to being a guru himself, although he was often viewed in that way.
I read Be Here Now in the 1980s and found it a potent reminder to slow my pace since my tendency has been to be a few steps ahead in my mind beyond where my feet are planted. I attribute it to my childhood challenges of asthma and podiatric problems. Now in my 60s, I am called back to that necessity.
My next (in person) encounter occurred on October 25, 1986, in Philadelphia where he came to speak on the subject of Seva. It was there that I also met the man who would become my husband. Michael Moser and I were introduced during the intermission by a mutual friend named Ute Arnold. When Michael and I founded Visions Magazine, I did my initial interview with him. Spirit was being playful as there were technical difficulties and the phone and recording device were not working in harmony, so I called Ute, who had become our next-door neighbor and hightailed it over there and recorded our conversation from her home. I wonder if she remembers it.
I was able to locate the dog-eared copy of Visions Magazine from our first year of publication (1988, laughing along with him at the moment since it was the last one I dug out after looking through several boxes.)
This quote jumped out at me, as I had asked him to describe the philosophy that guided him which he hoped would remain once he was no longer in physical form.
“The journey is one of merging back into God. We are spirit, dancing in form. I am awakening more and more to that realization and as I do, it becomes such a playful dance.”
In this 2002 (that was re-printed in 2012) interview after his stroke in 1997, we dialogued on the subject of death.
What do you think happens when we die?
“Our souls will be detached from this incarnation, this ego, and this personality. It will take as long as it takes before another incarnation.”
I think that when we die, that is where we go. (all over the everywhere, as I call it) There’s no definition between here and there and between different people. Yes, we incarnate as individuals but we’re all One- interconnected.
That’s a sticky wicket because I was brought up in the ’60s as a Buddhist. Each one of us goes to the One. I’ve sat with an awful lot of dying people. That model doesn’t prove compassionate enough because their dying is a big deal. Their losing their individuality is a bigger deal. They don’t want that image of death. I’ve been thinking in soul terms which as the Buddha said, he didn’t want individuality eternally.”
When I brought this appointment book home to begin 2019, I laughed at the wry humor of it. Being here now. Moment to moment living even as I plan for the future. Little did I know that the man whose classic book by the same name wouldn’t live to see the ending of the year. Last night I learned, that Ram Dass passed into his new life. A man of contrasts. A full out human being who became aware that he was a soul, as he told me in each of three interviews we did in 30-some years. He touched so many lives. On Saturday night, I was speaking with my friend Harry about his encounter with Ram Dass when he was in training on Maui to become a death doula. I asked how his health was. Harry shook his head as if to say, not good. I wonder if Ram Dass knew his name was in the air. Now it will be whispered in the wind. May your soul soar, beloved teacher for so many.
Last year, I penned this article for The Good Men Project called A Good Mensch in celebration of his 87th birthday.
Photos courtesy of the author/Ram Dass