Suffering as Grace: An Interview with Ram Dass
“When you look at it from the spiritual point of view, you see that
suffering is grace, a gift given in order to awaken you.” —Ram Dass
By Cat Saunders
When Cat Saunders—a Seattle therapist and longtime admirer of Ram Dass—offered us this interview, I was skeptical. Did we need to publish yet another conversation with the ex-Harvard professor turned holy man? His message was familiar to Sun readers, perhaps too familiar.
Then I sat down and read the piece—and was reminded why Ram Dass’s wisdom and humor and amazing candor make him unique; why, at a time of political malaise and economic dislocation, we need to hear him again. (Besides, the hot tub story was too good to keep to myself.)
Ram Dass, who was born in 1931, was raised by a well-to-do New England family as Richard Alpert. In the sixties, he became a professor of psychology at Harvard, where he made the acquaintance of Timothy Leary, and began experimenting with psychedelic drugs. After being fired from Harvard in 1963, they spent several years traveling around the country, giving lectures on the potential of psychedelics for exploring inner realms of consciousness.
In 1967, Alpert went to India in search of a guru. There he met Neem Karoli, an Indian saint who gave him the name Ram Dass (which means “servant of God”). Soon after his return, his book Be Here Now was published; it became a kind of counter-cultural Bible, establishing him as this country’s most popular native-born spiritual teacher.
Over the years, in lecture tours and in other books—The Only Dance There Is, Journey of Awakening, Grist for the Mill, Miracle of Love, and How Can I Help?—Ram Dass has refined his message, but the core of his teaching remains the same: the universe is a seamless whole, and we share a common consciousness. More telling, perhaps, is the distinctly social character he lends this message. In 1979, he helped form Seva (which means “service” in Sanskrit), an international relief organization.
Originally created to combat blindness in Nepal, Seva’s work now extends to relief operations among Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico and Native Americans here in the states. Seva has also set up a national network of local groups whose members view service as a path to spiritual transformation.
Cat Saunders spoke to Ram Dass at the start of his 1990 lecture tour for Seva—called “Here and Now in the Nineties”—which took him to thirty-six cities in the United States and Canada.
Cat: Is suffering a necessary part of being in a physical body?
Ram Dass: When you take birth in a physical body—unless you’re a Christ or a Krishna—you think it’s real. And if you think it’s real, there will be suffering. From the Buddhist point of view, we have five hindrances: lust and greed; hatred and ill will; sloth and torpor; agitation; and doubt. That’s who we are, so why is one surprised if there’s suffering?
But when you look at it from the spiritual point of view, you see that suffering is grace, a gift given in order to awaken you. Once you want to awaken, then the meaning of suffering changes. You don’t court it, but when it comes down the pike, you work with it, because you see that it’s a valuable vehicle.
The only reason you suffer is because of the clinging of your mind. For example, if you suffer because you’re dying, it’s because you cling to life. If you suffer because you’re growing old, it’s because you cling to youth. If you suffer because you don’t have something, it’s because you cling to a model of having it.
You can look at some who are starving and see that they’re not suffering, then you look at others who are starving and they are suffering. What we call poverty in this culture is opulence in India. In India, people with a given amount of money would be totally content, and here they’d be miserable.
Expectations create suffering. Once you understand that, every time you suffer, you look to see where you’re clinging, which expectation you’re holding onto. Gurdjieff says you have to have suffered in order to do spiritual work, but unless you give up suffering you can’t do spiritual work. That means giving up your identification with suffering and starting to see suffering as grace.
Once I had to leave a Buddhist meditation retreat to go to a Seva board meeting. My teacher said, “You shouldn’t go. You should stay and continue to practice.” And here I was, going off to Seva to deal with all the immediate suffering in Guatemala and Nepal. I said, “I’d better deal with concrete suffering. It’s very hard for me to hear the more profound issue of suffering because of the immediate suffering.”
Some acts of compassion liberate on one level, but not on every level. You can give somebody food, but in a way that still traps them in their separateness. Or you can give them food in a way that liberates them. Which you do depends on where you’re at.
