Ram Dass, the spiritual guru born Richard Alpert, passed away last month at the age of 88. His passing sent waves through the spiritual community, as well as the countless subcultures he touched during his lifetime.
Alpert initially found notoriety as a hotshot psychology professor at Harvard who disturbed the status quo by exploring the therapeutic and mind-expanding effects of psychoactive substances like psilocybin and LSD alongside his infamous colleague Dr. Timothy Leary. Under the auspices of academic experimentation, Leary and Alpert handed out hundreds of doses to local students, intelligentsia and artistry, while also oftentimes taking heroic amounts of the drugs themselves.
Harvard eventually fired Alpert and Leary for giving doses out to undergraduates – they had agreed to limit their pool to graduate students only. Alpert demurred that he had given the acid to the student as a friend, not as a member of faculty. The only problem with these experiments, according to Dass, was that they always ended up coming down. “It was a very frustrating experience,” he wrote. “As if you came into the kingdom of heaven and you saw how it all was… and then you got cast out again.” Between the comedowns and Leary’s increasingly problematic legacy, Dass took to self-deprecatingly referring to himself as “Mr. LSD, Jr.”
In 1967, Alpert looked East, where he discovered the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba, a.k.a. Maharaji. Up to that point, Alpert’s life was one of excessive signifiers and status symbols: electric-blue Mercedes, sailboats, suits and Cessna jets. Maharaji looked to only own the blanket he swathed himself in, but within minutes of meeting Alpert, the guru asked Alpert for the keys to the Land Rover they rode in on—as a gift. It was Maharaji who gave Alpert the name Ram Dass—or “God’s Servant”—and set him down on a path that consisted of six months silent retreat. Dass returned a dutiful servant to Maharaji and a mystical presence with surprising staying power in the American consciousness.
Dass’ wisdom was distilled in various forms, most famously in 1971’s Be Here Now. A spiritual manual that is equal parts yogic meditation guide, self-help and graphic novel, the book illustrated Dass’ aphorisms with love-child art and trippy typography. The release turned Dass into a surprise publishing powerhouse, selling over two million copies. His audience consisted of the disaffected hippies left spiritually disaffected by the war in Vietnam and the aftermath of the Summer of Love. Dass became, as Levine put it, “an alternative faculty adviser to a generation of dropouts. Many of Dass’ lectures have found their second wind as podcasts for those stressed out by the present-day as those hippies were back then. Samples and recordings of his voice and lectures pop up in mixes and concept albums. His is a mantra that is found, then lost, then found again.
Part of Ram Dass’ enduring appeal is the fact that his teachings do not adhere to any one particular religious dogma. Among other gigs, Dass lectured on the Bhagavad Gita at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, or, as he put it, “a course on a Hindu text in a Buddhist university taught by a Jew who has a great love for Christ and Allah.” He got down with just about anyone, so long as they were willing to be here now. Dass’ public speaking engagements often touched on the hilarious and the morbid, sometimes in the same breath. Many of his talks have echoes of stand-up comedy and lay the foundation for what would, decades later, become the standard for countless meditation apps and podcasts. It’s hard to summarize his ideology, but Dass took a stab at it in a final interview with the New York Times Magazine’s David Marchese, titled “Ram Dass Is Ready To Die”: “‘Be Here Now’ gives people an opportunity to re-identify outside of their thinking-mind ego and into that thing that’s called the soul.”
Dass’ hippie-dippie aesthetic even made him an unlikely icon to the fashion set, albeit in his own tongue-in-cheek way. This was, after all, a man who once warned Richard M. Levine of Rolling Stone that “you can’t wear lace-ups on the holy man’s circuit,” while wearing a Grateful Dead shirt and denim shorts.
Speaking of the Dead and tie-dye, Alix Ross and Elijah Funk of Online Ceramics are proclaimed devotees and even realized a dream collaboration in a series of t-shirts benefitting Dass’ Love Serve Remember foundation. The tees feature Dass’ grinning face, surrounded by Dass’ Zen truisms, e.g. “The Quieter You Become, The More You Can Hear.” Another pays tribute to Maharaji and Dass’ deity of choice, Hanuman the Monkey-God. Grace Wales Bonner’s Spring 2019 collection, titled Ecstatic Radical, explored the “devotional aesthetics” that helped bring Eastern spirituality into the fold of the Western popular canon, using the warm-hued robes and harem pants of Rajneeshi cults and yoga pants emblazoned with slogans from Be Here Now, printed on flowing nylon and delicate tees—Lil Uzi Vert is a fan.
Perhaps Dass’ most surprising impact has been in Silicon Valley. As technology became ever-present and ever-imposing on human consciousness, meditation went from Esalen to the boardroom. Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm have Dass’ teachings woven into their very DNA. His home in Maui became an outpost of enlightenment, with friends and fans like GQ editor-in-chief Will Welch, artist Wes Lang, and so many others making the pilgrimage just to sit at the aging guru’s feet.
Dass spoke often and at length about death. He did not fear it, and in fact considered it a duty of his to help the ill and terminal come to terms with their own mortality. When I attended a screening of a documentary about Dass called Becoming Nobody earlier this year, I was struck by how lucid and clear-eyed he seemed to be about his own impending death. He said he hoped death would feel “like taking off a tight shoe.” When Dass suffered a stroke in February 1997, he lost most of his mobility and developed expressive aphasia, which inhibited the famous lecturer’s ability to parse his own thoughts into words. Rather than retreat and fall silent, Dass found it to be an act of his Maharaji’s grace. His speech became more laborious, but all the more prescient. He recounted stories of soothing terminal patients and helping those near death. His sense of humor remained intact, unchanged. Dass still spoke sweepingly about the big ideas that worry our conscious mind; he seemed unbothered.
His death came less as a loss than an inevtiablity — Dass’ lectures had prepared us for it. When Jerry Garcia, the vocalist and lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead and a friend of Dass,’ passed away in 1995, Dass marked his passing with a poem that included the following lines: “Jerry is gone in one form, but like the magician that he is, he has explosively been transformed into a million Jerrys. One improvising in each of our hearts. Jerry, we express our gratefulness by becoming the memory of you.” So, too, it goes with Ram Dass. He would not want us to mourn, but to go on, being here now. As he once concluded one of his sweeping lectures: “That’s it for death. Saturday we’ll do reincarnation.”
Ram Dass may very well be dead, but he is far from gone.