On a beautiful and sunny late morning in Hawaii and a sunny (though perhaps less balmy) late afternoon in Virginia, Integral Yoga Magazine editor Rev. Prem Anjali had the opportunity to interview Ram Dass via Skype. Ram Dass’ latest book, Be Love Now, is the third in what is being considered a trilogy about his spiritual journey. Be Here Now was written forty years ago and is, of course, a classic in spiritual literature, influencing a generation and countless seekers to embrace the path of the heart. Still Here was written ten years ago, after Ram Dass suffered a debilitating stroke. During this conversation, we discussed the new book and the author’s journey thus far. [From the Integral Yoga Magazine archives, Winter 2011 issue]
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Your book is filled with such beautiful and moving stories about the time you spent with your Guru, Maharaj-ji and the inspiration and lessons you drew from those experiences. Today, most of those Gurus are no longer in their physical bodies.
Ram Dass (RD): Well, this is a different period. I think everybody has a Guru, whether in this plane or astral plane; the Guru can be part of their hearts. Yoga isn’t about the body beautiful. The West and our culture has done harm to the concept of Yoga. It wasn’t a mistake, it was our karma. Now there aren’t many Satgurus on this plane, but I know so many people who have contacted my Guru through books, Krishna Das and others. They’ve got the Guru inside. I’m not looking around on this plane to find Maharaj-ji, because he is here. This is a period during which many people will find the Guru inside.
IYM: Do you feel it’s not essential to have an embodied Guru or teacher? What advice would you give to people who want to find a Guru or spiritual teacher today?
RD: If they want to find a teacher, they must trust their intuition, because everybody who says they are a teacher isn’t necessarily a teacher. I find many people call me “Guruji,” and I say, “Look, you don’t even know the meaning of the word. And I’m not one!” [Laughs] One of the great books that was very influential in my early process was, Autobiography of a Yogi. When I read it, I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be him, but I think that sort of pushed me toward the Eastern way.
We’re in a marketplace and having a spiritual life in the marketplace is darn difficult. It’s not going to be easy for people in the West, but things like this electronic medium [referring to our use of Skype for this interview] are making it easier for oneness to occur. I do Skype calls. People sign up, and I do two a week. They are sitting in their living room and I sit here, and our hearts are open. These things are heart-to-heart. We can go to all spiritual planes, even to the soul. I come away from those calls with my heart fed. I know that those calls are certainly meaningful to those people and to me, and we are approaching the spiritual world through those calls. There are many retreats and festivals around. I remember getting a spiritual hit by going to hear the Grateful Dead. [Laughs]
IYM: Has the concept of enlightenment changed for you? In your latest book, you said that you don’t even have a desire for enlightenment anymore. There was a time, when we were all young hippies, we seemed on fire with a desire for enlightenment. What has happened?
RD: It depends on what you mean by the word.
IYM: What do you mean by the word?
RD: It means that one identifies with the Atman in the heart, so that you don’t do love, but you be love. You be energy. We be wisdom and we be peace and we be compassion.
IYM: Someone, commenting on your new book, said that it seems to be a coming full circle for you. It’s been 40 years since Be Here Now, 10 since Still Here.
RD: My take, in this journey, has ripened over the years. When I first got together with Maharaj-ji, he read my mind—and that stopped me in my tracks and blew my mind. I was a psychologist, and we couldn’t do that. I really thought that was the thing that he did that affected me the most strongly. Ten years later, I realized something I had never noticed: After he read my mind, I looked at the ground and I started to think of all the things that he must have read in my mind, and I was embarrassed. I was so embarrassed but when I looked up at him, it was the first time I ever saw unconditional love. That love was what had changed me. I realized it wasn’t the miracles, it was the love—that understanding led to this book.
IYM: In the book, you talk about the misunderstanding in the West of the term “surrender.” We in the West seem to miss the spiritual and mystical meaning and think it’s about giving up control, becoming members of a cult, becoming robotic or something.
