April 6, 1931
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Occupation||Spiritual teacher, author|
Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert; April 6, 1931) is an American spiritual teacher, former academic and clinical psychologist, and the author of the seminal 1971 book Be Here Now. He is known for his personal and professional associations with Timothy Leary at Harvard University in the early 1960s, for his travels to India and his relationship with the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, and for founding the charitable organizations Seva Foundation and Hanuman Foundation. He continues to teach via his website.
Youth and education
Richard Alpert was born to a Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts. His father, George Alpert, was a lawyer in Boston, president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, one of the founders of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as well as a major fundraiser for Jewish causes. While Alpert did have a bar mitzvah, he was “disappointed by its essential hollowness”. He considered himself an atheist and did not profess any religion during his early life, describing himself as “inured to religion. I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics.”
Alpert attended the Williston Northampton School, graduating in 1948 as a part of the Cum Laude Association. He then went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tufts University, a master’s degree from Wesleyan University, and a doctorate (all in psychology) from Stanford University. His father had wanted him to go to medical school, but while at Tufts he decided he wanted to study psychology instead. Alpert’s mentor at Wesleyan, David McClelland, then recommended Alpert to Stanford, where he began his PhD studies in the early 1950s. Alpert wrote his doctoral thesis on “achievement anxiety.” After receiving his PhD, Alpert taught at Stanford for a year and began psychoanalysis.
Harvard professorship and research
McClelland moved to Cambridge to teach at Harvard University, and helped Alpert accept a tenure-track position there in 1958 as an assistant clinical psychology professor. Alpert worked with the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service, where he was a therapist. He specialized in human motivation and personality development, and published his first book Identification and Child Rearing.
Perhaps most notable was the work he did with his close friend and associate Timothy Leary, a lecturer in clinical psychology at the university. Alpert and Leary had met through McClelland, who headed the Center for Research in Personality where Alpert and Leary both did research. Alpert was McClelland’s deputy in the lab. After returning from a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley in 1961, Alpert devoted himself to joining Leary in experimentation with and intensive research to the potentially therapeutic effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, LSD-25, and other psychedelic chemicals, through their Harvard Psilocybin Project. In addition, Alpert assisted Harvard Divinity School graduate student Walter Pahnke in his 1962 “Good Friday Experiment” with theology students, the first controlled, double-blind study of drugs and the mystical experience.
Alpert and Leary co-founded the non-profit International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in order to carry out studies in the religious use of psychedelic drugs, and were both on the board of directors. Leary and Alpert were formally dismissed from Harvard in 1963. According to Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey, Leary was dismissed for leaving Cambridge and his classes without permission or notice, and Alpert for allegedly giving psilocybin to an undergraduate.
Millbrook and psychedelic counterculture (1963–1967)
In 1963 Alpert, Leary, and their followers moved to the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook, New York, after IFIF’s New York City branch director and Mellon fortune heiress Peggy Hitchcock arranged for her brother Billy to rent the estate to IFIF. Alpert and Leary immediately set up a communal group with former Psilocybin Project members at the estate (commonly known as “Millbrook”), and the IFIF was subsequently disbanded and renamed the Castalia Foundation (after the intellectual colony in Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game). The core group at Millbrook, whose journal was the Psychedelic Review, sought to cultivate the divinity within each person. At Millbrook, they experimented with psychedelics and often participated in group LSD sessions, looking for a permanent route to higher consciousness. The Castalia Foundation hosted weekend retreats on the estate where people paid to undergo the psychedelic experience without drugs, through meditation, yoga, and group therapy sessions.
Alpert and Leary continued on to co-author a book entitled The Psychedelic Experience with Ralph Metzner, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it was published in 1964. Alpert co-authored LSD with Sidney Cohen and Lawrence Schiller in 1966.
Spiritual search and name change
In 1967 Alpert traveled to India where he met and traveled with the American spiritual seeker Bhagavan Das, and ultimately met the man who would become his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, at Kainchiashram, whom Alpert called “Maharaj-ji”. It was Maharaj-ji who gave Alpert the name “Ram Dass”, which means “servant of God”, referring to the incarnation of God as Ram or Lord Rama. Alpert also corresponded with the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba and mentioned Baba in several of his books.
Be Here Now
After Alpert returned to America as Ram Dass, he stayed at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, as a guest. Ram Dass had helped Steve Durkee (Nooruddeen Durkee) and Barbara Durkee (Asha Greer or Asha von Briesen) co-found the countercultural, spiritual community in 1967, and it had an ashram dedicated to Ram Dass’s guru. During Ram Dass’s visit, he presented a manuscript he had written, entitled From Bindu to Ojas. The community’s residents edited, illustrated, and laid out the text, which ultimately became a best-selling book when published under the name Be Here Now in 1971. The 416-page manual for conscious being was published by the Lama Foundation, as Ram Dass’ benefit for the community. Be Here Nowcontained Ram Dass’ account of his spiritual journey, as well as recommended spiritual techniques and quotes. The proceeds from the book helped sustain the Lama Foundation for several years, after which they donated the book’s copyright and half its proceeds to the Hanuman Foundation in Taos.
