Awaken: It is an honor and a privilege to spend this time with you. I have admired your work and your mission since Be Here Now!
Ram Dass: There have been moments in your life when you were pure awareness. No concepts, no thoughts like “I am aware“ or “That is a tree“ or “Now I am meditating.“ Just pure awareness. Openness. A spacious quality in your existence. Perhaps it happened as you sat on the riverbank and the sound of the river flowed through you. Or as you walked on the beach when the sound of the ocean washed away your thinking mind until all that remained was the walking, the feeling of your feet on the sand, the sound of the turf, the warmth of the sun on your head and shoulders, the breeze on your cheek, the sound of the seagull in the distance.
For that moment, your image of yourself was lost in the gestalt, in the totality of the moment. You were not clinging to anything. You were not holding on to the experience. It was flowing — through you, around you, by you, in you. At that moment you were the experience. You were the flow. There was no demarcation between you-sun-ocean-sand. You had transcended the separation that thought creates. You were the moment in all its fullness.
Awaken: A sweet and precious experience… Would you consider this to be a rare experience?
Ram Dass: Everyone has had such experiences. These moments are ones in which we have “lost ourselves,“or “taken out of ourselves,“or “forgotten ourselves.“They are moments in flow.
It is in these moments of your life that there is no longer separation. There is peace, harmony, tranquility, the joy of being part of the process. In these moments the universe appears fresh; it is seen through innocent eyes. It all begins anew.
A moment. The moment of orgasm. The moment by the ocean when there is just the way. The moment of being in love. The moment of crisis when we forget ourselves and do just what is needed.
Awaken: I think these are the kinds of moments that everyone has experienced, but they are fleeting. And for those seeking just a taste… a glimpse… What opens up the door?
Ram Dass: These moments appear again and again in our lives. For many people it first comes as a glimpse into other states of consciousness brought about by emotional trauma, drugs, sex, nature, or a love affair. This glimpse reveals to the person that there is something more. That he or she isn’t exactly who he or she thought.
You may link these moments with the conditions out of which they arose. Perhaps it’s the moment of sexual orgasm when you transcend self-consciousness. Perhaps it’s a moment of trauma, of extreme danger when you “forget yourself.“ perhaps it’s when you are out in the woods away from people and you let down your defenses, loosen the boundaries of your self-consciousness. Perhaps when you are lazing by a stream. Perhaps when you are sitting quietly with friends you trust and love.
For surfers, it is the moment when they come into equilibrium with the incredible force of the wave. For skiers, it is when the balance is perfect. When our skills fit the demand perfectly, then there is no anxiety. Then we have proved ourselves. There is nothing left to do. In that moment, our awareness expands.
Awaken: It truly is a moment when you feel connected to everything… to the entire universe.
Ram Dass: These moments bring a sense of rightness, of total perfection, of being at-one-ment, of clarity, feeling intimately involved with everything around you, of being free of the tension that self-conscious thought brings. But you mistakenly identify the moment with the vehicle. You cling to the situation; you keep going back to them to re-create those moments. But you needn’t cling to the situation that has triggered them in the past. These moments of flow can happen anywhere, anytime. Throughout life, each of us has had many of these moments. They are ephemeral. But such moments are the essence of meditation.
Awaken: Could I get you to share one of your own such moments… perhaps when you first had an awakening experience?
Ram Dass: When I first awakened, the feelings I had were “I’m home… This is so familiar…Where have I been all this time?… How have I cut myself off from this thing?” I’ve been starving to death and here I was in an ocean of plenty. How bizarre. And then, slowly, everything would wear off and I’d be back in it. But I’d have the memory of that and that memory kept compelling me forward to try to get into that state and stabilize it. So Maharaji (Neem Karoli Baba) showed me that that was possible.
Awaken: In a word, how do you do that?
Ram Dass: What I have done since that time, is to do the practices and live my life in such a way as to optimize my stabilizing myself in an awakened state. Because that is the most compassionate thing I can do.
Awaken: By compassionate, I take it to mean that you are better able to help the world as an awakened being? Which piggybacks on the question of how we are to balance our individual awakening with our commitment to the world…
Ram Dass: That has nothing to do with whether I am active or not… It’s how I’m active… It’s how I’m active. Because what I have seen, to my own horror, is a lot of my best intentions as an ego to relieve the suffering of others has ended up increasing the sum total of suffering in the world…
Awaken: I understand… You are saying that we cannot be effective in serving the world if our protests are coming from an egoic place.
Ram Dass: I realized, that if I cared about the world, the earth, other people, and I saw that I was the instrument, just like you are — the basic instrument through which social change would occur — because as you see, the web of interconnected information and consciousness… as each individual in the system changes, the whole system changes.
So I saw that I had to work on myself as a way of extricating my awareness from the exclusive identification with my ego-structures, with my map of reality, with my identification with my desires, my needs, my wants… not stopping any of that or trying to stop it, or denying its existence — this is not meshugganah (Yiddish: crazy) stuff — this is the ability to extricate yourself from exclusive identity with those things. You don’t push them away because then you just end up a horny celibate! You can’t do that.
