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A Trailblazer of Global Consciousness: Ram Dass Led the Way

Richard Alpert became a bridge between Harvard Yard and the Himalayas.

Ram Dass Foundation
Ram Dass
Source: Ram Dass Foundation

When as an undergraduate student in psychology and a ‘fresh-of-the-boat’ immigrant from India in early 1970s I read Be Here Now, I was gripped by the simplicity and profundity of the author’s voice.[1] His thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images and memories seemed old yet new, a Harvard psychologist who had “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” to follow an Indian guru in the Himalayas, namely Neem Karoli Baba (Wow!).

Dr. Richard Alpert changed his name, garb and philosophy, and started to preach a yogic way of life. Thus, Baba Ram Dass was born to an American or Western audience.

Little did I know that I would learn about him, again and again, along the path.

Ram Dass Foundation
Be Here Now
Source: Ram Dass Foundation

Growing up in India, we used to hear of such stories often, and still do, with a sort-of cautionary tale. So and so dropped out of school. Or ran away from home to the Himalayas, or to become a yogi or a renunciate and started following a saffron robed guru, but to learn this in the US was indeed a rarity. May be it is not rare anymore?

Then, as a graduate student I learned Ram Dass was in the same department as Prof. David McClelland, who knew him well and was his mentor. I was intrigued even further. When I met Prof. McClelland briefly in William James Hall, I asked him about Dr. Alpert. David McClelland was rather circumspect, he had conducted his own research in India on business entrepreneurship, which we discussed at length.

The Ram Dass foundations’ website connects the history going all the way back to the transcendentalist philosopher Emerson, “He met Timothy Leary through David McClelland, who headed the Center for Research in Personality at the Social Relations Department at Harvard, where Alpert and Leary both did research. Together they began the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which included the “Good Friday Experiment”, assessing the effect of psilocybin on spiritual experience, and later founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) to study the religious use of psychedelic drugs.

As a psychologist, Richard Alpert played a pivotal role in the psychedelic movement of the sixties, lecturing on psychedelics at numerous college campuses across the country. A generation “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” with psychedelics, providing the inner fuel for a turbulent era of social change, sexual liberation, and political unrest. In 1963, as psychedelics began to have a major influence on the culture, Alpert gained the distinction of being the first professor fired from Harvard in the 20th century. His predecessor in the previous century was Ralph Waldo Emerson.”[2]

Thus, Ram Dass, who passed away last week, will continue to stand out as a trailblazer at the intersection of East-West philosophy, who explored the depths of the spiritual inner world, nearing the end of the twentieth century, when hyper-capitalism, militarism, and global inequality gripped our planet.

I reached out to my dear friend, colleague and tribal elder in this field, Phil Goldberg, who has written extensively about the exchange between East and West and the perennial dialogue. Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than 50 years, as a practitioner, teacher, and writer. He is the author of numerous books, including Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path, the award-winning American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, and The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. His latest book, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times: Powerful Tools to Cultivate Calm, Clarity, and Courage will be published next August. A spiritual counselor, meditation teacher, and Interfaith Minister, he is a popular public speaker, leader of American Veda Tours, and cohost of the Spirit Matters podcast.[3]

Phil Goldberg
American Veda
Source: Phil Goldberg

DS: In your book American Veda[4], you juxtapose Ram Dass with Deepak Chopra. How does he belong in the same chapter with Deepak Chopra? Dr. Chopra was a great popularizer of yoga, TM, Ayurveda through the 1980s and ‘90s. Ram Dass was truly an experimenter with LSD and other mind-altering substances in the 1960s, pushing the boundaries of American or Western consciousness?

Goldberg: In American Veda I chronicled the major figures who propagated Indian spiritual teachings in the West. In that context, Ram Dass and Deepak Chopra were prominent acharyas, i.e. teachers. They both articulated core teachings of Yoga and Vedanta in ways that appealed to Americans and they reached huge numbers of people. It’s true that Ram Dass became famous, or infamous, as a psychedelic researcher and proponent, but that was when he was Dr. Richard Alpert. In the 50 years after he went to India, found his guru, and returned as Ram Dass, he was a principle transmitter of Indian philosophy and yogic practices.

DS: You say in the book he was a perfect crossover between East-West, part Harvard Yard, part Himalayas? Please elaborate.

Goldberg: There are many reasons Ram Dass was able to reach enormous numbers of people. He was smart, funny, authentic, hip, and at the same time older than his main audience of countercultural baby boomers. But he also had great credibility. As a Harvard psychologist, he had scientific and intellectual credentials (and as a former Harvard professor he had the added credentials of being anti-establishment). In addition, he had been to India and spent a long period of time with an authentic guru.

