Ram Dass (1931-2019) was a brilliant mystic, teacher, and psychedelic pioneer.
Yet before his awakening in 1961, he was Richard Alpert: a psychology professor at Harvard. He followed society's rulebook and attained all the requisite money, status — even his own Cessna.
Then Timothy Leary came to Harvard.
Leary introduced him to psilocybin as a consciousness-expanding medicine. According to Ram Dass, Leary began "exploring these chemicals because he said he had learned more in this one experience than he had learnt in all of his years as a psychologist" (The First Encounter, Ram Dass 2012).
Ram Dass writes about his first experience with psilocybin, on March 6th 1961, during a snowstorm at Leary's house:
"I was sitting in the semi darkness, the light came in from the street, it was snowing, and it was very beautiful. I was sitting there and suddenly in the dark across the room, I saw a figure standing there and as I looked more closely I realized that the figure was myself.
It was dressed in a cap and gown strangely enough, and what I saw was my ‘professorness’ across the room.
It was what you call in psychology, what I called at the time a dissociative experience.
And so I looked at this ‘professorness’ and I said well, it wasn’t me any longer. I was here and there was it, and I said, ‘Well I guess I don’t really need that anymore’ and I sat back and relaxed.
And the minute I said ‘I don’t need that anymore’ the figure changed and it was somebody else and I sat forward and there I was again except now I was the young cosmopolite. My ‘cosmpoliteness’ was sitting over there -- alright well I guess I can do without that. Sat back.
And in a sequence went by all of my social roles: ‘loverness’, ‘wise man’, ‘kind person’, all of my roles and each one: ‘OK, well too bad about that one’, there it goes.
And then went by ‘Richard Alpertness’.
Now, this was another matter you see.
This was, this was who I learned to be, way back then.
What happened when you gave that up? And through my mind went the thought, ‘What have I taken with this drug that this mad man Leary has given me?’ See it’s already his fault!
And what’s clearly going to happen now is that I’m going to be an amnesia case because I’m losing my identity.
I won't know who I am. Alright, well I can always get another social identity.
I went through this thought process. I’ll give up ‘Richard Alpertness’.
At least I am my body.
As those of you that have experimented with this world know, I had spoken prematurely because as I looked down at the couch nothing below my knees was visible any longer and as I watched, slowly, it all disappeared until there was only the couch, on which I was sitting.
Now the kind of panic I experienced at that time has been reported, usually in the tabloids, as the dire consequences of irresponsible use of psychedelics. Because there was nothing in my model of the universe that led me to believe that if I was not in my body there would be anything left, so as far as I was concerned I was dying or ceasing to exist. That was it.
And I recall the feeling. I recall the adrenaline flowing. I recall the sweat breaking out. I recall wanting to scream out for help.
I recall all those feelings and as the panic was mounting in whatever it was mounting in since I wasn’t seeing anything, a voice inside of me said, very quietly and rather jocularly it seemed to me, in view of the gravity of the situation, “But who’s minding the store?”
And I became aware at that moment that although everything by which I knew myself was gone, still there was something in me that was watching this whole process disappear.
There was what I at the time was calling a scanning device or a point of awareness; something in there that had no reference to body; no reference to personality; no reference to any of my social roles and yet there it was clear and lucid and watching the whole thing and just, you know, watching it all happen.
And the minute I defined it or labelled it or named it, I experienced a tremendous exhilaration, a tremendous feeling of liberation.
And I remember jumping up and I ran out into the snow and danced in the snow."
The Reverse Ego Trip: Kleshas & The Yoga Sutras
The process of ego dis-identification that Ram Dass experienced is paralleled in the Yoga tradition.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras — often considered an essential classical text for many modern practitioners — points to this process in the second sutra: yoga citta vritti nirodha.
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
These fluctuations, of course, are our thoughts and the identifications that arise from them: I am me, I have this body, I hate this body part, I want coffee, oh how I love Saturdays, I wish my house looked like theirs, why can't my partner behave right, this room is too cold...
...and so on and so on until we die.
Yoga, thankfully, offers us a way out of this vicious cycle. What follows in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is the way out of suffering.
(There are numerous other texts in the yoga tradition that provide insight on the path of awakening — I can only best speak to my own experience, which is through Patanjali's lens).
It's clear from the second sutra, that the mind is what's stirring up trouble.
With the psilocybin coursing through his system, a new way of seeing and being suddenly emerged for Ram Dass in 1961: he had enough cognitive distance to observe the workings of his own mind.
In fact, his first mushroom trip brings him on a journey through the 5 kleshas of yoga, where he confronts and surpasses the obstacles on the path to liberation.
In the second chapter of The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines the kleshas, or obstacles:
1. Avidya ~ Ignorance/Not Seeing Clearly
2. Asmita ~ Ego
3. Raga ~ Attachment
4. Dvesha ~ Aversion
5. Abhinivesha ~ Clinging to Life
Notice a parallel between the kleshas and Ram Dass's magic mushroom ride?