Awaken: Let’s talk about those ego structures. What exactly is the ego?
Ram Dass: Your ego is a set of thoughts that define your universe. It’s like a familiar room built of thoughts; you see the universe through its windows. You are secure in it, but to the extent that you are afraid to venture outside, it has become a prison. Your ego has you conned. You believe you need its specific thoughts to survive. The ego controls you through your fear of loss of identity. To give up these thoughts, it seems, would annihilate you, and so you cling to them.
Awaken: But you have explained that the game is not to kill the ego…
Ram Dass: You needn’t destroy the ego to escape its tyranny. There is an alternative. You can keep this familiar room to use as you wish, and you can be free to come and go. First you need to know that you are infinitely more than the ego room by which you define yourself. Once you know this, you have the power to change the ego from prison to home-base.
Awaken: So, the usual bombardment of thoughts is all ego?
Ram Dass: Consider awakening on a usual morning. The alarm clock rings, you come out of sleep, focus enough to think “Alarm clock,” and reach over to turn it off. Your thoughts might go something like this:
It’s time to get up. I have to go to the toilet. It’s warm in here. Do I smell coffee perking? I could still sleep for 10 more minutes. Oh, I forgot to do the dishes last night. I need to go to the toilet… what was I dreaming about? Who was that person in my dream? Wonder if it’s warm outside. Boy, I’m hungry. What’s that sound in the other room?
Thought after thought, with the rapidity of a trip hammer. Thoughts about what you hear, what you taste, what you smell, what you see, what you feel, what you remember, what you plan. On and on they go. A raging roaring river of thoughts pouring through you: “Think of me, think of me, think of me, me, me, me, me first, think of me.“ And so it goes all day, until you go to sleep.
Awaken: So, all of that stuff is just ego… but it’s not really “me”…
Ram Dass: The alarm sounds and captures your attention, draws your awareness to it. But “you“ are not your ears hearing the clock. You are awareness attending to your ears hearing. Just as you are not your ears hearing, you are not your other senses either. You are not the eyes seeing, nose smelling, tongue tasting, or skin feeling. Only your thoughts are left.
Here is where most people cannot escape. For they identify totally with their thoughts. They are unable to separate peer awareness from the thoughts that are its objects. Meditation allows you to break this identification between awareness and the objects of awareness. Your awareness is different from both your thoughts and your senses. You can be free to put your awareness where you will, instead of it being grabbed, pushed, and pulled by each sense impression and thought. Meditation frees your awareness.
Awaken: And what does it mean to be free, in this sense?
Ram Dass: A being whose awareness is totally free, who does not cling to anything, is liberated.
Awaken: In this way, could we say that the ego is then tamed?
Ram Dass: The ego is there, as our servant. Our room is there. We can always go in and use it like an office when we need to be efficient. But the door can be left open so that we can always walk out. Don’t worry – it doesn’t disappear.
We need the matrix of thoughts, feelings, and sensations we call the ego for our physical and psychological survival.
Our ego renders safe an unruly world. Uncountable sense impressions and thoughts crowd in on us, so that without the ego to filter out irrelevant information, we would be inundated, overwhelmed, and ultimately destroyed by the overload. Or so it seems.
Awaken: So, to be clear, it’s not that we need to banish the ego… The problem is when we confuse it for our identity?
Ram Dass: The ego has convinced us that we need it – not only that we need it, but that we are it. I am my body. I am my personality. I am my neuroses. I am angry. I am depressed. I’m a good person. I’m sincere. I seek truth. I’m a lazy slob. Definition after definition. Room after room. Some are in high rise apartments — I’m very important.Some on the fringe of the city — just hanging out.
Meditation raises the question: Who are we really? … but as long as the ego calls the shots, we can never become other than what it says. Like a dictator, it offers us paternalistic security at the expense of our freedom.
Awaken: “Paternalistic security”… so ironic! It’s as if we get strangely addicted to this unhealthy mechanism…
Ram Dass: This network of thoughts has been your home since you can remember. Your home is safe and familiar. It may be sad and painful sometimes, but it’s home. And besides, you’ve never known any other. Because the structure has always been your home, you assume that it is what reality is – that your thoughts are Reality with a capital R.
Awaken: Wow… So, what people are really addicted to then, is their suffering!
Ram Dass: We have built up a set of ego habits for gaining satisfaction. For some, it involves pleasure; for others, more neurotic, it involves pain. As you look at many people’s lives, you see that their suffering is in a way gratifying, for they are comfortable in it. They make their lives a living hell, but a familiar one.
Awaken: So, the project of awakening invites us to accept the reality of uncertainty…
Ram Dass: If you start to use a method that makes gaps in this web of thoughts of who you are and what reality is, and if it lets the sunlight in and you peek out for a moment, might you not get frightened as the comforting walls of ego start to crumble? Might you not prefer the security of this familiar prison, grim though it sometimes may be, to the uncertainty of the unknown? You might at that point pull back toward the familiarity of your pain.
