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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Tami Simon speaks with Ram Dass, whose name means “servant of God.” Ram Dass is a respected spokesman on the integration of Western culture and Eastern philosophy. He is author of the classic book Be Here Now, and the landmark books Grist for the Mill and How Can I Help? With Sounds True, he has created several audio programs, including Experiments in Truth and Love, Service, Devotion, and the Ultimate Surrender. In this episode, Tami speaks with Ram Dass about his understanding of the “I” or the self, his experience of his guru Maharaj-ji living inside of him as a sense of presence, the individual soul, and the atman, which Ram Dass calls the “mega soul.” (64 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Ram Dass. Ram Dass, whose name means “servant of God,” was originally known as Richard Alpert. Ram Dass received his PhD in psychology from Stanford University and has taught at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of California. He began his studies in consciousness research with Timothy Leary at Harvard University in the 1960s and today is a respected spokesman on the integration of Western culture with Eastern philosophies.
Ram Dass is the author of the classic book Be Here Now and the landmark books Grist for the Mill: The Mellow Drama, Dying: An Opportunity for Awakening, Freeing the Mind, Karmuppance, God & Beyond and How Can I Help?: Stories and Reflection on Service With Sounds True, Ram Dass has created several audio learning programs, including Conscious Aging: On the Nature of Change and Facing Death, Experiments in Truth, and a new release, Love, Service, Devotion, and the Ultimate Surrender: Ram Dass on the Bhagavad Gita, a 10-session, edited and digitally remastered audio program recorded in the late 1970s at Naropa University, in which Ram Dass illuminates the Bhagavad Gita’s essential verses with insights spanning many traditions.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Ram Dass and I spoke about his experience of the “I” or the self. We also talked about different planes of consciousness, including his experience of the ego, the individual soul, and the atman, which he calls the “mega soul.” We also talked about his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, known as Majaraj-ji, and Ram Dass’s experience of Maharaj-ji living inside of him as a sense of presence. Here’s my very moving and meaningful conversation with Ram Dass, which took place at a distance with Ram Dass speaking at his home in Maui.
As many of our listeners know, Ram Dass, you suffered an almost life-threatening stroke in 1997. You now refer to this stroke as if you were “stroked by grace.” Just here at the beginning of our conversation, please talk some about how you understand being “stroked by grace.” How is this grace?
Ram Dass: When I first woke up in the hospital, the people around me had long faces and looked frightened. So I looked up at a picture of my guru on the wall, and I said, “You’ve given me your grace and then this stroke,” and he didn’t change one bit. I think I wondered whether this was grace.
So I then was [making my] movie, I went to India, and it was [this grace] for the stroke. Siddhi Ma, who was the woman who was to take over my guru’s temples, she said, “Ram Dass, you can’t imagine that Majaraji-ji would give you a stroke.” She says, “The way I see it is the stroke is a natural phenomenon, and then your reactions to it were the grace”—because I reacted to the stroke as if it were grace.
The grace of the stroke, it changed my life. It changed my life. For example, I had a book in the past called How Can I Help, which was a very good book. But now I guess I’d say the title would be How Can You Help Me?—because I guess now I’ve gotten to the dependency of sickness, and I’ve come to value it. And when I’m dependent on such people around me that we have our roles—I have my role as a patient, their role as caregiver—and I think we both see ourselves as souls. The interaction does get spiritual. And, for example, I was at a street crossing in my wheelchair, and a couple came up and said, “Can we help you to cross the street?” They felt good for that, and I felt good for that. It was a rather pleasing interaction.
Now, the other thing was I couldn’t talk for a while. That was good. [Laughs] I talk all the time. But to be talking not much was wonderful. And then, later on, as I got called upon to talk and give lectures, the silence, when there was silence, when I couldn’t recall the word—the audience loved those silences. It gives them a chance to cogitate or to meditate. I tell them that I’m going to be looking for a word, but they shouldn’t pity me because that’ll just waste the time for them.
So I guess I think now, I think my body got the stroke, and I am in the body, and there’s no reason to think that I had a stroke. My body had a stroke. It’s interesting.
