Ram Dass, Kali Yuga

by Michael Rossman


            Ram Dass returns to Berkeley, fills Pauley Ballroom! 1300 young spiritual devotees flock to his presence! There is chanting and singing, Ram Dass discourses eloquently on the yogic path of enlightenment, leads us in meditation, gives mantra. Three years ago, riding the crest of success with his book Be Here Now, he spoke here as a humble beginner on the path, as a dutiful projection from his guru's portrait, which hung suspended in midair behind him. Since then he has studied with Muktananda and moved on to other gurus after Werner Erhard replaced him as Muktananda's American road manager. Now he stands forth as teacher on his own; if we hear him echo some of Muktananda's phrasings, there is still a greater power now to his presence, which is perhaps his own. After four hours, people are loathe to leave. Hundreds linger until, in a stroke of inspiration, he throws them the flowers from the stage, one by one, in a sweet slow blessing.


            Begin again; there are many levels to reality. Fourteen years ago, an academic psychologist with an experiential interest in his subject flew back from his visiting professorship at Berkeley to Harvard to join Timothy Leary in intensive investigation of altered states of consciousness. One hundred psilocybin trips changed his mind. Purged from the Harvard faculty for pursuing controversial research, he continued. Five years and 500 acid trips later he had learned, among many facts of major importance to human science, that you can get up that way but you keep having to come down again.

            Despondent, he went to India to find a better way to stay high. He met his guru and became a student of his guru in turn, getting higher. Begun on the path of Raja Yoga, he returned to America to work on his karma by sharing what he had learned. More gurus, a succession of transcendent experiences, each more encompassing and significant and transforming than what had come before, dwarfing the experiences of psychedelics as they had dwarfed his experience of academic consciousness as a simple, rational, neurotic Ph.D. You'd think it would be the ruin of a professor, right? But can the monkey change his skin?

            Popular professor lectures to mass undergraduate class! We file in, the hall is stuffy, he wants the windows closed because bongos are playing outside in the plaza. His teaching assistant leads us in an exercise. He takes over; his attire is odd but his style is superb. Engaging, authoritative, a master of wry humor, of cool clarification and varied repetition, he enlivens his material, holds us attentive, gauging our mood with the skill of a tenured pedagogic entertainer. The funny Jewish professor who studies yoga does say, at the beginning, that it's really impossible to talk about his subject; but we forgive him three hour of academic paradox because he does his job well.

            His lecture begins with a clear exposition of the basic karmic cycle: the fall from Oneness into separateness and attachment, the self's realization of its impotence in an illusory reality, the shedding of attachment through many lives to rise to Union once again. Then he discusses one particular aspect, the way of engagement with Kali, the dark mother of bitter strife. By now we are restless with words, so he leads us for ten minutes in an actual experience from the tradition he discusses, and then has us take a break. He compliments the students who stay on to ask questions after the break, saying they are undoubtedly more serious and advanced. He figures, however, that he already knows most of the questions we'd ask, so he asks and answers four or five himself – what about acid now? what about sex? -- rather perfunctorily, and it's time to go. Lots of people hang around to tell him it was a swell performance, he's a credit to his profession.

            Indeed he is. A methodical and competent researcher, he had studied his sources well, through the literature and by interview, on-site and experientially; and he presents us with a faithful summary of the traditional discipline he professes. As for interdisciplinary syntheses, methodological innovation, pregnant speculation -- well, students avid for controversy should go elsewhere, his job is to transmit an established canon correctly. Harvard should love him, and Berkeley too.


            Begin again, another truth. The person once known as Richard Alpert, co-author of a book on death and rebirth -- The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- stands before us, beneath his social role of guru-professor, as a man in a phase of death and rebirth; a curious blend of coherence and chaos, a most human mix of contradictions, tensions, and slow dynamics. Psychedelic experience blew his mind, exposing gaping holes in his -- and in Western -- structures of cognition. For years he struggled to re-cohere a new cognitive frame, following Leary's advice: "We don't know what this is about yet ... it would be best not to impose a model too soon, because the Western model for these states is pathological and the model of [other] cultures is mystical and religious, and it's better we keep wide open.” He tried, but the gap between being godhead and garbageman remained, straining him with incoherence.

            Turning East for aid, he apprenticed himself again, as he had in the university, in the carpentry of consciousness. At first the framing he was taught seemed complete; he wrote a book proclaiming its revelation, more modestly but no less dogmatically than he had proclaimed the initial revelation of psychedelics. A journeyman now, he seems secure in his craft as he sketches the karmic wheel and then, after speaking of Kali, leads us in a meditation of considerable power to share two ways of getting off the wheel: first expanding our consciousness to embrace the universe and beyond, then condensing the universe to a point within our being.