Seva is our attempt to see our service in the world in relation to the work on ourselves—to become a purer instrument of service, so that the service is coming from a place of nondualism. It’s not us serving them, it’s it serving itself.
Those who are suffering and those who are serving are the same. It’s just family helping itself. By treating people who are helpless or in pain as “them,” you are being divisive. You end up separating people through your kind act. You have to work very hard on yourself not to do that.
Cat: Would you say a little more about Seva?
Ram Dass: Well, Seva (pronounced “say-va”) is a Sanskrit word meaning “to serve.” We’re a group of friends who came together eleven years ago to relieve some suffering in the world. We wanted to use the experience as a vehicle for growing, both spiritually and in terms of social consciousness. We also thought that it would be fun. Seva has turned out to be all three.
We originally took on projects for the eradication of preventable and curable blindness. Nepal, a very poor country, was the first to invite us. During these past eleven years, we have supported the Nepalese in building a complete infrastructure for eye care. Seva does more than 30,000 eye operations each year. We do similar work in India.
At Seva, we tend to take on projects as our hearts guide us. One of us went down to Central America and got involved with Guatemala and with the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico. We are dealing with issues of basic survival, helping them rebuild an economy that has been shattered by violence. It involves seeds and water and goats and so on.
We were also drawn to work with the American Indians, who have some tremendous health problems. We’ve been helping them with emergency health care and setting up clinics. Now we’ve gone into work with the homeless.
We’re a hands-on agency. We collaborate with people who have hearts that resonate with ours, and who have strong hands. We form family friendships with them in these countries and then we all become collaborators in relieving suffering.
The cause of suffering is separateness, and the isolation that comes from separateness. Any act I do—even a kind act—that increases your separateness causes suffering. Take pity, for example. Pity keeps people at a distance: “I pity her. I pity him.” In a way, it’s, “How nice, you pity them.”
But at another level, you increase their suffering by increasing their isolation, their separateness. You’re always dealing with many planes of reality, where what looks very kind at one level isn’t particularly kind at another level.
Cat: You work on your own suffering as you work with others’ suffering?
Ram Dass: I work to extricate myself from the root causes of suffering. If you are motivated out of fear and you’re caught in suffering, the way you act toward others conveys that fear apart from what you want to convey. You’re transmitting your fear and your suffering. You have to work very hard on yourself in order to serve as a clear space for others, as a gift to others.
You don’t want to offer them, like Typhoid Mary, the poisons of your being. So you work with others as a way of working on yourself, because working with other people in villages or in business offices or wherever really brings all your conflicts to the surface sooner or later. Working on yourself through serving people makes you a purer instrument of service, which you then offer back to them. The circle is complete.
Cat: Other than through meditation, how can people become a purer instrument of service?
Ram Dass: At Seva we do circle sharing, in which we go around the circle of the staff a number of times, just to clear up anything among us, like the ways we try to con each other or milk the drama for each other. We invite each other to be very straight. Also, we take turns going out in the field. We each get the direct experience of what it’s like to be with, say, a Mayan woman whose child has vitamin deficiencies due to a drought that destroyed the crop.
We experience the immensity of that suffering and try to expand our hearts to embrace it—not to deny it, not to push it away, not to be glib about it, not just to throw money at it. Instead we feel our way into that person and then do whatever it is that can be done. It’s something you do from a quiet enough place so that you hear its total impact, beyond whatever quick-fix quality it may have.
Cat: Do you still get stuck in the helping process?
Ram Dass: Sure, I get stuck. For one thing, I get stuck because I get impatient and I want it all done right away. I get stuck because I get so overwhelmed by the immensity of the suffering that I fail to cultivate a sense of quiet in myself.
I get stuck because I have to deal with my own middle-class-ness, my own fears of hunger and starvation. Besides that, I get stuck because I’m not willing to surrender deeply enough to the process of just becoming service, rather than being someone who serves. That’s a big one.
Cat: For people new to the idea of service, what would be a good way for them to start participating?
Ram Dass: There’s no one formula for touching another human being. But I think the myths of our culture, the role models of culture—which emphasize freedom in terms of the individual’s space and privacy—have impoverished us.
