While floating in the pool, watching Ram Dass use the buoyancy of the water to exercise his legs, I wondered, as I often have: How did Ram Dass learn what he did so quickly? He’d had no interest in God while growing up or teaching at Harvard. In his thirties, he was a skeptic when he first traveled to India, until he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji). Ram Dass spent only eight months with the guru, then returned to America and began to teach complex spiritual ideas in a way that could reach and inspire Westerners. I know other seekers who’ve spent years in monasteries or studied with masters for decades and have only acquired a fraction of the wisdom Ram Dass embodies.
Ram Dass clearly possessed a gift, although he’s always said it was the grace of the guru. Maharaji died in 1973, but Ram Dass has continued to feel his presence.
In 2004, Ram Dass had told me, “I have a new game. In the past, I’d always say, `Maharaji told me this…’ or `Maharaji said that…,’ and I realized: I’ve been using Maharaji as an explanation for why I know what I know.” This strikes me as so accurate and obvious that it’s surprising Ram Dass hasn’t stated it before. He says he feels himself melding and merging with the guru. “We’re becoming one.”
Two years later, in Maui, I ask Ram Dass if he still feels that merging.
“It’s led to soul searching,” he says. “It seemed egoistic to me to say I could be like Maharaji, and yet… I already had the wisdom of knowing he and I are one. I’ve been going back and forth, back and forth, between seeing and loving Maharaji as a reflection of God, and merging with Maharaji.”
Ram Dass closes his eyes a moment. “The two-ness between Maharaji and me is a stepping stone to oneness. The two-ness gives my emotional heart sustenance. But the oneness gives my spiritual heart sustenance, and I’d just as soon keep them both.”
Maharaji had given Ram Dass two instructions: love everyone, and tell the truth. If Ram Dass felt hate for someone and told the truth, that was not acceptable. “Tell the truth and love everyone,” the guru said. What I felt in Maui was how far Ram Dass has moved in developing the capacity to love every soul.
His house feels like a temple. There are altars everywhere, covered with pictures of saints, tropical flowers, candles and incense. He has a photo of George Bush on an altar, “because he’s someone I have trouble loving.”
He greets every visitor with joy and fixes his attention completely on that person, even the ones I find tedious. When his assistant, Kathleen Murphy, tells him she’s going into town to do errands and asks, “Is there anything you want?” Ram Dass looks in her eyes, then smiles. “That you have a good time.”
At 75, Ram Dass feels he’s demonstrating “a way to grow old and prepare for dying.” I ask how he prepares for dying. “With quiet presence, and by practicing change,” he says. “Being content with change. I’ve been changed by a stroke…and I’m happy. Death is the biggest change we’re going to face in life. So we need to practice change.”
NOTE: Ram Dass has always given his money to foundations he set up to help others, and never planned for his own older years or health care. He lives in a rented house that he’ll be forced to leave soon, and friends are trying to raise money to acquire a permanent home for him. If you’re moved to contribute, send a check, made out to Ram Dass Charitable Fund, to:
Ram Dass Charitable Fund, c/o Hay House, P.O. Box 5100, Carlsbad, CA 92018