Better Souls than Roles: An Interview with Ram Dass

Better Souls than Roles: An Interview with Ram Dass

Ram Dass, which means “servant of God,” was born Richard Alpert into a Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1931. He earned a PhD in psychology at Stanford and began his spiritual awakening in the early sixties, using hallucinogens at Harvard with Timothy Leary. In 1967, he traveled to India, where he met his Hindu guru, Neem Karoli Baba, whom he calls Maharaj-ji. His most famous book is the 1971 classic on meditation and yoga, Be Here Now; his latest book is Be Love Now. Recently, Spirituality & Health columnist Paul Sutherland visited Ram Dass’s home on the island of Maui and spoke about giving and the holidays.

Paul Sutherland: What meaning does Christmastime have for you?

Ram Dass: It’s a celebration, the giving of gifts on one hand and the celebration of Christ Jesus’s birth on the other. I’m Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah. At Christmas, we got a tree, which was a bush (laughs). When I was a child, my peers were celebrating wildly, and I sort of didn’t know about Christmas, and so, I fell in love with Christ, fell in love with Jesus — and I am in Christ, and I didn’t know then, but I know now what Christmas is all about.

What about presents?

The giving and receiving is the tricky thing. It’s not the gift. It’s what the heart says in giving the gift, and from my point of view, one doesn’t give or receive — that’s a role we have to play. But the gift — it’s God’s gift. I think that it’s better to be souls than roles.

Roles of giving?

Right, yes. The present is two souls, come together. The giving and receiving is the way for them to come together. I think that people should give gifts by really recognizing the spiritual worth of the person and their (the givers’) own worth. You usually give a present that the other person needs or wants, and I think it just emphasizes wants and needs. Now, of course, with kids, it doesn’t matter, you know, because they want, they want, they want, they want . . .

If you think of the gifts that you’ve been given, what gift comes to mind?

At Christmas? I think I would say that the gift of the love of Jesus. That’s the best gift.

And how did you discover that?

Well, I usually go to church at Christmastime, and I’m meditating while I’m at church and usually meditating on Jesus. And it’s his love, and that’s a pretty good gift. Now I’ve gotten cigars, and desk sets, and dictionaries, and shirts — lots of shirts — and slacks, and jellies, and jams. We had a raspberry patch, and Dad likes to make raspberry jam, and that’s a big thing at Christmastime to give — to give raspberry jam.

What would be on your Christmas list today?

Spiritual books.

Which ones?

All teachers are one person. I read Rama Krishna, or I read Ramana Maharshi, and it’s just like Maharaj-ji. In fact, it’s not just Eastern, because the Christian mystics or the Jewish mystics — they’re all the same person. Well, they’re different — they have different paths up the mountain — but they’re all going to the same place. They’re all as One. When you try to differentiate — like Buddhism from Theism or something like that — it’s good for your mind, but actually, they’re all the same place. They just have different signposts. I think that it’s good for you.

When you’re climbing that mountain, what’s at the top?

Your spiritual heart, which is the One inside. It’s the little voice in the heart. The mountain isn’t external; the mountain is inside.

It’s easy to start walking up a mountain, but if it’s in here, the path is a bit obscured, perhaps?

Well, you could take many paths. You could attend to the moment. Because if you stay in the moment, the moment is not time and space. The moment is infinite. I usually like to use love, and I love everything. And that brings me to the place where I am love. You are love. And so are all the trees and the ocean and all. You get Oneness with everything — to love. Or you can, say, use energy, like Hatha yoga. Bring the Kundalini up, bringing it up gently, through the chakras. Or it can be to use the mind; read books. It’s the place at the top of the mountain, the place, and it’s not, and it’s not, and it’s not, and it’s form and it’s not form. But it’s both.

And the words make it hard to describe? Is that what you’re saying?

Yes. In fact, the top of the mountain is clouds. The clouds are in your mind.

When you talk, you talk about everything is love, and I’m wondering about your stroke and how that changed the way you see things.

I was depressed, and think that was because my faith was wavering. Before the stroke, I had a graceful life. His grace was an incredible part of my life, and then the stroke, and I said to him in my mind, “What were you doing? Where were you? Were you out to lunch or something? Because this isn’t grace.” And then he told me, “This is grace.”

So in that depression and in that state of realizing that your life had changed forever, you came through that feeling grace?

Yeah. It made suffering graceful in my life. I wouldn’t say, “You’re not suffering; it’s all grace.” No, no. I would say there was just a little change of attitude. I came around from the stroke in the hospital, and everybody said, “Oh! Isn’t that too bad — your stroke.” I sat with Maharaj-ji’s picture, and I asked, “Well, is it really that terrible?” And he says, “No.” For example, I was a long time without speech, and I was really that silence. I was just loving.

You didn’t want everybody else to be silent, just you?

No. I was giving speeches. And silence isn’t great. I realize that dependency has just a little essence thing that I had never met. It’s like when you’re on the curb in your wheelchair, and somebody comes along and asks, “Can we push you across?” and boy, it’s gratifying to get that. It’s not the push across the street, but it’s the motivation.

How do we get out of that mind that’s always sort of judging and looking at the differences and not the similarities?

The Maharaj-ji taught me that I could identify with my soul. He said, “Ram Dass, love everybody.” I said, “I can’t do that. I can’t do that” [points to his head]. He says, “Yes, you can.” Then he said, “Tell the truth.” I can do that. “Tell the truth and love everybody.” No. I can’t do that. And I kept saying no [motions to his head], and he kept saying, “Yes [motions to his heart], with your heart, and you can see the souls.” You can see the souls.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.