While we control our little domain, we don’t have the emotional richness we had when we were part of a family or a village or a community. In those groups, there is a quality of caring or compassion in which people’s hearts are opened by each other’s needs and beauties and sadness.
When we separate generations and move old people down to Miami, and every couple wants its own place to live, there’s a cost that’s not immediately obvious. It’s a cost to the heart. It would help if people recognize that much of the alienation they feel is a result of their not reaching out to other human beings.
Then, to, we need to recognize the polarization that’s occurring between the have’s and the have-not’s. People are no longer going to sit and wait for our altruism. We are in a very unstable position. We see we need new kinds of myths and models about who we are and how we function.
Consider the emerging recognition that we are part of an ecosystem, that we are not independent of it. We can’t just use the earth and exploit it. It uses us as much as we use it. Until we redefine ourselves and move from an egosystem to an ecosystem, we remain cut off from the very healing that we–and the universe around us–need.
If people look right around them, in their neighborhoods, among their families, they will see ways they can reach out. The people I know who volunteer to work with AIDS patients or cancer patients or the homeless–almost to a person, they tell me how much that work has enriched their lives. I feel sad for a person who says, “I’ll just take care of myself.” I think that’s a hungry ghost realm.
Cat: What would you say is our biggest obstacle in this area of service?
Ram Dass: It’s the inertia. People know in their hearts that they would like to reach out to another human being and help. But they fear they don’t have the skills, or they’re paranoid that they’ll be taken advantage of, or they’re frightened that once it starts, they won’t be able to stop. They end up holding back.
I’m doing a book on this issue with Mirabai Bush, a companion volume to How Can I Help? Just to reach into another person’s life and make an overture, you’ve got to overcome a certain inertia. That’s the hardest obstacle, that initial inertia.
Once you’re into it, once you’ve done it, it becomes much easier. The first time is a little tricky. You might go in and look at a bulletin board in a laundromat, and it might say something like, “Blind person needs somebody to read to him.”
Cat: What do you think is your own best defense against burnout?
Ram Dass: I try to cultivate that place in myself where nothing much is happening even though the action is ongoing–finding the part of my awareness that isn’t identified with the doer or the actor, and letting the process just happen, through me and around me.
I’m working with a woman, for example, who has cancer. We hang out together. She has tremendous denial and resistance and anger and fear. I rub her feet or hold her hand and we talk or we are silent. We’re just there together. After a while it’s just two beings sharing space. We’re both being healed through the process.
I don’t at any time feel like I’m a “helper,” or I’m “serving” her. I just feel this tremendous opportunity to be with another being. This orientation serves to prevent burnout, because I come away from these meetings very enriched.
Cat: The trick is to realize that whether someone is riddled with cancer or not, all you have anyway is just being together.
Ram Dass: That’s all you have, exactly. That’s all you have with a Guatemalan widow or with the homeless guy in the park in New York. That’s what I did in the parks in New York. I just hung out with these people. If I was able to get a sleeping bag, fine, and if not, I would just be with them. Just recognizing and respecting another human and experiencing that connection is tremendous.
Cat: One of my clients wanted me to ask you how you abide your own suffering. Do you have any practical suggestions?
Ram Dass: Certain words help me, like “appreciation” and “poignant.” I appreciate my poignancy. I mean, I’m so human. My humanity always years and fears and doubts and lusts and hopes. It’s all kind of sweet at this point. These aren’t very huge demons anymore. I think that my deepest suffering stems from my separation from God. I’m just very patient now.
All I can do is quiet my mind and open my heart and be an instrument for the relief of suffering. I don’t know what else to do this lifetime. Whatever will happen, will happen. I get as close into it as I can and I invite my friends to bust me and to open me and to touch me. And I quiet through meditation a lot.
When I’m quiet enough, I begin to see the tightness in parts of my body; I begin to see the fears that are motivating certain neurotic patterns of behavior. All I do is see them as poignant. That’s my humanity. I have a great appreciation for my humanity.
Cat: Do you ever enjoy your suffering?
