Be Here Now was first published in 1971. It recorded the two major experiences I had had during the Sixties: one of them was psilocyben mushrooms, and the other was my guru, Maharajji. Both of them - mushrooms and Maharajji - did many things for me, one of which was to give me a familiarity with other planes of consciousness. They showed me that there's much more in any given moment than we usually perceive, and that we ourselves are much more than we usually perceive. When you know that, part of you can stand outside the drama of your life.
There were a number of transformations in Richard Alpert (my name at birth), which were inspired by mushrooms and Maharajji, and the best, I think, is the one that opened my heart and gave me a chance to serve. For me, the way the compassion seemed to express itself was through showing people what I had done, how I had approached my experiences, and so opening avenues for them where their own spirit could emerge. I felt incredibly fortunate because of all the things that had happened to me in the Sixties, and I wanted to spread the grace around. So there were lectures, there were books, there were tapes, and there were videos - a patchwork of different means for sharing my life with people. Gandhi once said, "My life is my message." That's what I aspire to.
As I opened my heart, various forms of suffering in my fellow human beings presented themselves, and I decided to do what I could to help. Prisoners read Be Here Now, and then wrote to me, and through corresponding with them I realized that many people can do deep spiritual work in prison. So I started the Prison Ashram Project.
Then I noticed how frightened we are of death in our culture, and what a lot of suffering that was creating. That was in contrast to what I'd seen in India, which has a much different understanding of death than we do because of their knowledge of the continuation of the soul. I wanted to find ways of sharing that, so I instituted the Dying Project. I started hanging out with people who were dying - including my mother, my father, my stepmother, people with AIDS and cancer, many, many people over the years, whom I've been with as they died. To each of these individuals and situations I brought what I had to share - my acquaintance with other planes of consciousness, and the way that affects how we perceive our living and our dying.
I started to look at the social institutions in the world around me, to see whether the spiritual tack I was taking might be commensurate with social action. A couple of friends were starting the Seva Foundation, and invited me to join them to work with doctors and activists, doing work in India, Nepal, and Guatemala, and with American Indians and in the inner cities of America. Other friends had wondered how business, which is the institution which has the most power in our society, might become more informed by spiritual Awareness and started the Social Venture Network. They are compassionate businesspeople who invited me to work together with them. I joined the board of Creating Our Future, which was an organization for teenagers who wanted to inform their lives with spirit. These organizations were trying to prevent suffering in areas in which I felt a personal connection. For some people, it's world hunger, or literacy. For me it was seeking spiritual answers to many of our problems.
My interest in aging came from a personal direction: I was getting older - and so were the baby boomers, who were fast approaching fifty. In this youth-oriented culture, aging is a profound source of suffering, and that is what I was responding to when I decided to turn my attention to conscious aging workshops, and to writing this book.
One evening in February 1997, I was in bed at home in Marin Country, contemplating how to end this book. I'd been working on the manuscript for the past eighteen months, weaving together material from personal experience and from talks I'd given around the country on conscious aging, but somehow the book's conclusion had eluded me. Lying there in the dark, I wondered why what I'd written seemed so incomplete, not quite rounded, grounded, or whole. I tried to imagine what life would be like if I were very old - not an active person of sixty-five, traveling the world incessantly as a teacher and speaker, caught up in my public role - but as someone of ninety, say, with failing sight and failing limbs. I fantasized how that old man would think, how he'd move and speak and hear, what desires he might have as he slowly surveyed the world. I was trying to feel my way into oldness. I was thoroughly enjoying this fantasy when the phone rang. In the process of my fantasy, I'd noticed that my leg seemed to have fallen asleep. As I got up to answer the phone, my leg gave way under me and I fell to the floor. In my mind, the fall was still part of my "old-man fantasy." I didn't realize that my leg was no longer working because I'd had a stroke.
Reprinted from Still Here by Ram Dass by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Ram Dass. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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