Harvard-professors-turned-psychedelic-explorers Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary often interjected the virtues of human evolution and technological advancement into their lectures and writings on consciousness alteration. Now it is exactly that technology — Internet technology — that allows Alpert (now known as Ram Dass) to continue his teachings of heightened consciousness and spiritual enlightenment years after a stroke left him partially paralyzed and unable to endure the rigors of travel.
Ram Dass will headline Omfest, an event in Santa Monica, via live Internet feed from his home in Maui. Omfest, a mini-retreat and workshop based on the teachings of influential 20th century Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba is scheduled from 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday, October 28th, at the Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill St., Santa Monica.
Tickets are $54, and proceeds benefit the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram and Hanuman Temple in Taos, New Mexico, a facility dedicated to the guru whose message was, “love everyone — serve everyone — remember God.”
Ram Dass, along with Leary, is credited with introducing LSD and psilocybin into the consciousness of a generation of young Americans in the 1960s. After being dismissed from his post at Harvard once the research became too controversial and involved student participation, Alpert went on a quest for personal discovery, wound up in India, and was led to a reclusive guru whose teachings were to have a profound impact on the course of his thinking.
While in India in 1967, Ram Dass found himself embarked on a long, tedious journey with a 23-year-old stranger he says he initially distrusted, an American called Bhagavan Das, said to be the first Westerner to come in contact with the guru Neem Karoli Baba. (Bhagavan Das will appear in person at the upcoming Omfest). Ram Dass’s awe at his initial meeting with Neem Karoli Baba led him to stay there for an extended stretch of time, studying Raja yoga under the guidance of Hari Das Baba. Occasionally, he would be summoned by the guru.
According to Ram Dass, mystical and consciousness-changing experiences transpired in his communications with Neem Karoli Baba, whose teaching have impacted his ways of thinking ever since. Other Westerners who later located Neem Karoli Baba were turned away and dismissed, according to Ram Dass. It seemed that the guru did not intend his teachings to reach the Western world.
“I couldn’t tell what his intent was, ” says Ram Dass. “He asked me specifically, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about me.’ But that was too much too ask. I came back to America and lectured about him, though I wouldn’t say where he was. Some people figured it out through geographic hints, but I never told anyone. I thought it was more important to get his message out than to keep my experiences a secret. I’ll have that on my soul. “I had the time of my life when I was in India. Coming back and not telling people about it was not an option. ”
His book, Be Here Now, published in 1971, describes the experience with the guru, his transformation from Dr. Richard Alpert to Ram Dass, and much of what he took from it.
During his time studying in India, Ram Dass was taught in simple Zen-like metaphors, such as “snakes know heart” written on a chalkboard, which he was then left on his own to ponder and interpret.
“The temple had an awful lot of snakes,” says Ram Dass. “People felt that snakes were evil. ‘Snakes know heart’ means don’t run away, love them and they probably won’t hurt you. The metaphor is, when you approach a person with love, if you can love them, there is certainly a good chance it will keep them from biting you.”
He took from his experiences and studies an understanding of different cultural views of god and existence.
“Western thought is thing-oriented, Eastern thought is nothing-oriented,” says Ram Dass. “In the West, God is thought of as a person, God is personified; in the East, god is a consciousness, an awareness, a oneness.”
In his decades of bringing Eastern spiritual teachings and philosophy to the West, he has encountered much resistance and skepticism, not just from religious institutions with conservative Western Christian beliefs and interpretations, but even more so from intellectuals and the scientific establishment from which Ram Dass himself was rooted, he says.
“My peers in the field of traditional psychology and in scientific circles didn’t want to hear it,” says Ram Dass. “They didn’t believe in mysticism. The data was individual, it wasn’t behavioral. These were professors of motivational and cognitive psychology at Harvard. When I told them about the guru reading my mind, they thought I was na‘ve.
“As time went on, there developed much more of an easy relationship between the East and West with the popularity of yoga and meditation and what is called New Age, though I don’t like the title.
“I believe there has been a philosophical shift in the West.”
But most certainly not among the American political establishment, Ram Dass concedes.
“My guru told me, ‘Ram Dass, love everybody.’ Well, George W. Bush is in the category of everybody. And I thought, ‘How was I going to love George W. Bush?’ And what I realized is that I didn’t love his incarnation. I could love his soul and have compassion for his soul. But it’s such a lousy incarnation. The soul I love, egos I don’t love. ”
Ever ego-less, when prompted, Ram Dass referred to himself as a “second-rate yogi, ” preferring to pass credit on to others, which he often did to his charismatic and controversial colleague, Timothy Leary, during the time the two were in the national spotlight.
More than 40 years have passed since Ram Dass and Timothy Leary rose to national attention by promoting LSD and psilocybin as a tool in unlocking places of internal mysticism, reaching new and fresh levels of consciousness and heightened states of awareness. Ram Dass says he still believes in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” teachings that he and Leary professed, but that times have changed.
“Street acid is sometimes not so good,” he says. “My experience with LSD and psilocybin certainly led me to India, where I became one with my spiritual world. That was a result of my experience with psychedelics.
“That was me. I don’t know about now. Often people don’t use it with the goal of reaching that same internal view; rather they use it simply for external pleasure. I think they’ll still get something out of it but will miss the mark. It’s not clear to say.”
Now that Ram Dass is settled in Maui, the focus of his life journey has again shifted.
His response when asked what he’s currently working on may be right on par with the unorthodoxy of his past endeavors — “Dying, old age,” he replies. “We’re setting up a green cemetery here.”
His stroke forced him to think heavily about mortality. Both Timothy Leary and Ram Dass have explored viewing death as a positive part of life and have written and worked to promote a shift in the morbid and morose view of death that is the norm in most cultures.
“Any way I can help our culture view death in a more positive way really good,” he says, and he is currently writing a book called Joyous Aging.
“Our culture has a thing about youth,” he says. “My friend in India once came to me and said, ‘You’re looking much older.’ Now, in the West, wow, what a terrible thing to say to someone. But in the East, this was meant to be a compliment.”
Though he says the area has been ruined by tourists, Ram Dass finds joy in living in the midst of what is left of native Hawaiian culture and he lets the sublime scenery of the Pacific Ocean seep into his everyday awareness. “I’m looking out at the ocean. What a great neighbor. The ocean is ‘the one’. The waves are us. We come out of the one and go back into the one. The ocean is very healing.”
Information, (310) 399-1631 or www.sacredevent .org/.