Ram Dass: That’s a tricky one. A while ago, I had a kidney stone, which is very painful. But I was watching my consciousness and I was fascinated by the pain, by what it was like and how horrible it was and whether I’d die from it. It all seemed kind of interesting. And I was in bliss. I was enjoying the process. In that sense, I was enjoying my pain and suffering.
It probably sounds masochistic, though I didn’t ask for it and I wasn’t inflicting it. But once I had it, I was working with it. I was delighted to see how conscious I stayed in the midst of that, more than the doctors and all the others who had to deal with my kidney stone.
Cat: Would you talk a little about how therapy fits into the spiritual journey?
Ram Dass: The path that one takes spiritually is colored by one’s personality. Your attraction to a guru may signal a desire for a father substitute. Why you’re attracted to one method and not another has psychological roots.
Then, as you do your practices, and they start to work, a lot of the neurotic patterns surface. It’s like cooking chicken soup, when the fat keeps rising to the surface and you have to keep skimming it.
There are times when the spiritual practice pushes psychological issues to the surface and they’re ready for skimming, ready to be dealt with. And then, often, it’s good to ask somebody who does what I call “body-and-fender repair” to act as a reflector for you, to show you where you’re distorting your understanding of the situation.
You need a fair judge and a witness, an external witness, a “rent-a-witness.” These terms aren’t pejorative. “Body-and-fender repair” and “rent-a-witness” are all ways of seeing the therapist as somebody useful within a limited domain, and not as the Buddha, not as someone especially gifted or enlightened.
Even after many years of psychoanalysis, after teaching psychology, working as a therapist, after taking drugs for many years, being in India, being a yogi, having a guru, meditating for eighteen or nineteen years now–as far as I can see I haven’t gotten rid of one neurosis. Not one.
The only thing that has changed is that while before these neuroses were huge monsters that possessed me, now they’re like little shmoos that I invite over for tea. I say, “Oh, sexual perversity! Haven’t seen you in weeks!” They’re sort of my style now. When your neuroses become your style, you’ve got it made.
Everybody has a personality composed of neurotic patterns. I’ve given up thinking I’ve got to go through the eye of the needle and become psychologically sound. I’m always going to be a mess! At bottom, it’s uninteresting and unimportant. That’s part of the shift that occurs with spiritual practice.
As things become less important, they become more available to change. In the early days, the context was so narrow for me—my personality was so real and I so closely identified with it—that it was very hard to change. As the context broadens, there’s less energy invested in my personality, and it becomes easier to change.
Cat: What feels most challenging to you these days in your personal life?
Ram Dass: For years I worked to maintain my equanimity in the presence of suffering, putting myself in situations where there’s intense suffering, and learning to keep my heart open. I let my heart break. I didn’t push away intellectually. Instead I stayed with it. I was intent on cultivating that part of me which is even and quiet in the presence of such suffering.
But then my father died in the fall of 1988, and I didn’t have to keep his household together any longer. I was suddenly free to play in some new way. I thought that I ought to do for pleasure what I’d done for suffering. For a Jewish boy from Boston, that’s not easy. I moved to California, I bought a hot tub, my stepmother left me her Mercedes-Benz.
So there I was, with a hot tub and a beautiful house up in the hills. I invited my longtime lover to live with me. And suddenly I was back into dope and sex and rock-and-roll. Up until then, I always worked my butt off in service eleven months of the year, and then I would take a quick vacation to Hawaii for a few weeks.
Then I’d come back and “be good” again. I’d think, “Oh, Ram Dass, you serve so much. You’re so good!” I decided I didn’t want to compartmentalize these parts of my life anymore, but rather I wanted to integrate them.
I really scared myself because I tried to do it a little too violently. The hot tub was about eight feet from my desk. So I’d sit at my desk, and I’d look at the hot tub and I’d think, “Why the hell am I sitting at this desk, with telephone calls to make and prefaces to write and people to deal with?” And then I’d sit in the hot tub and I’d think, “I like my desk. Gee, I really love all the things at my desk, you know, but I’m busy having pleasure!”
