Ram Dass on Unconditional Love, Surrender, and Transformation
Ram Dass with his spiritual teacher, Maharaj-ji
In his posthumous memoir, Being Ram Dass, the beloved cultural and spiritual icon and bestselling author of Be Here Now, shares his experience of his journey from the mind to the heart, from the ego to the soul.
Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert PhD, was a Harvard psychology professor who collaborated with Timothy Leary in psychedelic research, and later traveled to India and met a guru, Neem Karoli Baba (also called “Maharaj-ji,” a frequent honorific that means “great king”). Richard stayed in India for six months, training as a yogi, before Maharaj-ji sent him back to America with a new name: Ram Dass. Back in the US, he found that in the chaos and churning conflict of the late 1960s and early ’70s, young Americans were searching for spiritual answers. Ram Dass was carrying what felt like a jewel—Maharaj-ji’s presence and the spiritual path.
Maharaj-ji said, “You can plan for five hundred years, but you don’t know what will happen the next moment.” Giving up experiences of the past or expectations of the future leaves only this present moment. Everything is present in this moment—everything! When I burrow into this moment, there is nothing else. If I am fully in the moment, my own death or someone else’s is just another moment. The spiritual journey is less about our timeline from birth to death than from separation to oneness. Rather than a small being soon to be extinguished, I am simply a spark of an infinite awareness.
Maharaj-ji’s unconditional love lives in each ordinary instant, love without expectation, without desire, without need of an object. The vastness of emptiness is completely full of love. To be here now in this vastness, I have to let go of the desires and expectations that keep me time bound. This is the essential surrender of the bhakti path. Letting go allows the self of everyday experience, my ego, my thinking mind, to merge with my higher self—my true nature. To merge with the Beloved, I have to let go of my experiences, of even being an experiencer. That is how this jumble of my thoughts and sensations and emotions is forged into one, in the fire of love.
The nineteenth-century Indian saint Ramakrishna likened himself to a salt doll melting into the vast ocean. That ocean is pure consciousness and love. Though I have only one arm that works to swim, I love to float in the Pacific. On land, my paralyzed body is a burden to be carried around, but once in the water I am buoyant and free, and I can be that salt doll.
Surrender is difficult for westerners to accept. We see ourselves as rugged individualists whose creative energy and willpower and constant striving make our lives better and the world a better place. We think our power is the power of our minds to conceive new ways of manipulating objective reality. Our minds are our very being—or, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” What we think of as reality is a conceptual thought of how we think it is. We’re afraid that if we give up thinking, we give up our power and free will, and we may succumb to someone else’s power and lose ourselves forever.
That’s the fear. But it turns out giving up conceptual thinking is not so scary after all—in fact, it’s a relief! I keep telling people, “You are not who you think you are!” So-called objective reality is only relatively real compared to the deeper reality of the Self.
Mindfulness is an easier sell in the West, because people think it’s about controlling thoughts, which are at the foundation of our Cartesian reality. The paradox is that to really practice mindfulness, you have to let go of thinking. The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Our attachment is to the thinking mind, which dies with the brain and the body. Getting past the thinking mind allows the essence of our deeper being to shine forth. The soul is beyond conceptual thinking, beyond space and time. When you give up thinking you are catapulted into being.
Surrender on the bhakti path is a different proposition from giving up ego power. It is the surrender to the Beloved that is no surrender: first, because the attraction to that state of being is so blissful that it subsumes all else; and second, because who or what one really surrenders to is no other than our own being. Call it our true nature, the Self, God, Krishna, nonduality, or in Sanskrit sat chit ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss.
Maharaj-ji represents that kind of surrender for me. He’s the direct reflection of my innermost being and the purest expression of unconditional love I’ve found. In that oneness, there is such peace, joy, and bliss that even the idea of surrender dissolves. Who is there to surrender what to whom?
As the inner guide, Maharaj-ji is overseeing my transformation in the most minute detail. From the moment I met him, I never questioned that I was on a spiritual path or that he was directing it. To my amazement, I just flowed into it; I just changed. His love is the ground for that change. You can surrender to love, even if surrendering to another being is scary.
My personality is still here. What has really changed is my point of view. Maharaj-ji reflects pure being. He is a mirror for the soul, and in that mirror, I began to see myself as he sees me, as a soul, a part of the one. That subtle shift in perception alters the entire universe.
Maharaj-ji said, “Love is the greatest power.” That conversion, from power to love, is perhaps the most significant transformation of my human existence, and yet when I met Maharaj-ji I barely noticed his love because I was so fascinated by his power. This is not something that happened once upon a time. It’s continual. Love is a verb: it’s changing and present; it’s both transitive and intransitive. It’s a state of being, but an active state. Maharaj-ji doesn’t love me or you. He is love.
I’m not a finished being, a Siddha like Maharaj-ji. As the allure of desire subsides and the dissolution of this body approaches, I live in the heart more and more. Maharaj-ji is taking me under his blanket. My mind is quieter. Words are fewer. Love blankets everything like a warm mist.
Excerpted from BEING RAM DASS by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das. ©2021 Love Serve Remember Foundation. Published by Sounds True.