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Ram Dass, Spiritual Teacher And Psychedelics Pioneer, Dies At 88

Dec 23, 2019
Originally published on December 23, 2019 5:54 pm

The spiritual leader and author Ram Dass has died at the age of 88. He was an icon of the psychedelic drug movement of the '60s and '70s, as well as a champion of a mindful philosophy.

According to his official Instagram account, he died Sunday at his home in Maui.

Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert to a Jewish family in Boston. His landmark 1971 book, Be Here Now, opens with his origin story: He was a successful, if anxious, professor in Harvard's psychology department. Feeling a certain malaise about his middle-class existence, he began experimenting with psychedelic drugs with his colleague Timothy Leary.

"A deep calm pervaded my being," Ram Dass wrote. "Then I saw a figure standing about 8 feet away, where a moment before there had been none. I peered into the semi-darkness and recognized none other than myself, in cap and gown and hood, as a professor. It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated itself from me."

He and Leary started studying LSD and its effects — research that garnered them a reputation and a large following. It also led to them getting fired.

Alpert and Leary continued their research at a mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., where the two solidified themselves as counterculture icons until the pair had a falling out.

Ram Dass smiles during an interview at his San Anselmo, Calif., home in 1998.
Susan Ragan / AP

Alpert then traveled to India in 1967 and met a Hindu mystic named Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him the name Ram Dass — meaning "servant of God."

Ram Dass returned to the United States dressed in white robes and sporting a long beard. He toured the country lecturing about mindfulness and spirituality. He wrote books that helped popularize New Age thinking. He also started foundations and charities that helped incarcerated people, blind people and, especially, the dying. He helped create The Living/Dying Project, which was devoted to helping people die consciously.

As his stature grew, he became increasingly uncomfortable as the object of a cult of personality. He told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1990 that his aesthetics — the beard and beads and robes — made it difficult for people to connect to him. So he ditched them.

YouTube

"It turns off a lot of people that could be people with whom I could share a shared awareness or awakening, or our social concerns or our ecological concerns," Ram Dass said. "I think it also made people put you into a category immediately which then they had a set of responses or reaction to your category. And I think being more ambiguous is more interesting in terms of giving people a chance."

In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Speaking became difficult for him. In the 2018 Netflix documentary Ram Dass, Going Home, he detailed learning how to become dependent on others.

Ram Dass continued teaching throughout his life, inviting people to Maui to hear him speak and promoting his message of unconditional love online through podcasts and YouTube videos.

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Spiritual leader and author Ram Dass has died. He was an icon of the '60s counterculture movement for his research of psychedelics. Then he became a teacher, spreading a message of mindfulness and unconditional love. He died Sunday in his home in Maui at 88 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Ram Dass' spiritual teachings talked people through big concepts.

DALE BORGLUM: Love everybody, serve everybody, and remember God.

LIMBONG: That's Dale Borglum, the director of the Living/Dying Project, a nonprofit he started with Ram Dass that offers spiritual support for people who are dying.

BORGLUM: He had this remarkable ability to take these complicated teachings from the East and explain them in ways that westerners could fully understand and incorporate into their lives.

LIMBONG: Ram Dass liked to use himself as an example. He was born in 1931 and gave this lecture in California about the body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAM DASS: All your thoughts, your body - this is a 1931 model that is decaying in a perfectly lawful and orderly fashion.

LIMBONG: He talks about thinking about yourself beyond your physical form.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASS: And you feel yourself caught in stuff that's just happening to you. You didn't ask for it. If you think, you are the form.

LIMBONG: When Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, was a professor in Harvard's psychology department, he was successful. He'd earned an upper-middle-class living with all the stuff that comes with it but felt a certain malaise, a certain anxiety. One day, he experimented with psychedelic drugs, and he saw himself as separate from his body. He writes in his popular 1971 book "Be Here Now," quote, "I felt a new kind of calmness, one of a profundity never experienced before." In 1960, he got together with colleague Timothy Leary and began researching psychedelic drugs and their effects. He told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1990 about how crucial the surroundings and conditions were.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DASS: And then we began to see how set and setting were so important, that a person could have them and have a religious experience. They could use them to escape. They could use them for creative work. They could use them for therapeutic change.

LIMBONG: The two were fired in 1963 for giving drugs to students, but they continued their research in a mansion in upstate New York, drawing a crowd. Alpert eventually burnt out of the psychedelic drug scene, and there was a falling out with Leary, so he took a trip to India in 1967. There, he learned about yoga and meditation and found his guru, whom he called Maharajji, who gave Alpert the name Ram Dass, meaning servant of God. Ram Dass came back to the United States and began teaching. At first, he wore white robes and sported a long beard, but he eventually abandoned the look. He started groups like the Living/Dying Project and the Prison Ashram Project, which connected volunteers and incarcerated people, and the Seva Foundation, which focused on public health in developing nations, as a way of expressing his spirituality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DASS: I think I wanted to renounce my lack of compassion for the have-nots that came out of my middle-class fears. I didn't grow up in a family that had great social concerns. I mean, we were charitable, but we weren't really caring in that way.

LIMBONG: In 1997, he suffered a stroke that made moving and speaking difficult for him. He had to learn to depend on people. He invited people to come to his home in Maui. He started using the internet, guiding meditations on YouTube, posting lectures on his podcasts. He was uncomfortable with his status as an icon. He was, after all, just a mere mortal. But for his followers and friends, he was a conduit for something bigger than mortality. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.