I saw that pleasure was like a bottomless well. I could keep doing it and doing it and doing it. Even though it was kind of empty, it was also seductive. All of a sudden, I had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, because I’d been up so late the night before.
Finally, in a meditation course, I realized that I didn’t want to go on with this experiment, because I was having to give up too many things I found precious, too many things I do with others. I said, “Not now, I can’t do it now.” So I pulled back a little. I moved my desk to another room and changed it all. And I’m living alone again.
The experiment lasted three months–to be picked up again later. I don’t feel I’m finished with it. Things like this go on for years until we incorporate them.
Another priority for me concerns the relationship between the spiritual dimension of my life and the worldly or social dimension of it. There’s a part of me that yearns to get closer to God all the time, that yearns to withdraw from the here and now.
Then there’s another part of me that loves being in the world. It’s a real feast for me. Because now, with the degree of visibility and respect that I’ve generated over the years, I can pretty much do whatever I want. I can play the way I want. I have all these opportunities.
Cat: Are you ever overwhelmed by that? By the amount of visibility you have?
Ram Dass: If I’m overwhelmed, it’s me creating my overwhelm. I turn it off. I mean, there are a lot of times when I don’t pick up the phone but just listen to the answering machine. You put as many filters between you and the world as you need, to keep the balance going.
Cat: Is there anything you still struggle with?
Ram Dass: A lot of things that were big struggles for me aren’t so much anymore. Because of the peculiar nature of my role in society, and the name Ram Dass, people have certain expectations of me. I have to struggle because it’s very easy to become what they want me to be.
It’s easy for me to get “phony holy.” I have to be careful about that and stay grounded all the time. I surround myself with friends who bust me all the time, which is important. They say, “You’re getting out of hand, you’re getting too arrogant.” They’re worth their weight in gold.
Cat: How has being famous affected your spiritual journey?
Ram Dass: I’m a big fish in a little pond. My fame is within a very limited domain. I’m irrelevant to most of the world. So I can always move right out of that sphere and I’m irrelevant again, believe me. Most of the time I’m irrelevant.
Cat: That surprises me, because I’ve followed your work and writing so closely. But when I mentioned to some people that I was going to interview Ram Dass, they said, “Who?”
Ram Dass: Yeah, I know. I call up a place and the secretary will say, “Who’s calling?” “Ram Dass.” “Just a minute, Ron.”
I was at a party with Phil Donahue and a lot of other very well known people. I walked up to Peter, Paul, and Mary, and they said, “Aren’t you Ram Dass?” and I said, “Yeah.” I was just honored to meet them and they beat me to it. I was getting kind of cocky. I went over to Phil Donahue and said, “Hello, my name’s Ram Dass,” expecting something, you know. And he said, “Nice to meet you, Ron!” That was great.
Fame is just another thing to work on. You try to milk it, and then you see how empty it is. If you keep feeding on that, you starve to death. If you surround yourself with people who like you just because you’re famous, you’re not fed at all. They want you in your symbolic sense, not in your real sense. The people I hang out with most of the time couldn’t care less. It’s irrelevant.
Cat: Do you call yourself Ram Dass, Richard, Dick, or what?
Ram Dass: I don’t call myself anything. No, I don’t have a name for myself. Dick is more of a kind of macho person that I am only in certain very limited circumstances. Richard seems to have pretty much gone with my father’s death.
Only my family—and Tim Leary—still call me Richard. Ram Dass is kind of a cult name. In this society now, I would like to mainstream myself more. I’d like to be more available to people who don’t read Eastern philosophy and didn’t smoke dope.
I went out to play golf and we were put with another twosome. They were real golfers, and I didn’t have the guts to say, “Hi, I’m Ram Dass.” So I said, “Hi, I’m Dick.” Then it was, “Good shot, Dick!” And I’d say, “Thanks, Pete!” If I’d said I was Ram Dass, it would have been, “Uh, hello, how’d you say that name?” And then it would have been weird for the next eighteen holes.
I tried to change back to Richard Alpert but it didn’t work. The publishers wouldn’t publish my books.
Cat: What do you do for fun?