TS: If your body had a stroke, what is your experience currently of the “I”? What is your experience of “I,” Ram Dass?
RD: I am consciousness. I’m not in time or space. I’m down in my heart, where my spiritual heart is loving awareness. If somebody says, “Who are you?” I say, “Ram Dass.” But I say to myself, “I am loving awareness. I am loving awareness. I am loving awareness.” That’s who I am.
TS: As I’m listening to you, Ram Dass, I’m hearing a bird in the background. I know you’re in Maui. Is that correct? Is that the sound of a bird?
RD: Yes. Yes, yes. It is a bird.
TS: I’m curious about something. You mentioned that you say to people who are listening to you at your lectures to use the space in your speech as an opportunity for meditation, contemplation, tuning into this loving awareness. What I’m curious about in terms of your experience is that here before your stroke, you were one of the master orators of our time, one of the most gifted, golden-tongued speakers I had ever recorded and met, and here now as you speak, your words come out slowly. It’s obviously much harder to weave together a complex story with lots of different threads of meaning.
I’m curious what that experience is like for you. Do you feel frustrated, or do you get angry? What’s that experience like for you as you explain what you’re feeling inside?
RD: I don’t get frustrated. It just means that I go tangentially, and it’s like I have a clothes closet of words, and then I have a concept, and the clothes closet—shall I wear red, or shall I wear purple? It takes me a little time to get the right word.
But it’s much better because the time is a contemplative or meditative time [when] I look in my heart for what is the best phrase for my concept. It’s fascinating. It’s like an inner dialogue. One thing is that I may take too long before—you will get frustrated. [Laughs] But no, this aphasia, speech, wow—just these silences. [Laughs] Just these silences.
TS: Do you feel that you have a different appreciation of the nature of consciousness after your stroke than you did before your stroke?
RD: I don’t think so because before the stroke, I had Majaraji-ji, and before Majaraji-ji, I had psychedelics, and they gave me a clear indication about what consciousness is. So I’m probably not—no, I don’t think I have any—except I separate myself from my body—because the stroke is an external affair. It’s not an internal one.
The stroke is in time, and I am infinite. My universe, my soul-universe is not in time or space.
TS: Can you help me understand, Ram Dass, what you mean by your soul when you refer to the soul?
RD: If you leave this plane of consciousness, which the things, and ego, and thoughts—the next plane of consciousness is a spiritual one, and this is the plane of soul.
Now, my soul has been through many, many incarnations. It has gone from one into another, to another, to another. Then it has come into this incarnation, which has an ego and a body and parents and all kinds of things, and a body. And then if you go beyond that, you come to what the Hindus call the atman.
It’s where you come to the big soul, the big soul—that God, guru and self are no other than one. That’s where my guru is. Now as a soul, I see, I witness the incarnation. Soul has karma that it has gotten from past lives. Soul would be individual, and the atman is not individual. The atman is the soul of the universe. Generally, we think of the ego as “me” or “I,” and that’s a thought. It’s who we think we are in the head.
When we dig deep enough through deep enough consciousness or this spiritual way, then we come to the real self, the real self. And that’s either the soul or the mega soul.
The soul—I see death as a ceremony in which the ego turns into the soul and identifies with ego and to the soul. Then after death, you get to a soul land. That’s my—the soul, of course, has no time and space. So soul land is a plane of consciousness, which has no time or space. But we project into it—we project from our egos. We project it as heaven or hell or farce or schools. Then after you get the soul land, with my guru, we will choose my next incarnation. Now, the soul land has no “my” in it.
TS: So Ram Dass, what I’m curious about is, in speaking with you here, I feel almost as if we’re in soul land here together—hearing you describe how there was a radical disidentification with the body after your stroke. I appreciate this sense of being in soul land. But what I’m curious about is how we get to what you called “mega soul.” What’s the journey from soul land, where there are individual souls, to atman, to the mega soul plane?
