A journey from Harvard Psychologist to Psychonaut to Spiritual Guru.
How can a human being find lasting contentedness? We climb mountains, we win friends and prestige, we employ vices, we obtain in material things, we push ourselves to and past the point of physical and psychological comfort in various pursuits, we look for true love. Why do we do this… are we driven by ego? When the ego gets what it wants, is it satisfied or does it just simply shift it’s hunger toward something new?
Richard Alpert (given name at birth) aka Ram Dass (spiritual name given by an Indian guru) lived these questions to the extreme. After achieving academic and professional success as a psychologist at Stanford and Harvard (1958), and feeling deeply unsatisfied, he (in collaboration with Tim Leary) started regularly tripping on LSD and mushrooms and essentially left all that accomplishment behind (1963-1967). As far as he was concerned, psychedelics were a tool to access something important. Call it heaven, call it the eternal beyond, call it the place of enlightenment and total loss of ego. Whatever you want to call it, Richard was a frequent visitor and wanted to stay forever, even if that meant dismissal from Harvard. Unfortunately he found that no matter what he did, no matter how big his dose was, no matter how many consecutive days he tripped, no matter his set and setting, he always came crashing down to earth and lost the feeling of bliss. Psychedelic drugs were his rocket ship to the profound, but the rocket always ran out of fuel. Discouraged, in 1967 he traveled to India and met a guru, Maharaji, who showed him the path to eternal bliss was not drugs, but rather to “love everyone, feed people”. This transformed Richard Alpert into Ram Dass, who for the remainder of his life devoted himself to teaching nonattachment and kindness until his death in 2019.
I am stuck on his report of his guru reading his mind upon first meeting, and apparently others are too. (here and here). Make of this what you will. Whether or not this happened, I feel other aspects of Ram Dass and the story of his life are worth deep consideration.
What he can teach us
At some point in our lives, it seems inevitable to reach an inflection point and wonder: what am I doing, what’s it all about? Although Ram Dass may not have answered this exactly for us, we can take comfort in his bravely and openly confronting the question and subsequent quest to find out. It inspires us to welcome the question into our own lives. There is something divine in his recognition that all humans are really just bumbling their way through life and we should aim towards unconditional compassion for one another – that in the end, we are all just “walking each other home”. I love this man because I identify with his relentless search for meaning, his non attachment to the ego and desires, his rejection of traditional western success, his suggestion to be more present, and his warm heartedness toward humanity.
Finally and maybe most importantly – Ram Dass shows that while psychedelic drugs offer a glimpse at something profound, there is a limit to what they can offer, they are NOT a permanent means to enlightenment.
“These medicines will allow you to come and visit Christ, but you can only stay two hours. Then you have to leave again. This is not the true samadhi. It’s better to become Christ than to visit him – but even the visit of a saint for a moment is useful.” Then he added, “But love is the most powerful medicine.”– Ram Dass,
The Trap of Psychedelic Experience