Dosing the divine 

From acid to avatars with Ram Dass

click to flip through (4) STORY BY TOBIAS C. VAN VEEN. PHOTOS BY PERRY JULIEN / JULIENPHOTOGRAPHY.COM
     

Yoga Isn't Just a Spandex Sport

Most of us Westerners think that yoga is a bendy-stretchy thing you do to keep your riding muscles from seizing up like a coiled spring. But yoga in its full meaning is a spiritual practice that can take many shapes and forms: not just the asanas, or aching positions we know so well and love—and love to hate—but a means of living the good life. Next time you dig deep into an asana, keep in mind that it's designed to trip you out—a pathway to samadhi, or the experience of ecstatic consciousness. In its very essence, yoga is a way of being in the world that encounters the divine, and that ultimately prepares you for the greatest transformation of all—death.

More common in the West are the physical forms of hatha and ashtanga yoga, with some yoga centres emphasizing their meditative, ethical and spiritual sides, while others merely capitalize on their tummy-toning effects. But in Hinduism, there are several types: karma yoga, or the yoga of unselfish action; jnana yoga, or the path of self-realization through knowledge; and bhakti yoga, or the path of loving devotion.

This morning, I was doing the bendy type, even as I was here on Maui to experience the path of bhakti, in all of its forms—meditation, chanting, singing (kirtan), and loving devotion to the avatars of the divine. Having reached the fourth decade of my gross body's existence—that's compared to the subtle body, folks—I had flown to Maui to immerse myself in "Open Your Heart in Paradise," a retreat with none other than Ram Dass, the '60s psychologist whose research into psychedelics led him to spiritual praxis. My intentions were mixed—partly, I wanted to meet a figure whose influence has hit me in both head and heart; partly, I also wanted to see if bhakti had what I was looking for, even though I really had no idea what, exactly, I was seeking. Such is the formless intention of the spirit. Either way, I was in Maui.

Early in the morning (well for me, anyway), about 100 of us were going through sunrise salutations, as our radiant instructor Saraswati Markus encouraged us on. I worked on my tight tendons, wondering what past-life misadventure had left me with the karma of inflexibility. But my body eventually gave way, not just to the lunging warrior in me, but to the overall atmosphere. Three days of meditation, dharma talks, nightly kirtan and warm ocean swims had begun to suffuse my soul like a slow-steeped tea. I was sleeping only six hours a night, yet I felt fantastic—in fact, I felt high all the time.

Perhaps someone put something in the chai, I scrawl in my journal.

My mind considers other possibilities: perhaps there is something in the oceanside Qi'Gong, as we wave our arms about, mimicking the swaying palm fronds. And of course there is, just as there is something in the dharma talks from the founding figures of meditation and Buddhist practice in the West: Jack Kornfeld and Trudy Goodman, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. And indeed there is something at the retreat that I rarely encountered in some 10 years of grad school: wisdom. I am ingesting more wisdom than I can handle—not knowledge per se, but in its Greek philosophical sense, sophia as lived praxis, from those who have lived a life or two and can communicate it with the heart, not just intellect. Krishna Das, as I note in my journal, is exceptional in this respect: He has learned to live with faith the hard way after falling into a long, down-and-out depression when his guru died and "left the body." His Long Island demeanour slices right through the bullshit. For Krishna Das, kirtan music is his practice and his life; it is what keeps his heart alive.

Whatever that something is, it is reflected in the old tripster's adage: set and setting. Set your intentions, create the setting, and the trip will—with some luck—unfold into realms of revelation. "Set and setting," of course, come from Ram Dass, in his previous incarnation as Dr. Richard Alpert, coined with Harvard research colleague Dr. Timothy Leary. As for setting my intentions—I find myself torn between the soft ocean swells and the jam-packed devotional schedule, which is to say, between experiencing the sublime aspects of nature, and the need for a community of spiritual seekers. As for setting—the lush tropics of the Napili Kai Resort is at times supernaturally serene, and it amplifies an emerging sense that we're all in this crazy-making timelessness together.