Ram Dass: I play a lot of volleyball at the Seva meetings. I got the award for The Most Improvement last year. That was a lot of fun. The board meetings for Seva are a great deal of fun. To me, fun is hanging out with people who are growing, and who are really caring, and who are light and playful about it, and who have a sense of humor.
Like our “funny glasses” at the board meetings. If you use the word “serious” at the board meeting, you have to put on the Groucho Marx glasses, so that we won’t take ourselves too seriously. Which is really interesting if you’re dealing with death and blindness and violence.
Cat: How do you pray?
Ram Dass: I talk to my guru. My basic method is called “the grace of the guru.” I hang out with him, I sing to him, I talk to him, I swear at him. I see my whole life as something he’s giving me in order to bring me closer to him. So that’s my dialogue, my prayer.
See, my guru’s dead. It’s like having an imaginary playmate who has infinite wisdom, a cosmic giggle, a kind of “no bullshit” stance. He has all these qualities. Anybody can do this. You just pick a being that you can relate to.
When I pray, I never ask for anything, because I don’t even know why things are the way they are. How could I ask for them to be different? I don’t see that my models of how it should be are very interesting, so the only thing I ask is, “Help me understand better what’s happening so my actions will come out of more wisdom.”
Cat: Do you ever long for anything?
Ram Dass: I don’t long for anything. My life is enough now; I feel such grace. I feel there’s a quality about me now that helps people when I meet them. And so I see beauty all around me a lot. I’m sure it could turn ugly and draggy and kind of grotesque very easily. But I’ll work with that when it happens. I don’t seem to have any great fear about that.
Once, I found myself in a railway station in India where I had bad dysentery. The train was going to be two days late. And I have little money. I was sitting there barefoot, and I had to go to the toilet. The latrine had overflowed and there was shit all over the floor. It was one of those situations where I would have expected to be freaked or depressed, and I wasn’t. I feel that if I wasn’t then, why should I expect to be?
Cat: Are you ever lonely?
Ram Dass: Yes, I’m lonely. But that’s okay. I tried to get rid of that by living with a lover, and then I realized that wasn’t the solution. It’s all right to be lonely. I’m not lonely much of the time, but when I am, I just allow it to be. I just sit and feel lonely.
Cat: Does anything ever scare you?
Ram Dass: The only thing that used to scare me was losing my awareness, getting caught in fear or pain or desire. I’m scared of being so caught in an illusion that I draw other people into the illusion. But over the years, I don’t seem to get caught.
Faith is getting stronger, and as the faith gets stronger, what scares me is less and less, the fear starts to dissolve. There are immediate situations, like when I’m hang gliding, or when I’m surfing and I get out in waves that are a little too big, or when I used to fly my own plane. Some fears are functional, you know!
Cat: What’s the most important thing you learned from drugs?
Ram Dass: Well, not to call them “drugs,” first of all. How about tools? At any rate, the psychedelics are one thing and the opiates and their derivatives are something else entirely. I’ve learned a huge amount from psychedelics and I honor them.
There’s no way that this culture, despite its effort to make me into a “good guy”—and I realize the crack problem in this society—can get me to deny the fact that psychedelics changed my life. They opened my vision, and as a result I’ve been able to open a lot of other people’s vision.
Psychedelics revealed the possibility that I wasn’t who I thought I was. At the same time, they are subject to incredible misuse, especially when they’re not approached sacramentally or consciously.
It’s better if you wait to become somebody before you try to become nobody. Most kids use drugs before their egos are settled. Because they use them prematurely, they lose their ground. They lose their ability to earn a living or keep their act together.
Cat: Have you ever struggled with addiction?
Ram Dass: Well, I’ve struggled with sexual addiction–with actions to gratify lust that didn’t have much love in them. Very impersonal sex and lots of it. That was an addiction. I just figured it would wear out sooner or later, or get kind of irrelevant. But I’ve never struggled with other kinds of addiction.
There was a time I got so deeply into grass, into smoking dope, that I felt I needed it in order to be enough. But this didn’t really qualify as an addiction because it fell away very quickly. It lasted maybe six months. The sex was over a period of maybe thirty years, so it probably qualifies as an addiction.