Awaken: Brutal self-honesty then, is also par for the course in the commitment to awakening, something that sounds easier than it is!
Ram Dass: That is the critical point. For here is your choice: whether you truly wish to escape from the prison or are just fooling yourself. For your ego includes both the suffering and the desire to be free of the suffering. Sometimes we use cures half-heartedly, with the secret hope that the cure will not work. Then we can hold on to our suffering while protesting that we want to get free. But meditation does work. It gives you moments of sunlight — of clarity and detachment.
Awaken: Let’s take a step back in time… back to the beginning of your own spiritual path. Would it be fair to say that as an academic, your spiritual journey began in the intellectual realm?
Ram Dass: I had been introduced to all of these incredible “maps” from the east… from Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism and Zen, and all these different things, that showed me that while we were busy achieving external excellence, there were other people who were cultivating a very exact and articulated description of inner states. And I saw such delicate descriptions of the inter states that I was finding indescribable, by western cultural words and language, that I realized that I could read these maps, but something didn’t happen in me when I read them.
Awaken: Is that what originally brought you to India?
Ram Dass: I went to India, hoping I could find a “map reader”… somebody who could decipher the maps for me. And who I was braced to meet was Neem Karoli Baba. And… after he had taken 1200 micrograms of acid, and nothing had happened — because when you’re in Detroit, you don’t have to take a bus to Detroit — I realized that what he had done was just shown me that… he had freed me from a “method.” And he had showed me that it was possible for a human being to simultaneously be aware on all the planes of consciousness at once.
Awaken: And thus began your true path?
Ram Dass: My particular path has been one that I have been very reticent to speak about in the west… my spiritual path… and it’s the path of what’s called Guru Kripa, or “Grace of the Guru.” And it just doesn’t sell in the west. For a lot of reasons. First of all, The West is suspicious of gurus, and rightly so. But also, we aren’t comfortable with having spirit in human form. That’s a complicated one for us. And the other thing that I didn’t want to tell people —even if they got through all of that, and had sympathetic joy for me — they would also, at some level, want the same thing. And my guru had left his body. And what could I offer?
Awaken: But you found a way to continue within the tradition that you had come to love?
Ram Dass: An interesting set of sequences happened… In 1978, we collected lots of stories and published this book Miracle of Love, which is 1000 stories about Neem Karoli Baba, and people read that book, and they started to write letters to me, with the pictures and the stories… saying, “who is that guy?” I’ve read the stories and somehow I’ve opened myself and he’s within me… He’s like, around me all the time… Is this good? And I said, “well, as far as I can see, from listening to people who are in the same situation as you… they talk to me about their relationship with him the same way as I feel in my relationship with him… therefore, I must assume that they are my guru brothers and sisters, and they are as connected with him as I am… since he’s dead, anyway.”
So, I began to see that this whole business of guru… “Do you have a teacher in flesh?” was… it was absolutely delicious and wonderful and a great high, but it was not necessary.
In India, they say “God, guru, and self are the same.” And it certainly seemed to turn out to be that way. And some people get it through a devotional path to another form, Hanuman, Rama, Christ… and some relate through the formless.
Awaken: And now today, meditation has become a normal part of our de-stress routine, stripped of its exclusive association with mysticism. And mindfulness has become a household word. But for those who are new to the idea of a meditative practice, how would you describe mindfulness, in simple terms?
Ram Dass: In mindfulness, you are aware of what happens in each moment. You remain alert, not allowing yourself to become forgetful. When you develop mindfulness and concentration together, you achieve a balance of mind. As this penetrating awareness develops, it reveals many aspects of the world and of who you are. You see with a clear and direct vision that everything, including yourself, is flowing, in flux, in transformation. There is not a single element of your mind or body that is stable. This wisdom comes not from any particular state, but from close observation of your own mind.
Awaken: Would you like to share any final thoughts about meditation or anything else, before we close our lovely time together?
Ram Dass: The transformation that comes through meditation is not a straight line progression. It’s a spiral, a cycle. My own life is very much a series of spirals in which, at times, I am pulled toward some particular form of sadhana(spiritual practice) or lifestyle, and make a commitment to it for maybe six months or a year. After this time, I assess its effects.
The timing of these phases in the spiral must be in tune with your inner voice and your outer life. Don’t get too rigidly attached to any one method…
All methods are traps. But for a method to work, you must go deeply into it, deep enough to be entrapped. At the same time, trust that your yearning for spiritual self-realization and the nature of the method will ultimately free you from the method itself.
Awaken: It sounds like you are saying that, ultimately, methods aren’t necessary at all?
Ram Dass: Some, such as Krishnamurti, question whether meditation actually does lead to liberation. They point out that all methods are just more ways of entrapping awareness. Proponents, such as Patanjali and the Buddha, say these are tools to be used until there is no longer any need for them. My feeling is that it would be best to bypass methods, but there are few of us capable of such a leap of consciousness. The rest of us need methods.
Awaken: I am grateful to have had this hour with you! Thank you, Ram Dass, for your time, for sharing your journey, your stories, and for everything you’ve done in the name of helping to wake up humanity!