RD: That’s all true in the West! [We both laugh]. In the West it means to surrender to another person. But I think, when you surrender to God—either God or God in the Guru—it’s not a surrender to another person but it’s saying: Thy will, not my will; the way it says in the Bible. You surrender because you know the Guru is further up the mountain and sees better than you. I would rather have him running my life than me running my life. Ramana Maharshi said God, Guru and Self are all one—that’s the Atman—so I’d rather have my spiritual Self run my life more than my ego.
IYM: How do we surrender? Will it eventually happen when we run out of our own steam or go through the School of Hard Knocks?
RD: Sadhana and death are experiences that lead the yogi from ego to the real Self. Whatever Yoga you want to say is your path, it will take you from the false, or the thought of who you are to who you really are.
IYM: You said it’s scary for the ego when we start to merge and maybe that is the reason for the human tendency to back off and resist.
IYM: My Guru, Swami Satchidananda, likened the spiritual path to an “egodectomy.” And he encouraged his students to remain on the operating table and that, if we couldn’t cooperate, at least, to try and minimize the resistance. How can we cooperate more with the process of letting go?
RD: Following your path, whether it’s Hatha Yoga or meditation or study, gets you into that rarefied air where your spiritual Self is your perceptual vantage point. It is scary—scary to the ego to be the individual Self. It’s the same as why we egos find death scary. Our souls find death just another moment, because they have already had deaths in previous incarnations. Scariness is a thought, and you can get into your witness by witnessing the thought and identifying with the witness and not with the thought.
IYM: You said that faith isn’t something you get from the outside or by believing in someone or something, but that it’s within you already and the teacher awakens that faith. Would you speak about faith and the path of the heart?
RD: You ask for faith. You ask for grace. Grace will give you faith. Faith is not belief. Faith is from the heart, while belief is from the brain. You think you believe in the Guru, that’s not anything. All the spiritual planes of consciousness I can get there, I think. Wait, forget the “I think.” I can get there. My Guru said to me, “Be truthful.” He said that on a Monday. On a Tuesday, he said, “Love everybody,” and then, Wednesday, I came to him and said, “I couldn’t.”
I was answering from my ego. He said, “You can be true and love.” He was saying to me: You can become your soul. I think he was saying that you could get at your spiritual Self from love. I don’t mean romantic love. I mean loving everything in the world—trying to love unconditionally. You have to get rid of your judgment. I look at this wall [Ram Dass looks at the wall in front of him], just a plain, ordinary wall, and I love it.
IYM: Why do you love it?
RD: Because it’s part of the One. [Blissfully smiling].
IYM: So true. You said that when you had your stroke, you called it “fierce grace” [See Mickey Lemle’s film by the same title about Ram Dass.], but then Siddhi Ma corrected you and said that Maharaj-ji would never have given you a stroke. Would you talk a bit about karma, suffering and grace and what you understand about that relationship now?
RD: Yeah. I found that his grace was my reactions to the stroke, not the stroke. The stroke was part of nature. I asked him, “Are karma and grace the same thing Maharaj-ji?” He said, “I’ll not talk about that in public.” [Laughs] The fact that he bestows his grace on me is my karma. But it’s his free will to bestow that grace. It was my karma that I ended up with him and then he could bestow his grace. Grace is not given for something you’ve done. Grace is just given. He just gives it. We think we can do it, but the answer only is being it.
IYM: I feel that we owe our Gurus so much, and as our bodies age, what responsibility do we have to preserving and transmitting their teachings? Obviously, being examples is the first thing, but for those of us who fall short of that, how to best pass on, as first-generation disciples, those teachings to generations that will never have the chance to sit at their feet?
RD: You said some negative things in your question. You said, “Fall short of that…” That’s already a false statement. I think you’ve got to be a true statement of him.
IYM: That’s a tall order.
RD: Believe me, I do know it! [Laughs] You get right to it and, just one thought [snaps his fingers], and you’re away. But, you and I both have love for our Gurus. We have faith in our Gurus. Those are two things you can transmit. When you talk about your Guru, you have something in you that goes from heart to heart. You go from your heart to the other. Talk isn’t it; it’s being. That’s the way it gets transmitted: being heart to heart.