Emotions and energies sweep through the assembly like electric currents, I write.

Going to See the Acid Guru

It is hot and humid under the giant tent, and I am crouched up close under the low-riser stage. Right before me is Ram Dass, and the batteries in his wireless mic have died.

The audience of some 300 holds steady in near silence as Ram Dass—a non-trivial icon of spiritual psychedelia dating back to the '60s; today a beacon for karma yoga and Bhakti devotional love—tries to make himself heard. All of us wait with bated breath. I glance around at the audience, held steady in the moment. Some of us are seated cross-legged under the giant tent, others in chairs, as Hawaiian birds chirp their signature kook kook a loo, and the surf, a few hundred yards away, crashes on the shore. I am surrounded by some four generations of spiritual seekers—some are well-travelled yogis and Hindu devotees, others are true relics of the hippie movement; but as we later find out with a massive show of hands from the attendees, the majority of us are newcomers to the retreat and to seeing Ram Dass in the flesh, a fact that seems to surprise organizer and podcaster Raghu Markus. The word, it seems, is growing.

In this motley crew I discover a handful of psychedelic anarchists and nomadic Sufis, many of us ex-ravers from the '90s. We discover our rhythms during the spinning nights of kirtan music, and in Ram Dass' words, form something of a soul pod. I make friends with initiated elders, aging flower children, two electronic music producers and an ex-Marine. In a word, I had finally dived into what I had previously only heard the meaning of, but not felt in its fullness: satsang, or the spiritual community.

Waiting for Ram Dass' mic to work, I return to my journal.

But why am I really here? Probably because of a feeling that more than a few of us Whistler weirdos might well understand: having felt the magnetic pull of a universe far more alive and defiantly stranger than commodity culture, institutional religion or dried-out atheism will allow me to admit, I have begun a wandering, itinerant and entirely unfaithful devotion to the irreducible nature of inexplicable experience. This desire to seek out the many faces of the divine is perhaps less rare than we think—it's just that, in a place like Whistler, we rarely talk about it. But it's here, on our cultural fringes, and it's also a key part of why this increasingly commercialized, oversold-out town exists, at least in its Western incarnation—it was founded by acid drop-outs, fishing folk and ski bums who sought to touch that great, vast spirit of the mountains, trees, and lakes.

Subtle moments of the sublime in the backcountry—that sacred feeling that sends shivers as you traverse a glacier. It's not just all adrenaline, there's something else shaking in this valley. But where does one go with it, if not seeking the path of organized religion?

Getting Dosed with the Divine

I glance up from my journal. We listen quietly to the symphony of crashing surf and tropical sing-song as precisely nothing happens. The mic is still dead. Entirely content in this moment—beings of warm liquid, I scrawl—we slowly melt into island time, as we wait to receive darshan (blessings of the guru) from the acid master.

Ram Dass, some 87 years young, glances up from his wheelchair. Always one to play on the moment, he calls out into the microphone. There is no response. There is nothing to do. Just the moment itself. And so he drops his head, and plays dead.

Seated up front, a few of us become aware of the puppet show Ram Dass is putting on. Ram Dass stays perfectly immobile, eyes downcast, mouth ajar, head to the side, with one hand still a quarter raised, as if he's stopped speaking mid-sentence. Playing the irony of his condition to the hilt—his very role, up onstage, as the awakened guru—by all accounts he appears as if his batteries have gone dead.

And by now, we're beginning to lose it. Those at the back, some 300 under the circus tent, have no idea what is going on. It's classic R.D., ever the trickster.

But it's also deadly serious. Ram Dass is mirroring the fact that he still suffers from the effects of a severe stroke in 1997 that left him with expressive aphasia, inhibiting his ability to speak and leaving half of his body paralyzed. But rather than let the stroke define him, he now seems to be play-acting its effects, as if Ram Dass himself, like an android from a Philip K. Dick novel, is just another replicant of the real thing.

