With the publication of Be Here Now in 1971 — which has been described as the “counterculture bible” — yogi Ram Dass became one of the most widely recognized spiritual figures in the modern world. His teachings have left a lasting impact on the West’s understanding of Eastern religions.
Known for his early experiments into the therapeutic effects of psychedelics with Timothy Leary in the early 60s, Ram Dass went to India seeking a map of consciousness, then becoming a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba before returning to America at the end of the decade.
Once home, Ram Dass began teaching workshops on consciousness and dying, a subject that was made all the more present when he suffered a stroke in 1997 that left him partially paralyzed and with aphasia. Ahead, we speak to the legendary yogi about egos, the meaning of unconditional love, and how we can better understand mortality.
I want to begin with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita. "For sure is the death of all that comes to birth. Sure is the birth of all that dies." Why are people in the West so afraid of death, in your opinion?
They identify with the ego. The ego is afraid of death because it sees the end of the ego. And therefore the culture is afraid of death. However, when we identify with the soul there is no fear of death.
How has your own physical ailment helped you to better understand mortality?
Well, due to the stroke in my body, I couldn't play my cello, play golf, drive my sports car and many other things. But it forced me in, inside. It was fierce grace. The grace of it was the turning inward. And I certainly identified with my soul. I didn't identify with my body. And my mind. My perception of myself was of a spiritual being delving into humanity.
Speaking of death and contemplating it. The Greek philosopher Epictetus had this story where he felt one way for us to understand death is to expose ourselves to it. How can we, today, expose ourselves to mortality?
COURTESY ROBERT ALTMAN/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
When you speak of love, what do you mean? Is there more to love?
My guru taught me about (Capital “L”) Love. Unconditional Love. In my past, I would be loved for being a good boy, a good student, a good lover… But then, this Love included all of me. And my guru said to me, “Ram Dass, Love everybody, and tell the truth.” That is the soul.
If we can learn from love, what can we learn from suffering?
Compassion and love are pretty much one. When I'm with other people who are suffering, I don't involve myself in their karma. I be with them. My inside, my soul, radiates love, compassion, wisdom, peace, and joy.
To those who are just embarking on a path to a greater consciousness, what is one simple teaching you can share with them?
During life, keep death on your shoulder and identify with your soul. A mantra I use, I am loving awareness. I am loving awareness. I am loving awareness. I am loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness. Loving awareness.
Loving comes from my guru, and awareness comes from my Buddhist studies. Loving awareness is the soul. I am loving awareness.