Foundations and Living/Dying Project
During the 1970s, Ram Dass was focused on teaching, writing, and working with foundations. He founded the Hanuman Foundation, a nonprofit educational and service organization that initiated the Prison-Ashram Project (now known as the Human Kindness Foundation), in 1974. The Hanuman Foundation is focused on the spiritual well-being of society through education, media and community service programs. He co-founded the Seva Foundation by joining with health-care workers to treat the blind in India, Nepal, and developing countries. Co-founded in 1978 with public health leader Larry Brilliant and humanitarian activist Wavy Gravy, it has become an international health organization.
In the early 1970s, Ram Dass taught workshops on conscious aging and dying around the United States. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was one of his students. Ram Dass helped create the Dying Project with its Executive Director Dale Borglum, whom he had met in India. At the time, Borglum was also Executive Director of the Hanuman Foundation. The Living/Dying Project, based in Marin, California starting in 1986, was initially named the Dying Center and located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Dying Center was the first residential facility in the U.S. where people came to die consciously.
The Love Serve Remember Foundation was organized to preserve and continue the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass. Ram Dass also serves on the faculty of the Metta Institutewhere he provides training on mindful and compassionate care of the dying.
Over the course of his life since the inception of his Hanuman Foundation, Ram Dass has given all of his book royalties and profits from teaching to his foundation and other charitable causes. The estimated amount of earnings he has given away annually ranges from $100,000 to $800,000.
At 60 years of age, Ram Dass began exploring Judaism seriously for the first time. “My belief is that I wasn’t born into Judaism by accident, and so I needed to find ways to honor that”, he says. “From a Hindu perspective, you are born as what you need to deal with, and if you just try and push it away, whatever it is, it’s got you.”
Leary and Ram Dass, who had grown apart after Ram Dass denounced Leary in a 1974 news conference, reconciled in 1983 at Harvard (at a reunion for the 20th anniversary of their controversial firing from the Harvard faculty), and reunited before Leary’s death in May 1996.
In February 1997, Ram Dass had a stroke that left him with expressive aphasia, which he interprets as an act of grace. He stated, “The stroke was giving me lessons, and I realized that was grace—fierce grace…Death is the biggest change we’ll face, so we need to practice change.” He lives on Maui and hasn’t left the Hawaiian Islands since 2004, when he almost died from an infection after a trip to India. However, he has continued to make public appearances and talks at small venues; he holds retreats in Maui; and he continues to teach through live webcasts. When asked if he could sum up his life’s message, he replied, “I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people … to me, that’s what the emerging game is all about.” Ram Dass was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in August 1991.
In 2003, Wayne Dyer published a plea for donations for Ram Dass’ support due to his declining health following the stroke, “Now it is our turn…Ram Dass’ body can no longer endure the rigors of travel. He has come to Maui, where I live and write. I speak with him frequently and I am often humbled by the tears in his beautiful 73-year-old eyes as he apologizes for not having prepared for his own elderly health care—for what he now perceives as burdensome to others. He still intends to write and teach; however without the travel—we can now come to him. Maui is healing—Maui is where Ram Dass wishes to stay for now! He is currently living in a home on Maui, which he doesn’t own and is currently in jeopardy of losing. I am asking all of you to help purchase this home and to set up a financial foundation to take care of this man who has raised so much money to ensure the futures of so many others. To live out what Ram Dass has practiced with his actions. Please be generous and prompt—no one is more deserving of our love and financial support.” 
In 2013, Ram Dass released a memoir and summary of his teaching, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart. In an interview about the book, at age 82, he said that his earlier reflections about facing old age and death now seem naive to him. He said, in part: “Now, I’m in my 80s … Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end. … Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me.”
In the 1990s, Ram Dass discussed his bisexuality while avoiding labels. He stated, “I’ve started to talk more about being bisexual, being involved with men as well as women,” and added his opinion that being gay “isn’t gay, and it’s not not-gay, and it’s not anything—it’s just awareness.” At 78, Ram Dass learned that he had fathered a son as a 24-year-old, at Stanford during a brief affair with a history major named Karen Saum, and that he was now a grandfather. The fact came to light when his son Peter Reichard, a 53-year-old banker in North Carolina, took a DNA test after learning about his mother’s doubt concerning Peter’s heritage.
- Identification and Child Rearing (with R. Sears and L. Rau) (1962) Stanford University Press
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- LSD (with Sidney Cohen) (1966) ISBN 0-453-00120-3
- Be Here Now or Remember, Be Here Now (1971) ISBN 0-517-54305-2
- Doing Your Own Being (1973)
- The Only Dance There Is (1974) ISBN 0-385-08413-7
- Grist for the Mill (with Stephen Levine) (1977) ISBN 0-89087-499-9
- Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook (1978) ISBN 0-553-28572-6
- Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba (1978) ISBN 0-525-47611-3
- How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service (with Paul Gorman) (1985) ISBN 0-394-72947-1
- Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service (with Mirabai Bush) (1991) ISBN 0-517-57635-X
- Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying (2000) ISBN 1-57322-871-0
- Paths to God: Living The Bhagavad Gita (2004) ISBN 1-4000-5403-6
- Be Love Now (with Rameshwar Das) (2010) ISBN 1-84604-291-7
- Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart (with Rameshwar Das) (2013) ISBN 1-60407-967-3
- Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying (with Mirabai Bush) (2018) ISBN 1-68364-200-7
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