As we like to say in academia, it's a teachable moment. Indeed, this is how guru works—by showing you what you need, rather than what you want—and it's not the guru, it's guru, as a principle of the avatar, or manifestation of the divine. And here I am, looking at guru Ram Dass, who knows he is not guru, not a realized being (yet?), but a copy of his guru, Maharaj-ji, who is already dead. And here Ram Dass is playing fake-dead. Embrace the simulacra, he seems to be saying. It's all Maya, illusion, a meat-puppet show anyway. This minor revelation hits me right between the eyes.

Ram Dass is playing fake dead. In Philip K. Dick's terms, he's a fake fake.

The Cosmic Evolution of One Dr. Richard Alpert

There is a magical quality to Ram Dass' New York City lectures of 1969 that form the core of his bestselling manual for the cosmic counterculture, Be Here Now. GQ editor Will Welch describes becoming obsessed with him in his infamous piece, "The Unified Theory of Ram Dass" (which is a recommended accompaniment to this article). It is in part because of these talks, now available for all on the Ram Dass podcast (now up to 139!), that I am here, a few feet from the man who was once fired from Harvard in 1963 for exploring the healing properties, therapeutic benefits and religious potentials of substances that no one could quite comprehend. He was then known as Dr. Richard Alpert, Harvard professor of psychology. Witty, intellectual, talented beyond belief—he also played cello and piloted his own plane—and a bisexual man to boot, he was also decades ahead of his time.

It's funny how failure works. Being axed from an Ivy League institution instantly elevated Alpert and Leary into countercultural icons of the psychedelic '60s. After Harvard, the two continued to explore the potentials of psilocybin and LSD at a mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., publishing the journal Psychedelic Review as well as the infamous (and useful) book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964). But by 1966, the two parted ways, with Leary fighting multiple marijuana possession charges that eventually landed him in prison in 1970 (and breaking out—an epic saga involving the Weathermen, the Black Panther government-in-exile in Algeria, and an aborted campaign to run for Governor of California, with the "Come Together" theme song written by John Lennon). In 1974, Ram Dass and Leary fell out when Ram Dass took part in a press conference condemning Leary for leaking information to the FBI as part of a plea deal—claims that were later proven to be incorrect—and the two eventually reconciled in the 1980s. But as Tim began his decades-long battle with the State, Ram Dass journeyed to India. The end result of that pivotal trip in 1967 was nothing less than a total transformation of identity: he left Richard Alpert behind and returned as Ram Dass, an adherent of Bhakti love and devotional practice thanks to a little known Indian mystic known as Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately known as Maharaj-ji. It is Maharaj-ji who gave Ram Dass his name, which means "Servant of God," in the Hindu tradition of Hanuman, the monkey-king who serves Ram, one of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu.

Mindfulness is touted by Silicon-Valley big business today—and is becoming just as much a big business—not the least because it influenced its legendary figures: Steve Jobs went to visit Maharaj-ji after reading Be Here Now, though he arrived a few months too late, after his death in 1973. Mark Zuckerberg went at the suggestion of Jobs, while Larry Page and Jeffrey Skroll of eBay also undertook a pilgrimage to the ashram at Kainchi. If I were to summarise my point here, it would have to take on a gravitational metaphor. With Neem Karoli Baba, we're dealing with a kind of singularity, and Ram Dass has been orbiting the event horizon for some time.

It is the cosmic arc of Ram Dass' life that has always interested me: from the heights of the ivory tower to sleeping outside of Indian bazaars, from acid guru to wandering the U.S. in a hippie bus, from Freudian psychology to Hindu mysticism. I've always felt some affinity, even though our lives are complete opposites: Ram Dass was kicked out of the academy, while I struggle against precarity to get into it; Ram Dass discovered psychedelics as a professor, while I raved away my neurons; yet both of us, it seems, only turned to spiritual practice after exhausting all available options.