IYM: I wanted to ask if you had any remembrances you could share about Swami Satchidananda?
RD: We had a good time at “Meeting of the Ways” [an interfaith conference in the early 1970s]. At the time, I was going to Buddhists, Sufis and all different teachers and Swamiji came up to me and said, “Ram Dass, you need to go to one well to get water. You are digging so many wells.”
IYM: Did you take his advice?
RD: Yes, my Guru is my well. And my Guru instructed me to go to various teachers like Chogyam Trungpa and then he told me to go to Swami Muktananda. Both of them weren’t my Gurus. [Laughs]
IYM: What did you take from that? Why did Maharaj-ji tell you to go to them?
RD: Because they were teaching me different things. Like, Trungpa was taking his students through their karma in sex and drugs and gambling and so on. I got all righteous about this not being the way to have spiritual experiences. By the end, I saw that he was an incredible spiritual teacher. Something in me had to burned out by them. Muktananda was a Saivite and he took me to a village in India and gave me a mantra. I said to him, “What’s that about?” He said, “That will give you power and wealth and all sorts of things.” I said, “I don’t want those unless I have compassion.” He said, “All right, you can get your compassion from your Guru.” [Laughs] This whole thing is such fun!
IYM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
RD: If I were to add anything, I’d say that growing old is incredible fun!
IYM: So, you really feel that growing older isn’t a drag? Even with the stroke and the physical challenges you’ve faced with your body?
RD: Look, it’s “the body,” not “my body.” Things are falling down everywhere. The Earth’s falling down. This is change. The biggest thing about aging is change. Change in your body, in your friends, in your relatives, in your environment, change in your energies. If you ignore the thoughts of the past and the future, you will have a joyful remaining life.
IYM: That’s very encouraging to hear from you!
RD: I’ve got so many things under my belt and I’m content. I’m not achieving or striving. Even these books I’m writing, they’re just flowing out of me. There’s no striving at all. I’m just being his instrument. The image I have of myself is Charlie McCarthy and Maharaj-ji is Edgar Bergen [the famous ventriloquist whose dummy was named, Charlie McCarthy]. [Laughs] Oh dear! [More laughing].
IYM: That’s wonderful. That reminds me of something Krishna Das said when he was here last summer and I interviewed him. I asked him a similar question about whether he wanted to add anything to the interview. He said the only thing was that he wished he resisted less to make it easier for Maharaj-ji to pull the strings of the marionette.
RD: Yes, yes, yes. I’m with him and, when I die, I will be with him.
IYM: Well, I want to thank you so much for your time, energy and wisdom. I know that our readers will pick up your book and love it. Every page is a treasure to be unpacked and digested. What nourishment and great fruit it will bring to spiritual seekers. It’s a powerful book with a promise of transformation for anyone who reads even a sentence of it.
RD: Wow! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Now, I’ve got all this pride to deal with! [Laughing with full gusto]
IYM: I have good confidence in you and know that you won’t have any trouble in dispensing with any pride and you’ll remain very connected to your Atman. Thank you. All love from Satchidananda Ashram and all of Swami Satchidananda’s students to you and yours. Wishing you all health, happiness, peace, joy, prosperity [Ram Dass breaks in, motioning with his hand as if to say “yes, more and more of all this please” as he joyfully continues laughing] and great success with the book and continued seva to all.
Ram Dass now resides on Maui, where he participates in satsang, kirtan and where he can amplify his healing process in the air and waters of Hawaii. His work continues to be a path of teaching and inspiration to so many. The Internet is a new vehicle for Ram Dass to use to share his being. Be Love Now is available in bookstores and online. For more information, please visit: www.ramdass.org.
[Editor’s Note: Baba Ram Dass left his body on December 22, 2019, the date of Swami Satchidananda’s 105th birth anniversary…continued synchronicity!]