            But if he does not lead us in meditation to engage with Kali, even after exhorting us at length to do so, it is perhaps an index of his inner state. His talk about Kali is not like his exegesis of the wheel, polished and funny; it is more enthusiastic, urgent, disordered -- a report from the current edge of his learning, where he is not yet able to guide us in useful experience, and indeed is in genuine struggle himself. The pattern of the psychedelics is repeating: five years ago, he tells us, his concern was only with what got him high (like our meditation); now he is learning to turn his attention to what brings him down. Only once does he speak of this so personally; yet though he phrases his exhortation to engage with Kali as a general declaration, it seems his own tale.

            But what does it mean to "eat the Mother," to engage the dark domain of human suffering and strife? The closed system of cognition he has settled into, against Leary's original advice, gives him certainty and purpose; but it also binds and blinds him, confuses this question. He inhabits the Hindu vision of spirit set against world, with its contempt for the material plane, without caritas for the flesh of life. We should raise our energy above the nasty lower chakras of survival, sexuality, and power, he says, to engage the lotus of Oneness. In his lone tangible reference to suffering, he says of the starving, syphilitic babies of poorest Africa only that one might well choose to be born among them to work out karma. "If you really want to remedy suffering, the first thing to do is to rise above the realm of suffering and the illusion of the self as helper."

            It is all an orthodox teaching he parrots, as befits a recent convert, without fear for its buried contradictions. But what is really involved in the engagement with Kali which he also urges? Perhaps one rises above suffering only by rising in engagement with it, and detachment comes through truly following attachment rather than rejecting it in scorn. What then of how to tend his life and ours? It is on his mind; he tells us to take care of the boats we ride across the river, these incarnated selves, before leaving them. But how?

            Economic reform is not sufficient, political and social activity is not enough, he says, as he introduces the karmic wheel, leaving implicit the yogic syllogism that pure spirit is the answer. But there is a more symmetrical deduction: that this spiritual transformation also is not sufficient to make us whole. What Way will integrate all the fragments, all the domains, of who we are -- or is there some essential core and grace of mystery and chaos in our being? The orthodoxy he professes does not encourage him to recognize or declare the need to transcend its terms. Yet perhaps he is already making the deduction in the process of his own life, as he turns back to dealing with "what brings him down," with the darker reaches of earth, of Kali’s dominion, that are half the godhead.

            It is easy to mock him for spiritual chic, for the terms of his struggle which he describes to us: instead of the comforts his affluence could afford him in exotic or peaceful ashrams, he is now living in Manhattan and commuting by car to Brooklyn every day, to see his guru, a woman who, he proudly says, wears false eyelashes and talks Bronx. But I see him instead as a pioneer paying a price for the learning he has ventured out to bring us; as a man struggling with inadequate tools to answer true needs, constricted by a tradition which keeps him from integrating the strengths and potentials of most of his own cultural heritage, and which furnishes him in exchange few tools or plans for working on the self as a social being, for working in the world.

            I see him as a man dispossessed, clinging to a simple frame, as if venturing too far too fast in the chaotic waters of self and consciousness had left him the need to grab a secure raft, at least for a time. I see him as a man growing pregnant with contradiction, perhaps preparing to feel the raft's flimsiness and to honor the deeper rhythms by again striking out alone into the uncharted waters of the whole of who we are. Perhaps his dance with Kali will be the means of his transformation; perhaps his state is like many other people's these days.


            Begin again. In Berkeley, shortly after Patty Hearst is captured and many people of political sensibility go numb and crazy somewhere beneath their apparent indifference or rational responses, a large crowd of people gathers to hear a man talk about what to do with their lives, their energy, their spirit. I look around. Many are not so young. Most have in common a curious look and feel, a kind of placidness -- rarely either radiant or stuporous, perhaps determined. There is chanting and singing, all join; but it is not what it was three years ago, enlivened by the excitement and energy of new conversions. Most of the people here seem to be devotees of one or another spiritual path, several years along in their practice and settled into it, or trying to keep settled.

            The man preaches to an ecumenical congress, whose general views are much like his. If there are controversies or issues of value implicit in his preaching, one would not know it; here in Berkeley no one heckles him or asks a challenging question. Many in the crowd have grown used to listening in some school or other; the audience is wholly respectful and receptive, as they listen with critical approval to his version of a tale by now familiar.

            It's not that he brings them news; so what function is being served by this ritual? It is a collective reaffirmation, a reassurance of people who are not presently struggling to decide what to do with their lives, but are trying to keep carrying out a decision. It is an island of calm order; everyone preserves its insulation from any conflictful reference to the turbulent sea of present life: the American economic order in slow murderous spasm, the CIA at the mails and the whales dying, sexuality redefined and everybody's marriage breaking up. What to do with your life indeed, in service of the highest ends and means? It would be well to have a simple answer.

