Be Here Now
The young psychology professor Dr Richard Alpert was doing well. As 1961 got under way, he held appointments across four departments at Harvard University, and had research contracts at Stanford and Yale. With the status and money that came with these positions, he had little to complain about.
Yet he felt that there was something missing in his world, but couldn't put his finger on it. The theories of achievement, motivation and anxiety that he was teaching students seemed to be just surface scratchings on the mystery of life; he and his contemporaries had studied all there was to know about the human mind, yet had little grasp of the human condition. Their own lives lacked integrity and fulfillment, and Alpert himself had little to show for the five years he had spent in psychoanalysis. His lecture notes, he says, were 'the ideas of other men, subtly presented', and his research was not really pushing any new frontiers. Everyone around him was so smart, but there was little wisdom: "I could sit in a doctoral exam, ask very sophisticated questions and look terribly wise. It was a hustle."
The cracks in Alpert's life began to widen when the legendary Timothy Leary (then a Harvard psychologist who would become a prophet of the 1960s counterculture) became a colleague and drinking buddy. Leary had discovered Tioananctyl, or magic mushrooms, in Mexico, and Alpert was struck by his comment that consuming them had taught him more than all his years as a psychologist. Later, Leary and Aldous Huxley (then a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) acquired a synthetic form of magic mushroom called Psilocybin, which Alpert was invited to try with them.
The drug prompted visions in which Alpert could see his life as the feted professor with some objectivity. He experienced the presence of an 'I' behind the facade of his knowledge, the I of wisdom and timeless awareness. This was just what he had been looking for.
The group went on researching altered states, testing the drug on other people but also taking it frequently themselves. Alpert writes of the sensation that everything around him was appreciated as an undifferentiated vibrating pattern of energy, essentially light, not the 'objects' we normally perceive. In such states Alpert would see his life as a professor as somewhat untruthful and restrictive, and 'came down' with regret. The more he took psychedelic drugs, the more annoyed he got that he had to return from these wonderful astral worlds to the mundane reality. Things came to a head when Alpert was sacked from his academic posts, beginning a wilderness period in which he no longer felt connected to the academic establishment, and could not find a way to maintain the states of consciousness he had experienced.
No turning back
When a wealthy acquaintance invited Alpert to go on a journey to India, he leapt at the opportunity. There is a saying, 'When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.' At his wits end, Alpert was sitting in a hippy cafe in northern India when in walked in a tall westerner with long hair and beads. Alpert instantly felt that this man, called Bhagwan Dass and seen by the locals as a guru, 'knew'; he had come thousands of miles only to have a young Californian as his teacher!
Following him across the country, learning holy songs and mantras, and neither with any money, Alpert came to understand what it meant to truly live in the present, to get away from the idea that the events of one's life story are that important. When asked how long he thought they would continue to travel around, Bhagwan Dass replied, "Don't think about the future. Just be here now."
As Richard Alpert metamorphosed into 'Ram Dass', what insights did he gain?
Dass learned that one way to be aware of our selves is to adopt the role of unjudgemental witness, watching all the selves in action. This allowed one to carry out roles in life with some detachment. Witnessing your thoughts also allows you to see their impermanence and the fact that there is a part of you that is not your thoughts. The purpose of meditation, he found, is to be free from the thought that we normally take to be ourselves, thought which perpetuates our suffering. In meditation we disconnect from the ego and senses. If you do have thoughts during meditation, ultimately they will come only as intuition or guidance, not sabotaging thoughts.
Having lived most of his life in a culture that worshipped the rational mind, Ram Dass was liberated by the idea that we are not simply the sum of our thoughts. With this knowledge, it was no longer possible for him to continue 'studying consciousness' as an objective scientific observer; rather, he was now able to look upon science and psychology as constructs within the larger consciousness that he was beginning to experience.
Be Here Now is a classic work of 'hippie spirituality', but it can take its place as one of the standout works of spiritual transformation from any era. Dass's journey from Harvard academic to guru is told beautifully, and in his shaking off of an old, somewhat meaningless life, like a dead skin, Alpert reminds us of St Augustine writing in his Confessions.
Older copies of the book from the 1970s are a piece of social history. Printed by Dass's own Hanuman Foundation, there are no page numbers until about two thirds in, and much of the text is in blue or brown ink. While the first section is a relatively straightforward account of Alpert's life, written from a Western, chronological perspective, the central section is the voice of a neophyte who has discovered the spiritual truths and wants to tell the world. Arranged in a centerfold style with mantras and quotes, and with wild and often beautiful illustrations, it may be too groovy for some readers, but don't be put off by the frequent use of words such as 'love' and 'guru' and drawings of Hindu deities; this is actually the core of the book and if you are in the right frame of mind it can take you on a 'trip'.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"I had an apartment in Cambridge that was filled with antiques and I gave very charming dinner parties... I was living the way a successful bachelor professor is supposed to live in the American world of 'he who makes it'. I wasn't a genuine scholar, but I had gone through the whole academic trip. I had gotten my Ph.D; I was writing books... But what all this boils down to is that I was really a very good game player."