My ‘Being Ram Dass’ book review will look at this newly published autobiography of Ram Dass and hopefully inspire you to read it for yourself!
In the afterword of this book, Ram Dass states that he was not particularly interested in writing an autobiography. He spent the major part of his life cultivating presence and not living in the past or the future. Ram Dass was persuaded to write this memoir by Ramesh after he suggested it be angled as a review of his life through the eyes of his guru, Maharaj-ji. As a result we have a wonderful document of the life of Ram Dass. It is written in the intelligent, honest, open and charismatic way one would expect of Ram Dass.
Who is Ram Dass?
Ram Dass was / is a famous spiritual teacher. He left his body on 22nd December 2019 on the Island of Maui, Hawaii. During his lifetime he undertook extensive lecture tours, ran retreats and authored over a dozen books. ‘Be Here Now’, his first book, sold over 2 million copies. It is through this book that I started to dig deeper into the teachings of Ram Dass. He is also known for popularising interest in psychedelic drugs in the 1960’s alongside his colleague and friend Timothy Leary.
The inspiration for buying a copy of Be Here Now was found in David Williams’ memoir ‘My Search for Yoga’ which you can read a review of here: https://yogasmiths.org/2020/05/28/my-search-for-yoga-by-david-williams-book-review/
Richard Alpert at the height of The American Dream
Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert. He was a chubby child who ate to please his mother. As a psychologist he would later have to work through some issues around this! He was born into a practicing Jewish family. The family were very well connected, his mother was from a wealthy family and his father became a wealthy self-made man. His father was friends with Albert Einstein which gives a feel for the kind of circles they mixed in!
However, their family life was always slightly marred by his fathers multiple affairs. Richard’s father wanted him to become a doctor. He had already begun to feel a sense of ‘otherness’ or a feeling of being a bit of an outsider. This resulted in him being drawn to psychology.
Richard Alpert ultimately reached the pinnacle of this career, despite crippling exam nerves, becoming a professor at Harvard. He was an embodiment of the American Dream. Richard had achieved professional respect, wealth, a sports car, a motorbike, a home full of valuable antiques and his own aeroplane. The kind of position he achieved is demonstrated in the story he tells of wanting to go to Mexico and buying a plane to travel there.
Feelings of being something of an outsider led him to travel to the west coast and to San Fransisco. He embraced the counter culture surrounding the Beat Generation poets and authors. Poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac et al were attended. Richard struggled with his bisexuality and began to feel that he was leading a bit of a double life, a life as the respectable professor in Harvard and then a different life style in San Fransisco. It is clear that he struggled with shame around this due to the social pressures and cultural attitudes of the time.
Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary – psychedelic researchers
A new psychologist joined the faculty staff at Harvard by the name of Timothy Leary. Richard and Tim became great friends and embarked on research together. Their research moved into a very different area after Timothy Leary took magic mushrooms on the recommendation of a friend. Consequently, they started to investigate the effects of various psychedelic drugs as a potentially beneficial tools in psychotherapy. Research into this had already been taking place in some institutions. It later came to light that the US government has funded a project looking at the potential use of LSD in warfare. Allen Ginsberg took LSD as part of that particular project.
We must remember that at this time everything that was taking place was under the cover of research and was completely legal. This was well before the war on drugs. It struck me how meticulous they were with their research. They has a real sense of responsibility around the research. Dosages of drugs, environment and provision of a guide were all important features.
The approach taken by Richard and Tim is in stark contrast to that of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who advocated taking as many drugs as you wanted and seeing what happened. Richard however was sacked from Harvard after he gave drugs to a handsome undergraduate who had caught his eye and asked for them.
Tim and Richard continued research independently. They were chased and evicted from place to place trying to set up a research centre into psychedelics. We get a feel that at around this time, things probably weren’t as fastidious as they had previously been. It felt as though Richard had become something akin to a drug dealer and this is when he took a step back.
From Dr Richard Alpert PhD to Ram Dass
Being Ram Dass is very much about the internal journey of Richard Alpert to Ram Dass.
Ram Dass discusses psychedelics as a gateway drug. Often this refers to a gateway to harder drugs. He postulates that they were a gateway but in a different way. They were a gateway to opening to the living spirit beyond the materialism and existential constructs of 1950’s America. In essence, they enabled him to let go of the labels, ego and conditionings and to see a connectedness with everyone and everything. He liked the mystical experience that he found.
The Zen meditation teacher Alan Watts advised him that “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” Richard took some time before he hung up the phone!
A trip to India was a pivotal changing point in his life. Richard Alpert met Neem Karoli Baba affectionately known to his followers as Maharaj-ji. He gave Richard Alpert his new name of Ram Dass literally meaning servant of God. Maharaji-ji sent him to learn yoga and an intense period of study ensued.
During this period Maharaj-ji gave Ram Dass his blessing for his book. Ram Dass had no plans to write a book! The book that eventually materialised was ‘Be Here Now’ which is a classic guide to yoga and spirituality. You can find a link to our book reviews at the bottom of the page where you will find my ‘Be Here Now’ review.