            The answer the man tells them sounds reassuringly simple at first, as he recites the catechism of the wheel; everyone glows with appreciation. But then he goes on to talk about Kali; and the crowd's mood changes, it leans forward a bit, listens differently, uncertainly, as he approaches his true human testament, speaking ever so indirectly from the place where he is confused and tentative, groping for some handle on the domain of problems shared by all. Of the people I know here, one is aged yet earnest and vigorous, trying to live a self-respecting and socially useful life; another has just walked out on his family, fleeing his wife's demands; another manages a counter-cultural supply service. They are all conscious actors in heavy human dramas; they all have feelings about the redwoods, grand juries, and nuclear reactors; they are complex beings, with parts which do not fit under the scanty umbrellas of theology that cover current spiritual paths. Well or badly, they are dealing with the problems and challenges of life-in-the-world that accumulate as time goes on inside the realm of the timeless; they are looking for wholer ways to conceive and go about it; this is why they are here.

            How do they hear him as he speaks of Kali, of embracing the dark energies beneath larger umbrellas, of tending the boat that carries us each and all? The year is 1975, the message in the air of our society is twofold: "deal with what has been neglected" and "what, me worry?" The waters on earth are rising; there's not enough food and everyone's lifeboat needs attention. After the meditation many in the crowd hang around, sing together again, receive flowers in mutual theater. There are few political activists in the crowd and scarcely a black face; there are no public questions. Perhaps it is because they are not really dealing with Kali yet; perhaps it is because they are absorbed in a slow process of advice from many quarters, and brooding.


            Begin again, there are many levels to reality -- but here just one more, the one where all the little things that chill me fit, in no particular order but perhaps together. When Ram Dass takes over he orders the windows closed, to protect us from the bongos. For the only time in the whole afternoon, a voice questions dissentingly from the crowd, remarking on how stuffy it is already. "Stop breathing and go into samadhi,” advises Ram Dass, with a smile. Then his young friend Krishna Das leads us in a song about the lighthouse shining. "We're going to keep doing it until everyone gets into it," he says, smiling, "so you'd better get into it right away."

            It is all very innocent and jovial, and so is Ram Dass's style as he talks of the wheel. But underneath there is an edge of arrogance and condescension. For rather than simply share his personal testament for us to learn from, he phrases it as the "objective" Truth for us; and in almost every sentence he assumes without question the nature of the reality his audience perceives, or insists on characterizing our experience for us, as if we could not manage by ourselves. "Is that too heavy for you to understand?" he asks, speaking with hearty assurance and certainty even when talking of Kali, denying by his manner and narrow words the reality of the complex human being we can see protruding beyond the manifesto he pushes. I have seen that sort of leadership before.

            Even the intermission is semi-organized; Krishna Das insists through the microphone in leading us in another song. It has pleasant, uplifting words, about light and god. Its tune is a haunting melody from 1970, whose original refrain ran:

Helpless, helpless, helpless...

I wonder how many recall the words, feel them, feel the irony of their replacement.

            Before the questions, Ram Dass announces the creation of the Hanuman Foundation, to support his spiritual teachings, and plugs two of the foundation's projects. One is simple and admirable, to teach the dying about dying. The other is a stunner: prison reform. Ram Dass calls for volunteers; a great many people are locked up, they could be doing something useful with their time, cells are much like monasteries. I marvel at the sheer audacity of it: here in Berkeley in 1975, after Attica, Soledad, George Jackson, with resistance and strikes in the prisons rising and a thousand pleas and meetings for outside support, Ram Dass comes to organize for prison reform! "The guards may think it's a prison, but for the prisoner it can be an ashram," he says, And perhaps he has gauged the day, or at least his crowd -- for if anyone has any questions about the politics or human meaning of his solution, they are unvoiced.

            The final "question period" is a strange farce. Ram Dass invents the questions himself and answers them, no one objects to this curious procedure. Is it that we are incapable of surprising him? Or has he other reasons for avoiding a live engagement? He knows he is in Berkeley; he has complimented it as a home for seekers of freedom, before saying that politics is not sufficient. But no one yet has challenged his perspective on the starving children of Africa, or asked him rudely what he thinks about his old pal Leary singing to the grand jury about the Weatherpeople. Whatever drama is being played out here, the crowd is fully complicit in it.

            Ram Dass hurries through his standard questions: first drugs, then sex, then ... why, politics, of course. But he does not phrase the political question; instead he answers something minor, and something else, and something else. Now it is time to go. "I want to teach you a song to take with you," he says, and sings us the first line.

            And then stops, and says: "By the way, there's something I've got to say to you. I know there's a lot of oppression and injustice in this country. But we must remember to be grateful for the most important thing, that a meeting like this is allowed to go on here." And then he goes on with the song, about God's protecting us, I think -- I can't quite remember, as I wonder what function and whom this meeting serves, and feel a chill wind rising in this closed room of the spirit.

December 1975

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