Most young seekers in that era (late ‘60s into the ‘70s) had only dreamt of that. We should note that he was not the only influencer with that kind of East-West credibility. Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and others were similarly influential. But Ram Dass took it to another level. He didn’t just lecture and write books; he also led satsangs (spiritual gatherings) and pilgrimages, and he functioned in a guru-like capacity, only without the guru trappings and formal discipleship.

DS: What do you think was pushing him to take these risks with his mind, body and spirit? Psychologically and culturally, he came from a very well to do home and family; his father was a founder of Brandeis University, as he said, he was "spit and polish" son of a corporate executive?

Goldberg: By risks you refer to the drug-taking period, I assume. He was a natural seeker of truth in an era when social constraints were being questioned and, in certain circles, abandoned. As a research psychologist he was curious about the nature of the mind and consciousness. It’s not hard to imagine him being curious enough about Timothy Leary’s description of his own psychedelic experiences to want to experiment on himself. To me, a turning point in the story comes when Leary continues advocating his “turn on, tune in, drop out” message and Alpert becomes Ram Dass and takes the tack that runs through Vedanta and Yoga more than LSD.

DS: Within the history of the East-West exchange, where would you place Ram Dass? His foundations will continue of course, but how will future aspirants memorialize him?

Goldberg: He is unquestionably a major figure in the importation of Eastern spiritual wisdom to the West and the subsequent foothold it has established in the culture, affecting everything from psychology to medicine to religion to individual spirituality. There are now thousands of Americans who teach practices like meditation and physical yoga, or incorporate Eastern ideas into their scholarly work, scientific research, or healthcare practices. Ram Dass was a forerunner of all this. In many ways he set the template for the Western interpreter, adapter, and disseminator.

As for the future, I’m reluctant to make predictions, but if history is fair he will be recognized for the vital role he played in changing the world-views and lifestyles of perhaps millions of people, and for helping to usher in a genuine revolution in how we understand and engage the spiritual dimension of life. I’m sure his books, videos, and audio recordings will have a long life, and those who loved him will make sure he is properly appreciated.

DS: You said in a recent interview, the lineage of his guru Neem Karoli Baba has had a significant impact on the American culture if we trace it to the tech sector, for example, Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg, and others. Please elaborate.

Goldberg: I don’t know anything about Zuckerberg’s spiritual inclinations or connection to Neem Karoli Baba. As a young seeker in the 1970s, Steve Jobs was influenced by Ram Dass and went to India. Neem Karoli passed before Jobs got to his ashram, however, but India had an impact on Jobs and he was deeply affected by Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.

 Phil Goldberg
Phil Goldberg
Source: Phil Goldberg

That said, Neem Karoli Baba had a direct influence on a number of people who, in turn, went on to be leading figures in the East-West integration. Most of them were first influenced by Ram Dass as youngsters and followed him to India and Neem Karoli. They include the kirtan wallahs Krishna Das and Jai Uttal; Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield, Lama Surya Das, and Susan Salzberg; author/psychologist Daniel Goleman; physician/public health leader Larry Brilliant; Mirabai Bush of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and others. In addition, a generation of young devotees who never met Neem Karoli hold him as a guru figure, due largely to the extended influence of Ram Dass and others.

DS: The work on psychedelics is continuing into FDA clinical trials for PTSD and other disorders. Clearly, this is partly due to Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary's work?

Goldberg: On the one hand, yes. Alpert and Leary were trailblazers in research on psychedelics, but they were hardly alone. Stanislov Grof, Oscar Janiger, and others were doing responsible research at the same time, and in some cases before Alpert and Leary. It could be argued, and many have made this case, that the public antics of the Harvard guys – especially Leary with his “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra – was responsible for the long curtailment of research. Government authorities panicked over the counterculture explosion of LSD usage, with the bad trips, the contaminated street drugs, and the whole hippie culture.

I don’t know the extent to which Ram Dass was involved in the efforts to gain approval for the wave of research that is now underway, but it took a long time for scientists to get that ball rolling again.

DS: In mainstream psychology is there a direct linkage between Ram Dass and the work on emotional intelligence by Goleman and others?

Goldberg: Yes, you might say there is a direct linkage between Ram Dass as one of the leading figures in the development and maturation of humanistic psychology and transpersonal or positive psychology back in the 60s and 70s. May be there is also a connection with Goleman and EQ? The psychologist, Daniel Goleman, was influenced by Neem Karoli Baba.