RD: The mega soul is all of it, [Laughs] is all planes of consciousness. The mega soul, the atman, contains the jivatman, which is the individual soul.
In order to be part of the one, you be. You be. Like, for example, take love as a path. You love people and love, and then you be, and then as you get love, love, love. When you love somebody, you say, “We are ’in love.’” Now, “in love” means not with each other. We are in the ocean of love. A person is a stimulus to you to go into that one love. You thank your lover for being the stimulus for my falling into the ocean of love.
When two people are in the ocean of love, there’s no two people. There is just love. It’s just love. In other words, to get into the one, you keep being and being and being and being and being and go in. You keep plummeting the depths of being. You go through planes of consciousness, and then you end up with all the planes of consciousness.
For example, when I got to a plane or another plane, my guru would be there waiting because he was in every plane, while we here in the world, we are only one plane. So you’d say, “How do I get there?” He mirrors my soul and my atman. In other words, it’s a real guru, somebody who mirrors for you the atman.
He mirrors love and compassion and peace and joy and wisdom. When we get that identification with our real self, we get wisdom subjectively, not objectively. When I walk up to a tree, objectively, there is a tree, an oak, but that tree has consciousness, the same consciousness I have. For me, that introduction of one consciousness with another—I know the tree. We are together in the one.
Tami, have I confused you?
TS: Well, I do have a question about the consciousness of the tree and the consciousness of the human being. I certainly can imagine a scientifically oriented person thinking about the human brain and about the way the human brain processes ideas and information, and thinking that the consciousness of a human might be quite different than whatever might be considered the wakefulness or consciousness of a tree. So I am musing on that while I’m listening to you.
RD: Well, just think of all the cells that compose the tree and the cells that our brains are. In the cells is the one.
TS: Mm hmm.
RD: I’m not giving you a scientific explanation.
TS: Yes. I realize that, and I appreciate what you’re saying, Ram Dass, and especially the unitive space in which it’s being said. I appreciate that.
I’ll tell you the actual question where I’d like to take our conversation for a moment, which is, when I hear you talk about Neem Karoli Baba, Majaraji-ji, your guru, you speak about him as a perfected being, and it feels to me that you speak about him as a being that seems far beyond your own human evolution to date. It’s with a tremendous amount of reverence and awe and as if he’s several light-years—or I don’t know what you want to call it—more perfected and developed than you find yourself as a human being. So first of all, I’m curious if that’s accurate.
RD: Yes. That’s accurate. It’s like walking up a path on a mountain and as if there’s a guy in front of you, and he says, “Come on, come on. I see the road ahead, and I’m telling you it’s alright. It’s alright.” A teacher would be somebody who walks along with you and says, “It’s OK. It’s OK because we both see it’s OK.” But he is the guru.
Yes. Tami, I—see, Tami, I am not the one in my consciousness because I have still individuality. And he, for example, when I come near him, I feel love for everybody in the universe. I feel when I get into his aura, his aura is just an ocean of love, and all I can do is witness that as a soul. I can’t be it yet, even though I know that I will be it and we are being it. But I can’t do it with the ego I have.
TS: I recognize and appreciate the humility of your statement, Ram Dass. I think the part that I’m curious about is that I hear a lot of conversation in contemporary circles about how really this idea of the human guru is filled with a lot of projections of our ideal nature onto another human being and that no matter how far anyone’s progressed, they’re still human with their human shadows and issues to work out and that it’s more realistic to see these supposed “gurus” even from the East through a lens of psychological awareness that they’re still human beings with material to work out and that we’re projecting idealization on them. I’m curious what you think about that.
RD: You know, I was around Majaraji-ji, and as a psychologist, I could not see a personality. You remember the story that I gave him psilocybin, and I saw him take pills that you or me would find disruptive to our systems, and nothing happened to him. Nothing happened. If you read the words of these people like Ramana Maharshi or Rama Krishna or Nityananda, they’re so much the same.
They are coming from the same space. You can see the difference in their personalities, but they don’t identify with their personalities in the same way that I do not identify with my body. My body is 80 years old. My body has a stroke. But I am infinite. I get into my consciousness right at the outer edge, and I have Majaraji-ji.