Then there's Ram Dass' moment of spiritual conversion in India, where his mind cracked and he gave up on the Western paradigms of materialism (or at least, in any reductive sense). It's still crazy to think that a simple man in a blanket, laughing, chuckling, and telling stories, operating with little fanfare, no glitz—and no guru scam to speak of—blew the analytical and critical mind of Dr. Alpert, a man thoroughly enraptured, at that point, with his own ultra-egoic "movie of me," to use Krishna Das' phrase. It's this intensity of experiencing an event—nay, a faith in experiencing the inexplicable, a rupture in the timeline, something that flips the script entirely—that has me thinking there's something here to grab onto.

From Psychedelics to Spirit

After Leary introduced Ram Dass to psilocybin, he really only one had research question: what is consciousness?

The question of consciousness—that infamous yet bungled meaning of life, the universe, and everything, to paraphrase Douglas Adams—led Leary and Alpert to establish a number of experiments that, to this day, have set the standard for exploring the therapeutic potentials of psychedelics. The word psychedelic itself comes from the Greek psyche and delios, meaning "mind manifesting." That said, psyche ought to be taken not in a narrow, dualistic sense as the postulations of the ego, but as that ineffable, unlocatable stuff of awareness that remains when the ego is all said and done. And whether such chemical agents, synthetic or organic, manifest only a recursive hallucination of the mind speaking to itself, or reveal all that which escapes the organizing principles and filters of mind—in Aldous Huxley's word, opening the "doors of perception" to the worlding of time/space as such—remains entirely unresolved in today's research. The answer, undoubtedly, is a little bit of both. Alpert and Leary's framing of set and setting reveals how psychedelics both amplify existing expectations of the user while, at the same time, offering the potential to open consciousness to unthought visionary experiences.

As Magdalena Bokowa discusses in "The Second Wave," her Pique feature from November 2018, psychedelics offer incredible potential to cure (and not just treat the symptoms of) depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other "psychological" problems that standard science so often only attempts to treat with opiates. Above all, psychedelics, as they implode the boundaries of the ego, lead one to confront a fear of death. Our world of instant gratification so fears death that it remains uncomfortably stuffed into the hierarchy of social and familial separation that defines Western culture.

One experiment in particular from this era stands out for its audacity, but also authenticity—the 1962 "Good Friday Experiment" conducted with graduate student Walter Pahnke and the Harvard Divinity School. The first controlled, double-blind study of drugs and the mystical experience, it led many theology students to report that they had directly apprehended the beauty of the divine. I can only imagine what my own early experiences with Presbyterian service might have been, had the hard pews, comatose hymns and snoring sermons been replaced with a coming-of-age ritual in which the divine was actually manifested—but then, that was the point of rave culture.

The question of consciousness, for Alpert, went far beyond psychedelics, which is where he parted ways with Leary. Alpert began searching for ways to get into divine states of consciousness and not come down. He wanted to go beyond what the ingestion of an all-too temporary entheogen—entheos genesis, or re-creating the divine within—could provide.

A pivotal event led to this moment, namely his first unforgettable trip with Leary that Ram Dass narrates in some detail in Be Here Now. Upon taking this particular dose of psilocybin—a synthetic of the mushroom legally manufactured at the time by pharmaceutical company Sandoz—all vestiges of his social, personal, psychological and cultural identity were stripped away, until he was left entirely void. He saw himself, disassociated, as a separate figure, dismantled, piece by piece. And then, just when there was nothing left of his identity, his body disappeared, too. A sense of horror set in. There was nothing left, he says, but the awareness of nothingness itself. It sounds like a magnificent acid trip straight out of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a true fake death experience, which is to say, an encounter with the Kantian sublime, as full of wonder as horror.

"I felt that I must be dying," reflects Ram Dass, "since there was nothing in my universe that led me to believe in life after leaving the body." But die he did not, which led to a profound realization, that he was still aware: "this aware 'I' was watching the entire drama, including the panic, with calm compassion." What was this, this thisness of consciousness after the death of the ego and the body, and why was this thisness calm, and compassionate, to the death of his own ego?

