Psychedelic Heroes: Ram Dass
For those versed in psychedelic lore, Ram Dass is another name of great importance. The name itself translates as ‘servant of God’— but the man himself was not always named thus. Ram Dass was in fact born Richard Alpert in Boston, Massachusetts in 1931. He would later on become pivotal in the popularisation of psychedelics in the 1960s alongside his friend, and colleague, Timothy Leary.
Although born to Jewish parents and raised in the faith, Alpert did not find spiritualism until much later. Considering himself an atheist in his early life, he stated, “I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics”. By 1957 he had obtained a bachelor, a masters, and a doctorate in Psychology, writing his thesis on the topic of “achievement anxiety”. Alpert then went on to teach for a single year at Stanford, before beginning his work in psychoanalysis at Harvard.
Harvard, Leary and LSD
It was at Harvard he found his eventual calling. It was also at Harvard that he met his future psychonaut comrade and friend, Timothy Leary. They quickly became drinking buddies. In Leary’s previous position at UC Berkeley he had undertaken research into the then little-known magic mushroom extract, psilocybin. Continuing his research at Harvard, he invited friends to his house, a group including Alpert and iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Upon his first psilocybin trip, Alpert remembered that he felt incredibly relaxed, followed by feelings of panic and ending in ecstasy— realising in the moment that “it was O.K. to be me.”
Equal Backlash and Acclaim
Their experimentation and research produced many esteemed articles and publications. However, whatever acclaim and interest they received from their research, they received equal backlash from both their University and the wider media. In 1963 both Alpert and Leary lost their positions at Harvard. Leary for not fulfilling his educational duties as a professor, and Alpert for giving drugs to an undergrad. The pair, alongside other friends and followers, moved to an enormous New York mansion, provided by the heiress to the Mellon Estate, Peggy Hitchcock. This mansion became the setting for copious LSD consumption, and many claim this is where the psychedelic portion of the 60’s was born. As LSD was not made illegal until 1968, the residents were free to explore psychedelic wormholes to unprecedented depths.
Trading New York for India and Enlightenment
This couldn’t last forever, at least for Alpert. He found that his tolerance to LSD was increasing, and with this came a loss of pleasure from his highs. More so, however, he began to feel depressed when coming down from his trips. As the fun diminished, seemingly so did Alpert’s relationship with Leary. In 1967, holidaying in India, Alpert found himself in the company of Neem Karoli Baba. Called Maharajji (Great King) by his followers, he, according to Alpert, ‘appeared’ to hold a form of psychic power. He reportedly knew that Alpert’s mother had recently passed away from spleen issues— information that Alpert had not shared with anyone in India.
A Spiritual Awakening
This moment seemed to fundamentally change Alpert. Experiencing a spiritual awakening of sorts, Alpert immediately considered Baba his guru. It was Baba himself that gave Alpert his new title, Ram Dass or ‘servant of God’. Baba himself was apparently unmoved by LSD, with Alpert concluding that his guru’s consciousness was heightened to a strength beyond the point of altering. The following year, under the instruction of Baba, Alpert returned to the US, bearded and more than a bit guru-esque himself. It was not long before he began giving lectures on his revelations and experiences with both psychedelics and spiritualism. In 1971 he published the massively popular ‘Be Here Now’ which would eventually go on to sell over two million copies, and be re-printed over 30 times.
Psychonaut, Friend, Believer
In the 80’s many things changed for Alpert. He grew tired of the guru image he never truly desired in the first place. He tried to drop his cult name of Ram Dass, before the idea was vetoed by his publisher. Continuing to write and present lectures for many years, he also started foundations to help spread awareness and the message of ‘spiritual equanimity’. He always kept his publishings affordable for those who he hoped could benefit from them. It was Alpert’s belief that there was a God inside each and every one of us. As Alpert grew older, he began to re-explore his Jewish faith, believing it a fundamental part of him. With time, he would hold it in the same regard as he did the Hindu faith that he learnt in India. He was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in August 1991.
Reconciliation With Leary
Despite having grown apart, Alpert and Leary managed to reconcile their differences in 1983, with both considering the other a friend before Leary’s death in 1996. Following a stroke in 1997, Alpert was left with expressive aphasia. This is characterised by loss of the ability to express oneself in language. Alpert however, took this affliction as a sign of grace saying;
“The stroke was giving me lessons, and I realised that was grace—fierce grace … Death is the biggest change we’ll face, so we need to practice change.”
Ready To Face The Music…
He moved to Maui, not leaving the island again from 2004 until his passing. He did however, continue to hold retreats, write, and teach via webcast. His last book, published in 2013, was a memoir and summarisation of his past works, ‘Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart’
Reflecting upon the book, his life and his old age, Alpert seemed ready for his final journey. He stated;
“Now, I am ageing. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end. … Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me”
Richard Alpert/Ram Dass died on the 22nd of December 2019. He remains an inspiration for generations of psychonauts and spiritual adventurers.