I stayed up all evening, the first night of Chanukah, trying to sit with my feelings, to be here now, if you will, contemplating the surreal truth that Ram Dass, finally, left his body. It’s been a long time coming, and he was ready, “like taking off a tight shoe,” he once said.
Most know Ram Dass for his book Be Here Now, which relays the teachings of his guru Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharajji. Born Richard Alpert in 1931, he pioneered the psychedelic renaissance of the 60s with his friend and colleague Timothy Leary, before their research at Harvard got them fired. You could say it wasn’t RD’s dharma to stay the course of academia. He was—is—a special kind of soul, no doubt, and had a different path ahead of him. Psychedelics played no small role in steering him on that course.
I didn’t have the pleasant luxury of discovering the magic of RD’s teachings. Rather, they were somewhat imposed upon me throughout my upbringing. It’s as if my only way to rebel was to not be here now. I say that in jest, and what I really mean is, if multiple copies of that purple book with the trippy chair on the cover hadn’t been a household staple, the closest thing to a “HinJew” bible we might have had, we’d all be more lost than ever. Growing up a Margolin was dysfunctional at best; loving, but challenging. Be Here Now was our saving grace.
And it remains that way, in this moment, as we navigate a world absent of RD’s physical being. A seasoned psychonaut well-versed in the landscape of ego-death and the near-death of a stroke, RD was no stranger to the concept of dying. No one puts it better than RD, himself: “The ego is frightened by death because ego is part of the incarnation and ends with it. That is why we learn to identify with our soul, as the soul continues after death. For the soul, death is just another moment.”
My former step-mother describes Ram Dass as the kind of being who could just bring you to tears, seemingly unprompted. It happened to her, and to others whom she witnessed meet him before they even recognized who he was, she told me last night by phone. “He was a clear reflection of Maharajji’s love,” she describes. To that end, RD’s passing isn’t so much a loss, although it may feel that way—to me, at least, it feels like a piece of my childhood has died. But my step-mother reminded me, “When Maharajji left his body, your father said it actually made him feel closer to him.” And that’s the blessing of RD having done the same, and what I thought of as I lit that first Chanukah candle, feeling the light of his presence there with me.
For this reason, I’ve often become frustrated with those who worship Ram Dass, or even Maharajji, as more than human. We are all more than human: As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
After Harvard and his deep dive into psychedelia, RD trekked to India looking for a way not to come down—because the thing with getting high, he had realized, was that you do always, inevitably, come down. He met Maharajji and brought the guru’s teachings back to the West. Around the same time, my father also traveled to India and met Ram Dass by chance, who told him, “Anything you see in me as valuable is just a minor reflection of Maharajji.” A baba unto himself, Ram Dass led my father to meet Neem Karoli Baba for the first time at the guru’s ashram in the holy city of Vrindavan.
The way I see it is that, if anything, Ram Dass played the role of messenger for Maharajji, and Maharajji for the Creator. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for messenger and angel are the same: malach. We may all play the role of malach at different points throughout our lives, but perhaps what deems these two souls so auspicious is for how many of us they have been able to play that role.
I grew up Jewish, like Ram Dass. In an interview about psychedelics and Judaism, he once told me that he called himself a “HinJew,” versed in both Judaism and Hinduism. As Jews, we’ve been taught not to worship people, only the one-and-only up above and throughout. Even my father, initially, had a hard time grasping how people would bow down before Maharajji’s feet, before reconciling the guru as someone who felt like an old Jewish zayde (grandfather).
But what these souls embody and disseminate is divine presence—an ultimate value we might come to through any meditation practice, religious ritual, or deep psychedelic experience. “Loving awareness,” to use RD’s terminology. Whether you call it God, the universe, or the pinnacle of a psychedelic trip—some psychedelic scientists have dubbed this a criteria for the “mystical experience”—you don’t need to be tripping to get there. For those like Maharajji, perhaps even for Ram Dass, it was a state that they embodied, an awareness, all the time, of the matter of the universe, of the material that’s greater and more important than any of our own, petty ego shit down here.
The key is not to take any of it, especially your self so seriously. Getting close to feeling the divine is one thing, getting out of your own way is entirely another.
I remember a time when my mother took us to Maui to visit Ram Dass. I was 16 and angsty. My mother and I had gotten into an argument that day, and in the throes of teenage nastiness, I’d flipped her off in the not-so-sly way of scratching my cheek with my middle finger. We get to RD’s house, and what does she do? She treats him as the shrink that he is and lays our problems on the poor guy. Granted, I was ashamed of myself. But Ram Dass sat there calm, taking nothing about our mother-daughter tiff too seriously. And as we parted ways, Ram Dass waved goodbye to me, scratching his own cheek with his middle finger. In one small gesture, he belittled the whole thing in the most loving way, my damaged ego left with nothing to grasp onto. As RD says, “if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
I’d spent my entire life being embarrassed of my parents, the kirtans or Indian chanting events they held at our home, where hippies once named Steve or Susan would swarm in donning bindis and Hindu names (many of them given by Ram Dass, himself). But as I became ready to leave home, I knew that the freakshow that shaped my upbringing was the golden nugget that would carry me through, and always bring me home—truly home, wherever I was. “We are all just walking each other home,” Ram Dass has said; dropping into the now is home.
While Ram Dass didn’t stop tripping after he met Maharajji, his teachings show us what lies on the other side of the psychedelic path. I don’t see RD’s psychedelic legacy as devaluing that path, but rather showing us the light at the end of the tunnel, where we’re trying to get: to presence, to loving awareness. It’s a practice, however, not a destination; I’ll probably spend my entire life trying to get there.
But there’s also something on the other side of “be here now” — and that’s for us, for this generation, to figure out. Ram Dass wrote Be Here Now at a different moment in history, one characterized by potentially less turmoil than we know today. The question of today, however, is, “are we really going to meditate ourselves out of a fascist regime?” as Duncan Trussel so aptly put it just a few months ago at a showing of Becoming Nobody at the Google Empathy Lab in Venice, California. The building is surrounded by homeless encampments, and it’s hard not to wonder where Be Here Now comes into play there.
This isn’t to criticize RD’s contribution, but to push it further. How can we make the action of being here now accessible to everyone, and how can being here now be an active way to engage our community and planet?
In Maharajji’s words: Feed everyone.
Through direct action, may we actually lose ourselves for the purpose of another. Isn’t that the point anyway? Once you get out of your own way, you can be present in the now, and do what your body was put on earth to do: to serve.
And so that’s the legacy I’ve taken away, and which I’d like to impart, and use as motivation. My prayer this Chanukah is that RD’s passing sparks not only a light within each of us, but a fire under our asses. Being here now isn’t only about sitting on a pillow and meditating, but through direct action, through feeding everyone in service of something greater than your own ego, may we bless the present as a time in space to be present within.
If the original psychedelic renaissance was about re-discovering the value of these medicines, today’s is about integrating their principles into our daily lives: into politics, mental health, spirituality, and environmentalism. Our generation is picking up where our parents’ and grandparents’ psychedelic movement left off. As Ram Dass grasped when he went to India, it’s not just about the highs of the medicine, but the lessons we glean and retain from it once it wears off—so that it never wears off.
Like Chanukah, it’s the light that miraculously keeps on burning. That is the gift of presence, of being here now—to light up our souls and the world in which we reside. Daily practice is essential to harnessing that light.
Thank you, Ram Dass. We love you.