After this trip—and hundreds of others, with increasingly higher doses of LSD and other psychedelics—Alpert began to seek answers to the metaphysical questions of life and death that Western science had disbarred him from even asking. During his journey to India in 1967, he visited temples and sadhus, religious ascetics of Hinduism and Jainism, and studied Eastern traditions and Buddhist meditation. The journey itself is worth listening to—for after many adventures and hardships, he finally surrendered to a young surfer from Long Beach, known as Bhagwan Dass. And it was Bhagwan Dass who would say to Alpert, when anxiety set in: "Just be here now, man." Alpert, by then a balding and barefoot pilgrim sleeping outdoors and begging for food, was learning to let go. It was Bhagwan Dass who led Alpert into the foothills of the Himalayas to meet his guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

From Dosing Acid to Divine Avatars

Wrapped in a blanket, Neem Karoli Baba—often called Maharaj-ji, an affectionate term—was a peripatetic man of poverty. Named after the small village of Neeb Karori, he exhibited few of the outward markings of a sadhu. He wore no holy robes, and his head, far from being adorned in matted locks, was mostly shaven. He had no money, and clothes aside, for most of his life he only owned a broken pot shard from which he gathered rainwater to drink. He often disappeared into the forest without warning, sleeping in culverts and caves. His devotees were only just beginning to build temples to house him—as ashrams to Hanuman, the Hindu god of devotional love and service—when Alpert arrived. In short, he was but a minor (though curiously influential) figure compared to the grand gurus who had already attracted the attention of the West, such as the Beatles' pilgrimage to Maharashi Mahesh Yogi.

Yet, despite the low-key nature of outward appearances, and despite a personality that sought to dethrone Alpert's assumptions of what a "holy man" should be, within a few minutes of their meeting, Maharaj-ji had completely shattered Alpert's logical apprehension of the world. He did so by speaking to him of what only Alpert could know: intimate details of the death of his mother. Alpert's mind was blown this time by spirit, not psychedelics. But he still wanted to see what would happen when the two would mix. Within a few days of meeting, Alpert gave Maharaj-ji some 900 micrograms of potent Owsley LSD. Much to his surprise, the exceedingly high dose seemed to produce no reaction. During a second visit to India, Maharaj-ji took 1,200 micrograms, to which he said of the "yogi medicine:" "To take (LSD) with no effect, your mind must be firmly fixed on God."

Alpert was floored. Surrendering what he thought were the vestiges of his Jewish sense of self, he entered into devotional bhakti practice, expecting to become a Hindu devotee. Instead, he learned from Maharaj-ji that all paths to the divine are one—in Hindi, Sub Ek!—from Krishna to Christ. And though instructed by Maharaj-ji not to say a word upon returning to America, all Ram Dass could do was speak of what he had seen. Of a different path. Of a way to expand consciousness through sadhana. Of a way not to come down. Of something other than psychedelic substances—something ineffable, of spirit.

Cosmic Meat Puppets

I ponder all this—life, the universe, and everything, as Monty Python would have it—as I sit at Ram Dass' feet, just as he once sat at the feet of Maharaj-ji. Where do such mystical experiences fit into the 21st century, I wonder? Have we lost all that is holy? How can I express that spirit often felt deep in the abode of the mountains, in the silence of glaciers punctuated only by the cries of the raven—while still being critical of those who would manipulate such siddhis for power and fame?

While words sometimes fail him, Ram Dass' facial expressions often speak all that need be said, and this moment—always in this moment, for Ram Dass, this moment when time becomes elastic, a thing to be felt, to sink into—is no exception.

As his microphone is fiddled with, Ram Dass continues to droop his head, his eyes going blank. Those of us in front continue to chuckle as he holds the moment: he has become a broken robot, a marionette without strings. As a symbolic gesture, it could not be more clear: he is but a puppet of his guru.

But then the batteries are restored. Ram Dass raises his head and good left arm in greeting, the robot restored to life. The entire room erupts in laughter. Once an academic jester, now a seasoned spiritual prankster, a single glance from Ram Dass sinks into my consciousness like a depth charge of the cosmos.

We are but cosmic meat puppets ... charged with electric spirit.

For more on Ram Dass and the Love Serve Remember Foundation retreats and podcasts, visit ramdass.org and beherenownetwork.com.

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