Beware of dodgy gurus
Ram Dass embarked on a journey of spiritual discovery. He embraced and sought out different teachers and techniques but remained faithful to his teacher Maharaj-ji.
There is an interesting part of the book where he discusses studying under different gurus. He refers to ‘gurus along the way.’ One promised him wealth and power, trying to pitch Yoga to a westerner in a way that the guru thought he would be interested. Wealth and power were not attractive to Ram Dass. They are not a spiritual path. He had experienced wealth and power in his career and he resonated more with Maharaji-ji’s path of the heart. His intention had moved from the head to the heart.
The spiritual journey in India features an array of famous names. It is clear that there were a group of like minded searchers converging on India. These people then radiated the teachings out across the world.
Ram Dass’ mantra gift
The book is full of beautiful insightful quotes. I wanted to share in this ‘Being Ram Dass book’ review the mantra that he gives the reader.
Nowadays the mantra I give everyone is “I am Loving Awareness,” which is my own simple practice. The love is bhakti, the awareness is Buddhism: awareness and love, wisdom and compassion, formless and form, consciousness and love.Ram Dass – Being Ram Dass
Ram Dass Stroke in 1997
In 1997 Ram Dass suffered a major stroke from which he was given a 10% chance of survival. After a series of further health issues including a broken hip and sepsis, Ram Dass became quite frail and more dependent on his carers. He talks about how this enforced change resulted in a spiritual shift in how he viewed his service to others. Ram Dass became a being of presence and loving awareness. He loved nature and the natural world around him. Living out the later part of his life in Maui provided a connection to nature and its astounding beauty.
The stroke left him paralysed on his right side and affected his ability to talk. His speech became more broken and paused. He would ask people to ‘surf the silences’ with him. Interestingly as a listener you feel that you absorb his words more and have time to ponder and digest.
Ram Dass’ legacy
The legacy of Ram Dass lives on in his teachings, via this book and also through the numerous projects he instigated.
The Neem Karoli Baba ashram in Taos, New Mexico, is dedicated to his guru and Ram Dass was heavily involved in its realisation. Neem Karoli Baba has certainly become known in the west due to the work and life of Ram Dass. As detailed in this ‘Being Ram Dass’ book review, the inspiration for the book was to see his life through the eyes of his own guru.
Ram Dass had the foresight to record a large number of his lectures and talks. They serve to bring his teachings to new ears regularly via podcasts. You can find a link to these at the end of the review.
The SEVA foundation was another initiative that Ram Dass was involved in setting up. This is a fantastic organisation that works to restore people’s sight via cataract surgery around the world. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what the organisation has evolved into.
In the 1980s when the HIV epidemic was rife he sought to comfort those dying and to spend time with them, hugging people in hospital.
An important aspect of his later life was his openness around his sexuality. He started to talk about this and embrace this aspect of his life. It is comforting to the reader to note that he had a 19 year loving relationship with his partner Peter. I am glad that Ram Dass lived to see the world’s attitude around LGBTQ+ rights take some big steps forward. He details that he struggled with this so much but thankfully made peace with it and this was a real release for him.
Final Words from Ram Dass
The book ends with;
I have learned that we are all blessed and guided from within even when we lose faith or feel lost. That guide, the real guru, is our own being, our true nature.Ram Dass – Being Ram Dass
Namaste, Honouring the Light within each of us!
The back of the book list’s Maharaj-ji’s advice and guidance:
Love Everyone, Serve Everyone, Remember God, Tell The Truth.
The words of which Ram Dass certainly led his life.
Being Ram Dass Book Review Summary
I loved reading this book. It is a fascinating journey through Ram Dass’ life right up to his final moments before leaving his body. He writes with humility and is open about his failures and successes. As a whole, the book becomes a wonderful guide to the up and downs and pitfalls of life. Ram Dass imparts his knowledge and wisdom throughout. As a result the book is full of great insights and is certainly quote-worthy.
As a yoga teacher this is also a useful book. Ram Dass has a wonderful way of relating yoga practices and techniques to the challenges of daily life. He also draws from a vast array of sources from across different traditions.
The story of Ram Dass is one of turning on to different ways of thinking / living. Tuning in to eastern wisdom. Dropping out of the fluctuations of the mind to live in loving awareness. As Timothy Leary said “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out”. Ram Dass embodied the true meaning and intention of this oft quoted statement.
If after reading our Being Ram Dass book review you want to buy a copy, you can get it from Blackwells: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Being-Ram-Dass-by-Ram-Dass-author-Rameshwar-Das-author/9781683646280
If you enjoyed our ‘Being Ram Dass’ Book Review, check out these other resources:
Ram Dass’ website:
The Be Here Now network has some great podcasts to listen to;
Here is a link to the Neem Karoli Baba ashrom taht Ram Dass helped establish:
The SEVA foundation that Ram Dass set up to restore people’s sight:
Check out our other book review: