Ram Dass, at age 71, in Woodside before moving to Maui in 2004. Photo: DARRYL BUSH, SFC
Richard Alpert had a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University and an expertise in achievement anxiety when he was hired as an assistant professor at Harvard University. There he began personal research into the medicinal qualities of hallucinogenic drugs. This got him fired, and thats when his enlightenment began.
Renamed Ram Dass, Servant of God, he became a vastly influential professor in the independent study of psychology, psychedelics and mysticism.
Dass, who lived for many years in Marin County, died at his home in the north shore of Maui on Sunday, Dec. 22. He was 88. Cause of death was an infection that spread to his lungs, said Rameshwar Das, his longtime friend and co-author. Dass had suffered a severe stroke in 1997 that left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, and ultimately led to his death.
Good grief is shared by all, said Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, when reached by phone. He was our light in the dark. His book Be Here Now was the switch that turned on the light for millions.
Be Here Now, published in 1971, combined Eastern mysticism and Western psychology into a usable practice of spirituality. Still in print, it has sold more than 2 million copies. Dass two other influential titles are Be Love Now, published in 2010, and Polishing the Mirror, published in 2014.
Most recently, he co-authored Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, from 2018. Dass and Das had been co-authoring a memoir, to be titled Being Ram Dass, which Das plans to complete. It is scheduled for publication in 2021.
Ram Dass was able to mix the Eastern practices of wisdom, love and compassion in language that is accessible to generations of Western seekers, said Das. People love his self-deprecating humor and his deep insights into practical life experience.
Richard Alpert was born April 6, 1931, in Newton, Mass. He graduated from Williston Northampton School in 1948 and went on to Tufts University, where he earned a bachelor of arts in psychology. He later attended Wesleyan University where he earned his masters degree. After earning his PhD at Stanford, he was hired to the faculty as a lecturer but left that for a tenure track job as an assistant professor at Harvard.
In the Harvard psychology department, he fell in with Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner. The three of them started experimenting with mind-altering drugs and co-authored an academic textbook titled The Psychedelic Experience.
As part of his research, Alpert started administering psychedelic drugs to an undergraduate, which got him booted out of Harvard in 1963. Undaunted, he continued to pursue his research in Mexico.
By 1966, he was back in the Bay Area as a freelance researcher and lecturer living in Berkeley. In a state hearing regarding the drug culture, Alpert appeared to testify, dressed professorial in black-framed glasses and a business suit.
Im one of the people who causes you all the trouble, he said, before volunteering that he had taken LSD 328 times.
This helped his reputation, further enhanced by his pep talk from the stage at the January 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, which launched the Summer of Love.
Richard Alpert was an articulate and irreverent spokesman for the whole counterculture movement of the 1960s, said Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the 50s and Ushered in a New Age in America, published in 2010. He didnt come across as an all-knowing guru. He always seemed like just another spiritual seeker.
In this search he went to India, in the fall of 1967 to study with Neem Karoli Baba, known as Maharaj-ji. After learning yoga and meditation, he took a six-month spiritual quest into the Himalayas and when he returned in March 1968, the Western name and ego of Richard Alpert had vanished. He was Ram Dass from that moment forward.
In a nationwide radio show, shortly after his return, Dass explained the relationship with his guru, Maharaj-ji.
When Im in his presence I experience ecstasy and bliss from the depth of the love that our relationship has for me, he said. And thats a drunken kind of love where I often find myself just dissolved into tears because Ive just never experienced such profound love from any being.
Dass introduced himself at a lecture at his alma mater. Hed just come from six months of silent meditation in the Himalayas and had plenty to say. The presentation started at 7:30 p.m. and didnt end it until 3 a.m. Along the way someone turned out the lights, as a hint to wrap things up, but Dass just kept going in the dark.
That lecture changed my point of view, said Das, who had been a Wesleyan junior named Jim Lytton at the time. It went from seeing yourself as the center of the universe to seeing yourself as a grain of sand on the ocean floor.
After many years as a vagabond, always on tour or teaching retreats, Dass came to Santa Cruz in the mid-1980s before moving to Marin, living a few years each in Mill Valley, San Anselmo and Tiburon. While living in San Anselmo, Dass launched a radio show called Be Here Now with Ram Dass.
He had just moved past the pilot episode and was looking to syndicate it when he suffered his stroke.
He was very articulate, funny and irreverent, and was a popular public speaker, said Lattin. Then he lost the ability to speak and had to re-invent himself.
After lengthy rehab in both Marin and in Woodside, Dass relocated to Maui in 2004.
In 2010, he learned that he had fathered a son with Karen Saum, an undergraduate at Stanford while he was teaching there. That son, Peter Reichard, was 52 when he met his dad. Reichard lives in Greensboro, N.C., but regularly visited his dad in Maui from that point on. Dass also had a longtime partner in San Francisco, who requested not to be named in Being Ram Dass.
Among Dass projects is the Love Serve Remember Foundation, which organizes two retreats a year at a resort in Maui, attracts up to 400 seekers of all ages each session. Also part of his legacy are the Living/Dying Project, a Fairfax-based counseling service for people facing death, and Seva Foundation in Berkeley, which he co-founded with Wavy Gravy and others, to eliminate curable blindness in third-world countries.
In lieu of a memorial service, the Love Serve Remember Foundation is planning a worldwide Be Here Now Moment, with details to be posted at ramdass.org.Wavy Gravy has already contributed, with a poem he wrote Monday, Dec. 23, upon hearing of the death of his old friend: This servant of God whose light burned bright on Maui now illuminates eternity.
Ralph Metzner, Bay Area expert on hallucinogens, death and psychology, dies
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