You know, Tami, when I went to India, I came home and said, “I’ve got a jewel here.” We in the West have a range of—at the top side, we have Einstein, Lincoln, and something like that—and I’ve suddenly come across human beings who make me think that the—see, Jesus is an example, or Buddha is an example. Abraham is an example.
TS: I think I’m starting to appreciate your experience of Majaraji-ji. My question is, how do you relate to Majaraji-ji? You mentioned that God, guru, and the self are inseparable. So, how do you relate to this great being from a place of inseparability?
RD: The word “relate” is probably what we’re having difficulty with because he is inside me. I talk to him with ego and atman.
His consciousness—he ended up in that body in India. Now he’s assumed another body, an astro body. When I relate to him, I identify with the presence. He is presence, and in my world, he is presence, and I identify with that presence. That’s when I am atman. I can’t stay in it because it isn’t me. Because it’s—I can be anywhere, and I’ll feel that presence. Then I’ll go back in my imagination—this is pretty weird—and I talk with him, as long as I feel that presence. I’ll talk in my imagination because he permeates my imagination.
TS: Ram Dass, I just have a couple more questions for you. You know you have here, at age 80, accomplished so much in your life and have benefited so many people, and I’m curious if you have any sense if you have something yet you want to accomplish here on Earth.
RD: What suffering I see in my fellow humans and the earth—I want to be a tiny bit of the force that changes that. I’m not presenting myself as Buddha or as Jesus or as Majaraji-ji, but I just want to be in that force. The way I’d say it is I want to carry out my guru’s will, I guess.
TS: That’s beautiful. Ram Dass, I’ve seen it written that you were asked to sum up your life’s message and that what you said was, “I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself as a way to help people.” I’m curious, how are you currently “working on yourself,” if that makes any sense to you now? Do you feel you are currently working on yourself?
RD: Sure. Sure. Well, I cozy up to Majaraji-ji so that I can hear this message. I’ll take my mala, my beads, and I’ll say the names of God with each bead, the names of the one. The Sufis have the names of God, and the Hindus. So those names are the atman. Trying to keep—by keeping all of the objects of this plane, I say “ram-ize” them. I “ram-ize” them because I “ram, ram, ram, ram, ram,” and then I get the one.
How do I help people? That’s—my name is—“Ram” is “God,” and “Dass” is “servant.” I serve God by helping people to get in their souls and get to the atman. If I pass a person on the street, I look at that person as a soul. That gives them a little help to becoming one with God. You know, Tami, this is a strange interview [Laughs]
TS: Why do you say so?
RD: Well, I’m opening up things that I haven’t even talked to myself about [Laughs] You’re a good interviewer. [Laughs]
TS: Well, thank you. And I have to say that in this conversation, I feel a sense of cozying up to the energy of Majaraji-ji, that ocean of love, and I feel that you’ve really brought that presence to our Sounds True listeners. I’m so grateful for that. I know that the people listening have now the opportunity to tune into that loving awareness that you’ve brought here, both in your words and in the spaces between your words. So thank you so much, Ram Dass. Thank you for being so loving and for sharing so vulnerably.
RD: Thank you very much, Tami. Thank you. Namaste.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Ram Dass. He’s in Maui. We’ve been talking to each other about what it’s like to live in soul land.
Ram Dass has created with Sounds True several audio programs, including a series called Experiments in Truth, which is a collection of classic lectures by Ram Dass from the ’60s to the ’90s. We’ve also just recently released a series of teachings on the Bhagavad Gita. It’s called Love, Service, Devotion, and the Ultimate Surrender: Ram Dass on the Bhagavad Gita. This is a series of lectures that Ram Dass gave at Naropa University in the late 1970s. It’s considered to be an all-time classic series of lectures that Sounds True digitally edited and remastered. Sounds True has also released a wonderful program with Ram Dass called Conscious Aging: On the Nature of Change and Facing Death. Thanks, everyone, for listening. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.