As Richard Alpert, he was still deeply enmeshed in his identification as a well-to-do Harvard professor.
And who could blame him? How else could he know himself, since Western culture encourages us to construct our personalities and then vehemently stick to them? Isn't the most fundamental philosophical question, "Who am I?"
What is your answer to "Who Am I?"
A name, a series of qualities, roles, achievements, relationships?
This, according to old Patanjali, is where the trouble begins.
This mis-identification with form is avidya, or "not seeing clearly."
We've labeled every nook and cranny of the known universe, but we've forgotten the essential truth that naming does not confer knowing.
In fact, the opposite may be more true: that naming incites more avidya, more separation, more awareness of the distinctions of form, and less awareness that everything is connected.
Avidya can be likened to a dirty pane of glass, making it difficult to see reality.
The psilocybin had shattered the warped glass of avidya, and suddenly Richard Alpert/Ram Dass could see what illumined masters had realized for millennia before him.
Here Alpert/Ram Dass was experiencing his ego in a unique way: not as a totally enmeshed personality, but as a non-judgmental observer.
The constructs of his personality appeared before him, and from his newfound vantage point in the seat of awareness, he could relax and release the roles he was so accustomed to playing: "lover, wise man, kind person."
He had accessed the witness mind on his trip. Yoga practitioners also know this state of non-judgmental awareness as the vijnanamayakosha: the space beyond the grasp of our normal mental patternings. It's a state frequented by meditators, though it's often interrupted (at least in my experience) by clinging to a certain thought....which is where the next klesha, or obstacle, comes in: raga, or attachment.
Ram Dass describes this confrontation with his "self": he sees his 'Richard Alpertness' before him, and is struck by losing this identity.
As he says: "I won't know who I am."
In Yoga, however, there are two selves. Two points of reference from which we can experience life: the self & the Self.
It was the self with the lowercase 's' that Alpert was losing in those auspicious moments at Leary's Boston home. The lowercase 's' is the conglomeration of your characteristics, your likes and dislikes, your dreams and failures and glories...all the stuff that seemingly makes 'you' you.
Consider how attached you are to the roles you play in your life. Who would you be without your job, your relationships, your clothes, your opinions, your labels?
None of these statements fully reflect who you truly are, nor are they static, permanent states of being (though we sure do cling to them).
The next klesha, dvesha, or aversion, is the counterpart to raga. Just as yin requires yang, to be attached to anything implies we want to avoid other things. I vote this way; I loathe people whom vote that way. I am part of this organization; I'd rather be caught dead than be a part of that organization...and so on.
The cocktail of your attachments and aversions make up your lowercase 'self.'
During his trip, Alpert/Ram Dass had moved into the uppercase 'S' Self: he could let go of his ego identifications without too much stress.
Even when he lost his body, imagining it disappear (I can't help but be reminded of Michael Pollan's deeply moving piece in The New York Times Magazine about his ego-dissolving trip, where he experienced a very similar phenomena of watching "himself" disappear with a sense of peace and wonder).
The raga and dvesha, or attachment and aversion, that we experience with our bodies is rife with difficulty. I could mourn all the hours of my life spent on self-loathing, judgment, and 'fixing' my body. Attachment and aversion are alive and well in the average modern body.
Both Alpert/Ram Dass and Pollan dismantled attachment and aversion with their physical form during their trips.
Now, attachment to the body isn't unwarranted -- keeping it alive certainly seems like a reasonable thing to do. This brings us to Patanjali's final klesha, abhinivehsa, or clinging to life.
If we cling to our iPhones and loved ones and voting record, then surely we cling to our own lives. It's no wonder that in the West, the collective obsession with acquiring wealth and status is abutted by a taboo terror of death.
We shut away death. It represents the ultimate unknown, the ultimate lack of control. And we've grown so terribly good at grasping, at holding on for dear life.
This is why Patanjali's final klesha — the last poison on the path to awakening — is so difficult for many modern yoga students. When I teach the kleshas during the 200hr Yoga Teacher Training program at The Lotus Pond Center, this last sticking point is troublesome for many YTTs.
But stop to consider how your fear of death, as unconscious as it might be, actually may govern your life.
And if you lose your fear of death, how might your life actually become more enlivened?
To lose your grip on your job title or accomplishments or material possessions is one thing; to lose your grip on your life is quite another, and with it comes great empowerment.
As Alpert/Ram Dass watched his body dissolve, he completed what I like to call his Reverse Ego Trip: instead of growing inflated on one's constructed identity, one lets it go.
On the other side is the liberation Patanjali promises in the Yoga Sutras.
It is the awakening of the Buddha.
If you want to be at one with everything, you must sacrifice your own self-importance...
...and the good news? Alpert still had a body! He ran out into the snow and danced! He rejoiced in being alive. And this would be the catalyst that eventually propelled him to India, where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, and would return from that trip as Ram Dass.
Thank you, Ram Dass, for your teachings and your light. I know you didn't suffer from abhinivesha, so when you died and slipped back into the vast ocean of consciousness last week, I know there was no fear.
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