Baba Ram Dass first appeared on my radar in 1971. I am remembering him now after learning he reached the other shore on December 23, 2019. Back in the summer of ’71, I had just turned 15 and was spending a few boiling hot summer weeks at my grandparent’s house in Nashville. Many a summer was spent alone with my grandparents for a few weeks. In hindsight I realize I was sent there to reduce summer trouble/fun with my friends. That strategy unraveled quickly within the mix of my grandma, the Nashville scene, access to a new set of FM radio frequencies, and the explosive, culture movements happening all over the country at that time.
The real undoing began when Grandma took me to a local bookstore that summer. She was a strong supporter of reading and collecting books. Her shelves were stocked full with my two aunt’s complete collections of Nancy Drew books, classics from Tolstoy and Salinger, the Firefox set, and a whole lot more. I think I read them all. Then there was the bookstore, with its large table stacked about two feet high and from edge to edge with Ram Dass’ new book Be Here Now. Grandma breezed right past the display and off to the history section, or some other area of her interest. And I stood there frozen in my tracks wondering, what IS this?
There are several visceral and tactile things that happened that first time I picked up a copy of Be Here Now. First, the format is square, the cover art is “stareable” for long periods of time, and some of the pages are printed on a darker brown, Kraft-style paper. I picked it up, flipped through it, and looked at all the unusual drawings and handwritten passages. I read the captions under the pictures of the exotic people, pondered the images of the long hairs, and wondered at all the religious imagery and messaging. Bink! A light inside switched on. This book would be mine. Oh yes, it would be mine!
I met Grandma at the cash register and handed over my copy of Be Here Now, she gave it a quick glance and put it on the counter. Whew. She must have been focused on her own purchase because if she had opened it and looked through it, I would have been dispatched immediately back to the display table to return it!
My grandparents were loving and affectionate. Their love of family was matched with a passion for God-fearing, Southern conservative values. They went to great lengths to preserve the minds and views of all our family members, and they worked hard to save us all from any hint of impropriety. Thinking about this now, I am sure Ram Dass would not factor into their idea of great literature for young minds.
It was an unusual time. By the next summer I had read and re-read Be Here Now many times and had somehow lucked into a copy of the book Monday Night Class by the late Stephen Gaskins. Imagine my surprise when I realized that Stephen Gaskins and other members of The Farm were in Summertown, Tennessee! At the time it seemed odd that Tennessee, that state of civil war division, was the center of the universe for my 16 year old awakening. But there it was. Tennessee, home to a long line of my maternal ancestors.
So it was with some crazy thinking that I considered asking my grandparents to take me to The Farm in Summertown. Ah, to be so young and so optimistic! It just seemed like an amazing place that I really needed to experience. But Grandpa proved to be on top of the goings-on in Summertown. He worked for the Tennessee division of highways and knew every highway, and county road in the state. When I asked him where Summertown was, he looked down his nose at me with one of his most serious expressions and said, “you don’t need to know anything about Summertown.” Gulp. End of discussion.
But then, there was the miracle of how I talked them into letting me go see Leon Russell and Poco at the Nashville speedway in 1972 with the nice young ice cream man who discovered me on his route through their neighborhood. My own parents would have never approved. What? A rock concert? With who? That long haired ice cream boy, who we don’t even know? No way. Grandparent’s are great, aren’t they? But I digress. Again.
Every summer in the early 70s proved to have different parts of mind-expanding periods in my life. Ram Dass’ book Be Here Now had a profound impact on how I would see the world differently. I didn’t entirely understand what he was talking about, but I was drawn to Be Here Now with its odd poetic rambling, spiritual vibe, and the feeling of a journey into consciousness. It would be much later that I would hear the sound of his voice and come to love the recordings of his lectures.
Born Richard Alpert on April 6, 1931, Ram Dass was many things: son of the founder of both Brandeis University and the New Haven Railroad, psychology and education professor at Harvard alongside contemporary Timothy Leary, and LSD experimenter before LSD became illegal in 1968. I’ll remember him most fondly for his great laugh, intellectual gymnastics, spiritual insightfulness, and (alongside Alan Watts) one of the best distillers of eastern thought for the western mind. He was brilliant. Profane. And one of my first teachers.
I keep Be Here Now on my everyday book shelf. I take it down from time to time to remember that summer in 1971 when I first encountered Ram Dass and his book Be Here Now. I try to have moments of clarity when I am actually here, now. And I can hear his voice in my head, as he might deliver the following list of his quotes:
“What you meet in another being is the projection of your own level of evolution.”
“Treat everyone you meet like God in drag.”
“As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be you can’t see how it is.”
“If you think you’re free, there’s no escape possible.”
“Only that in you, which is me can hear what I’m saying.”
“A feeling of aversion or attachment toward something is your clue that there’s work to be done.”
And, of course, one of the most quoted, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
Namaste to you Ram Dass.