The New Resonance Of Ram Dass

By Will Welch

Last year, my wife and I were driving south on Interstate 91, somewhere between Vermont and New York City, listening to episode five of the Ram Dass podcast, Here and Now. It wasn't my first listen; I had become addicted to playing and replaying the first seven episodes, all of which come from a 1968 lecture Ram Dass gave at the Bucks County Seminar House in Erwinna, Pennsylvania.

Despite his age and the effects of a 1997 stroke, Ram Dass still dedicates the bulk of each day to teaching and serving his followers.

We initially encountered Ram Dass's work back in 2011. My wife, while going through a difficult time, was given a paperback copy of the 1976 book Grist for the Mill by her kindhearted, kirtan-playing landlord in Northampton, Massachusetts. That summer, at the beach, we read each other passages as we lay in the sun; soon, also at the beach, a new friend gave her his copy of Be Here Now—Ram Dass's 1971 book of hypnotically illustrated spiritual exhortations. That title was a fixture on every bona fide hippie bookshelf in the '70s and has sold over 2 million copies. But it wasn't until last year, when I was trying to find a more soul-fulfilling way to burn up the time on my daily commute, that I discovered the podcast and fully immersed myself in Ram Dass's message.

Having detailed his origin story in the first few episodes—from hotshot Harvard professor to psychedelic pioneer to Hindu devotee to holy-man-at-large preaching across hippie America—Ram Dass's beautifully unfolding lecture more or less abandons linear autobiography by part five. In it, he explores spiritual insights he gleaned from two trips to India, in 1967, slip-sliding between key principles of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christ consciousness while effortlessly tying it all back to modern life in the Vietnam-era West.

As my wife and I hurtled down the highway listening to the podcast, one of Ram Dass's digressions gonged me so good it would have been safer if I had pulled over the car. Trumpism had just dawned in America. The air was rife with fear, anger, and bluster: The Women's March had taken place in January and then Charlottesville in August. “I think there's blame on both sides,” Donald Trump had said. All of it was still raw. I remember being particularly anxious about the way the political moment was playing out on social media. My feeds were full of strident partisan rhetoric and hard lines drawn in the sand. If you're not angry, you're not paying attention. That's when Ram Dass articulated an idea that held as much truth and force in 2017 as it did when he said it 49 years earlier. “I know many of you will feel uncomfortable when I say this, but the hippies create the police as much as the police create the hippies,” he said, his Kennedy-esque Boston accent still intact. “That the liberals create the conservatives. The protesters create the John Birchers just as much as the John Birchers create the protesters. That as long as you are attached to whatever pole you are representing, the vibrations which you are sending out are creating its polar opposite around you. If you can do whatever is your karma—which may be walking in a protest march or fighting in Vietnam, or being a conservative or a liberal or being a housewife or being a yogi—and can do it without attachment, and do it fully and thoroughly but without attachment, then you do not create that karma. You do not create the polar opposite.”

I had listened to this episode before, but I had not really heard it until that moment. I rewound the passage repeatedly until my wife asked if we could please let the episode play on.