Cat: What were you like when you were seven?
Ram Dass: I was cute! Little blond curls all over my head. I had hair. That was different! I went to the World’s Fair in 1939, when I was eight years old. I had pneumonia that year, and I remember being in the oxygen tank and sticking my nose out a hole so I could breathe real air. At that time, I remember playing a lot with toy cars on the oriental rugs and using the borders of the rugs as roads. Brrrrrrrm, brrrrrrrmmmm!
I was a “good” child.” It’s taken me years in therapy to work with that. I think my power was already broken by then. Once, I had an incredible primal experience, reliving a temper tantrum I had when I was two, recalling how my mother overwhelmed me. My power was taken away. So I was a good kid. I was happy then. My unhappiness really started around puberty. Then I had a lot of unhappiness.
Cat: One of my friends wants to know if you went to your junior prom.
Ram Dass: Was junior prom in high school or college?
Cat: I think it’s in high school.
Ram Dass: I was at prep school, and I was so miserably unhappy and neurotic I don’t remember if they had a junior prom.
Cat: What kind of prep school?
Ram Dass: Oh, just a nice Republican rich school. It was the most unhappy period of my life. I think I didn’t go to the junior prom. But I went to my senior prom. I did do that, in a tuxedo.
Cat: Are you a “regular guy”?
Ram Dass: I’m not. I’m pretty weird, actually. I’m bisexual, and that’s not a regular guy. As you get more famous, people deal with that in a different way. You know, they don’t want to put you down anymore, they want to stay close to you.
At the same time, you get the homophobia in a lot of different ways, subtle ways. It’s not by my choice. It’s just the way life worked out. But that’s all changing, too.
Cat: What’s all changing?
Ram Dass: It seems less and less relevant. It was very relevant to me because I came out of a culture where you had to be a closet homosexual. I always had a front—a woman with whom I was living, because I could perform sexually with a woman, though my attachments were to men. I lived two lives for maybe twenty, thirty years.
Ram Dass: Secretly. I lived in two different worlds. And then, I came out. I just stopped doing that. I started to talk about it. And I started to get letters from all over the country saying, “Thank you for being so honest, because it’s helping me so much.” So I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll be more honest.” And I began to see that nobody cared!
After you’ve spent all your life thinking, “If they knew…” and then you find out that nobody cares, it changes the way you feel about yourself. I became more relaxed. I don’t care. My feelings about women are changing all the time, too, so I don’t feel I have to label myself.
Cat: Do you ever feel crazy?
Ram Dass: I kid about it a lot. I can look at everything I’m doing, my very way of looking at reality, as a total psychosis that I’m spreading. But in general I feel more sane than I ever felt before, extraordinarily sane. That’s crazy. That’s crazy!
Cat: Are you doing anything now you want to tell other people about?
Ram Dass: There’s a metagame, of which Seva is but one manifestation. And the metagame is like a league, like a fellowship of people who feel compassion and are growing and have humor. There are a whole lot of us. Seva’s just one part of it. I’m trying to make that league more conscious, so that people who feel those feelings will realize they’re part of a network.
There’s so much evidence of the dark conspiracies in the world. You know, multinational intrigue and international rivalries that exploit, for example, the people in Central America.
I’m looking for ways to cultivate an awareness of compassion, to encourage people to acknowledge their identity with a reference group around this awareness. Not just around the Red Cross or the Elks or the Moose, but in the broad sense, an almost secret, hidden sense, without a members-only club. You’re not “in it,” but you are it, in virtue of your understanding.
Cat: If you could change one thing on the planet, what would you change?
Ram Dass: I’d change a little bit of the imbalance between compassion and greed. Just a little bit, to make it more interesting. And that’s what I’m doing.
This interview was originally published by The Sun (December 1990). Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Feel free to print a copy for your personal use, but to reprint this interview online or in the print media, please contact the publisher directly at www.thesunmagazine.org or write to The Sun at 107 North Roberson, Chapel Hill, NC 27516.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).