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Ram Dass: Breaking On Through Again

Breaking On Through Again


Ram Dass wraps his
expanded mind around the
last of the truly taboo
subjects, death and dying

by Sarah Phelan

ON A MONDAY afternoon, I pick up the
phone feeling horribly nervous. In a
minute, I have an interview with Ram
Dassthe guy formerly known as Dr.
Richard Alpert before he, Timothy Leary
and other Harvard faculty experimented
with LSD and magic mushrooms and
were famously expelled from the
university. But while Timothy Leary
continued to tune in, turn on and drop
out, Alpert became a beloved spiritual
luminary who writes bestsellers.
I’ve spent the weekend reading two of
themBe Here Now, his 1971 classic
that documents the Ramster’s spiritual
unfolding, and Still Here, which he
completed after a disabling 1997 stroke.
All of which has made me horribly aware
that he talks from the heart about
matters of spirit, a subject about which I
know woefully little.
And yet when I actually speak to him, I
find myself quickly at ease. Perhaps it
has something to do with the slow and
sometimes halting voice in which he has
spoken since his stroke, but as I listen
to the silence between his words, I relax
and realize that what I really want to do
is trash all the questions I’ve prepared
and ask him about what’s most troubling
methe direction our world is headed,
post-Sept. 11--in the hope he’ll offer me
some useful advice. So, that’s what I do.
“I’m scared, too” replies RD, an answer I
find surprisingly comforting. “When I got
my stroke, I finally conquered my fear by
seeing it as fierce grace. Incredible
grace. So, I think of Sept. 11 as fierce
grace for humanity. It faced us with
death and seeing all the symbols that
we are powerful hit.”
He pauses, and I listen to his labored
breathing on the phone.
“I’ve been going around saying, ‘I didn’t
know Shiva had a pilot’s license,’ which
is pretty raw humor, I know,” he says,
finally. “But the questions we’ve been
asking since that time are the kind of
questions that try men’s souls and that’s
what’s so powerful about fierce grace.
All this fear we’re experiencing is people
inhabiting their egos, because egos fear
This Time, It’s Medical
Fierce Grace is also the name of Mickey
Lemle’s new Ram Dass documentary,
which premieres in Santa Cruz on Nov. 7,
as a benefit for the Wo/Men’s Alliance
for Medical Marijuana, a.k.a. WAMM.
Asked about the DEA’s September raid of
WAMM, Dass, who uses medical
marijuana to help deal with the effects
of his stroke, says, “I think the Santa
Cruz bust was the poster child for the
war against the war on drugs. Ethan
Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance
says Valerie Corral is the Mother Teresa
of the medical marijuana movement. My
purpose in coming to the Fierce Grace
benefit screening is to let people know
that Valerie and Michael Corral do
incredible work.”
But while Ram Dass has frequently and
publicly stated that marijuana, LSD and
magic mushrooms are carriers between
what he calls “the two planes of
consciousness,” he admits that drugs
alone can’t free you from the ultimate
control freak of life, your ego.
“Before the path of mushrooms, I was
pretty much on the Western track, but
then those experiences with mushrooms
pointed to the home inside, which all my
Western psychology didn’t cover,” Dass
recalls. “And so we were studying, going
down into our psyches, until we said,
‘Who has got the map for this domain?’
Aldous Huxley gave us the Tibetan Book
of the Dead, and it was a map for
consciousness, and everybody, all the
gang, had gone to IndiaAllen Ginsberg,
Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Alan
Wattsthey all did, long before me. But
in the end, we found that we couldn’t
get through our egos with drugs, that
our egos controlled the drugs.”
RD has moved on, though, to even
edgier subjects. In How Can I Help? he
wrote that one of the best ways to help
someone is to be with them, look into
their eyes, and listen. Since writing that,
RD had a stroke and then finished Still
Here, which deals with coping with
aging, changing and dyingthe West’s
three great taboos.
So what I ask him now is: Does he
himself fear death?
“No. I don’t think I do. To me, a death is
a big acid trip, and I sort of like those.
They are optimum change. The most
important thing you can do in your dying
period is to identify with your soul and
not with your ego.”
Fierce Grace director Mickey Lemle, who
has known Ram Dass for 25 years, says
he’s wanted to make a film about him
for years, but RD kept saying he wasn’t
ready. Lemle then recalls a conversation
he had with RD a few months after the
stroke on the porch of Dass’ San
Anselmo home.
“He pointed to himself with his left
hand, the one that still works, and said,
‘This is not who I thought I was going to
be. Because my vision of myself as an
old man didn’t have a stroke in it.’”
According to Lemle, what RD said next
altered his own view of reality.
“He said, ‘When I focus on who I used to
be or on who I thought I was going to
be, it brings up suffering. But if I just
rest in awareness, I’m fine.’ For him the
stroke was very traumatic and
unsuspected, changed every aspect of
his lifeand helped him get closer to
God. In the same way, Sept. 11 has
been very traumatic for culture, but it
can become fierce gracehence the title
of the movie.”
Ram Dass will make a special guest appearance
at the Nov. 7 screening of ‘Fierce Grace,’ 7pm, at
the Rio Theatre. All proceeds benefit WAMM.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance
at the Book Loft, next to the Rio Theatre, 1205
Soquel Ave. at Seabright Avenue; 831.423.8209.

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