Having died only a few days before the close of 2019, it’s an open question whether or not Richard Alpert — better known as Ram Dass — will make it onto major publications’ rankings of “This Year’s Notable Deaths.” But while the spiritual teacher and erstwhile Harvard professor may have written his best-known work — Be Here Now — back in 1971, he deserves a place on such a list today, perhaps now more than ever. For while Be Here Now created Ram Dass’ biggest splash — eventually selling over 2 million copies and helping fund several foundations — it’s his work around aging and death that may have made his most lasting impact.
In facing the most universal and inevitable of spiritual transformations with clear-eyed grace, Ram Dass helped bring the notion of the “conscious death” out of the shadows and onto center stage.
Ram Dass wrote (and recorded) a great deal about the question of presence, about how to see through the stories we tell about ourselves into something more meaningful. In translating what he found — both in entheogenic labyrinths and the great wisdom traditions — into a vernacular I could comprehend, Ram Dass helped open me into a far deeper sense of possibility than I had known.
He and I started in similar places. My own family of origin’s spiritual tradition — such as it was — was a weak and watery Judaism, cloaked in heavy layers of denial and shame. For young Richard Alpert — the future Ram Dass — his own bar mitzvah left him with a feeling of “essential hollowness.” After a coveted professorship at Harvard gave him all the trappings of wealth and influence but few spiritual comforts, he began to look elsewhere. Psychedelics would be his way in, and also his way out: Into a deeper sense of belonging, and out of a meteoric academic career streaked through with threads of ambivalence and anxiety.
As a teenager I would embrace psychedelics too, but it would be a long time until I understood that they might offer more than just a vacation from my nagging sense of unbelonging. Whether addressing the psychonaut with nerves of spaghetti or the world-weary, hypercerebral neurotic, Ram Dass spoke my language. His ease threading between the hallucinogenic byways of psychedelics and his decades-long pursuit of Hinduism and other wisdom traditions compelled me to seek the resonances in both, a sort of code-switching that helped open me to the universal truths of the great wisdom traditions.
His low-key, informal — and, crucially, disarmingly funny — lecture style connected the dots, pointing out the threads that connected my anxious 21st-century perspective with those of the Hindu deities; of Christ; of Buddha.
So, what about death?
Because I missed out on Be Here Now the first time around (it was published the year of my birth), I wasn’t aware that his fame, if not his relevance, had peaked in the first half of the 1970s, as chronicled in an acidly revealing (no pun intended) profile in Rolling Stone magazine. But Ram Dass had been far from idle since then. Long before he suffered a near-fatal and life-changing stroke in 1997, at the age of 65, he had spent the better part of three decades focused on the notion of death as only the next in a long line of awakenings.
In an era in which the final stages of life were even more cordoned off from public than they are today, Ram Dass helped create The Dying Center — now the Living/Dying Project — which was the nation’s first residential facility for those wishing to die a “conscious death.” His workshops and lectures on the topic helped orient a generation of practitioners, including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the pioneering psychiatrist and originator of the “Five Stages of Grief” model.
Once again, Ram Dass was merely connecting the dots. Every spiritual tradition — and as catalysts for spiritual awakening throughout human history I wholeheartedly include psychedelics and entheogens — must at some point come to grips with the question of mortality. And while spirituality can give us an intellectual framework for the afterlife, spiritual experiences — such as those engendered by psychedelics, or meditation, or yoga, or fasting — put our conception of death into an experiential framework. Getting comfortable with death, it turns out, is getting comfortable with life.
As clinicians are only now discovering — or make that re-discovering — psychedelic experiences tend to markedly reduce our fear of death. Whether it’s through the crucible of the near-death experience — one commonly associated with the entheogen DMT — or the considerably gentler reminders of our souls’ eternal and undying nature that are the hallmarks of all the “classic” hallucinogens, the effects on those facing death are both measurable and durable. And of course, we all face death.
In helping destigmatize the last great opportunity for awakening on this planet, Ram Dass helped pave the way for a new generation dedicated to experiencing not only conscious deaths, but bringing awareness and purpose to aging, and even to the current and unsatisfactory models of burial.
Will anyone take him up on it? That remains to be seen; right now, the first human composting facility in the United States is slated to open its doors in Seattle in Spring, 2021. Whether or not the notion of allowing our loved ones’ bodies to break down into soil will appeal to Middle America is another question.
More to the point: Will those of us who spend our lives in avoidance of the spiritual use our deaths as an opportunity for awakening? As those who work in hospice care can attest, we die as we live, and our fraught and beleaguered world offers us no shortage of examples of unconscious living.
As this uncomfortable and unsettling decade comes to a close, it appears that we’ve already forced the question by consigning our descendants to an uninhabitable world. In that case, it may come to pass in the near future that Ram Dass’ challenge to age and die consciously isn’t offered merely as an option for a privileged few, but as a basic tenet of life — and death — on this planet.
Ram Dass may not have been the first spiritual teacher to recognize that in order for wisdom to resonate with us, it must have some grounding in our native culture. As the researcher Terence McKenna — Ram Dass’ peer in psychedelic journeying — noted, consuming entheogens such as ayahuasca outside of one’s own cultural context can be a muddling rather than a clarifying experience.
But in journeying far from his own place of origin — whether through hallucinogens or through his decades-long study of wisdom traditions — and then describing what he found there with sparkling wit, humor and humility, Ram Dass opened generations of curious truth-seekers to the possibilities of our lives, and also of our deaths.