Richard Alpert, Ph.D. was a psychology professor at Harvard University. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, had a successful working career, and from an outsider’s perspective would have his life altogether. He began to question what more that life holds and what consciousness really means outside of what the textbooks that he had studied were telling him. He writes in his book, Be Here Now, “I was writing books. I had research contracts. I taught courses in Human Motivation, Freudian Theory, Child Development, but what it all boils down to is that I was really a good game player.” From my understanding, he seemed to feel like his life needed more meaning to it. “Success” wasn’t really a success.
March 6th, 1961, Richard Alpert had his first awakening experience with a synthetic form of magic mushrooms. Alpert took the 10-milligram psilocybin pill on what he said was “the worst snowstorm of the year”. He was with his academic partner, Timothy Leary, as well as three or four other people. After a few hours on the psychedelic drug, Richard moved into the living room alone. He began to notice that “the rug crawled and the pictures smiled.”, but that wasn’t all that was happening. About eight feet away from himself, he saw what appeared to be a person. He realized that the figure was himself. He saw himself wearing a cap, gown, and hood as a professor. He said in Be Here Now, “It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated itself from me.” He realized that he didn’t need that status that he had worked so hard for. The figure then changed. He saw himself standing there as “a social cosmopolite”. He let part of himself go. Then, he saw every other aspect of himself morph in front of him as he continued to let every part of himself until all he had left was his “Richard Alpert-ness”. He decided that he would give up his “Richard Alpert-ness” on the trip. After he had done this, his body faded away. He began to realize that the true self was within him. It wasn’t attached to a body and his true self was spectating everything happening as he was hallucinating.
Alpert and Leary headed what was known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project. One of the most profound experiments that Alpert and Leary conducted was known as The Good Friday Experiment. In this experiment, twenty ministers were randomly given either a psilocybin pill or a niacin placebo pill prior to a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel in Boston. The ten people who had taken the niacin were sitting in their pews feeling tingly. It was obvious which ten had taken the psilocybin. Those who were on the mushrooms were running around the chapel expressing that they saw God in everything. It was evident to Alpert and Leary that mushrooms had a deeply religious experience tied to them. This project didn’t last for long because in 1963 Alpert and Leary were fired from Harvard University.
Four years passed and Alpert had received the invitation to travel to India from someone he knew back in the psychedelic sessions he had led. Richard took a bottle of LSD to give to holy men in India to try and connect the missing pieces in his exploration of consciousness. He says in Be Here Now that a Buddhist Lama had tried LSD and said “It gave me a headache”, another person said “It’s good, but not as good as meditation.”, and another said, “Where can I get more?”. It was the same thing that he experienced in America. He thought it was the end of the line. Richard went to a restaurant called the Blue Tibetan when he had a life-changing encounter. He met a man who goes by Bhagwan Dass.
Bhagwan Dass had this surreal presence. It was like he “knew”. Alpert traveled with Bhagwan and learned from him. Everywhere Bhagwan went, he seemed to fit in with the holy men of each tradition. Bhagwan would help Richard see the bigger picture. When Richard would try to talk about his experiences with Tim, Bhagwan would say, “Don’t think about the past. Just be here now.” Richard would try to talk about what they were going to do, and Bhagwan would reply, “Don’t think about the future. Just be here now.” They traveled everywhere until the next set of events would unfold and change Richard Alpert forever. Bhagwan and Alpert woke up early that morning and Bhagwan told Alpert that they would go see the guru that Bhagwan followed.
When Richard and Bhagwan arrived at the place where the guru was, he found a man who was in his late 60s covered by a blanket. Bhagwan approached the guru fell at his feet. The guru, who they called Maharaji, looked at Bhagwan and asked: “You have a picture of me?”. Bhagwan replied, “yes”. Maharaji pointed to Richard and said, “Give it to him.” They had gone by Maharaji’s orders to sit and eat with some of the devotees and returned back to speak with the guru. Maharaji then proceeds to tell Richard about his experience the night before. You see, Richard lost his mother after they had removed her spleen due to blood complications. The night before, he was under the stars thinking about his mother and Maharaji knew every detail of his thoughts.
The next morning, a messenger has approached Richard and said that Maharaji wanted to see him immediately. When he approached Maharaji, he was asked by the guru, “Have you got a question for me?”. Maharaji then followed the question with a second question, “Where’s the medicine?”. You see, the previous evening, Richard had the idea that this was the person who he should give the LSD to in order to figure out what it really was. Alpert thought about what Maharaji had said and was astounded because he had never thought of LSD as medicine. Richard went to the car that he was in and pulled out his bottle of drugs. Richard Alpert poured the drugs out onto his had and Maharaji asked, “Gives you siddhis?”- siddhis meaning powers. Maharaji extended his hand and Alpert gave him a pill of 305 micrograms of LSD. Maharaji extended his hand further, so Richard gave him a second. Maharaji extended his hand again and Richard gave him one final pill totaling 915 micrograms of LSD. Maharaji took the pills and Alpert watched as his throat pushed them down. He spent all day with Maharaji and nothing happened. From that point on, Alpert had his guru and his guru later gave him the name that he is known by today, Ram Dass.
Ram comes from the Ramayana. It’s in reference to the incarnation of Vishnu in the story, Rama. Dass is a name used in the Bhakti Yoga tradition to describe one who is on the path of love and devotion. Ram Dass is a loving servant of God and as interesting as it seems, the connections with drugs and Richard Alpert would never have turned him to the path that he landed on. The drugs led him in search for answers, and when he met his guru, he found the answers that he was looking for. Maharaji said that LSD, the yogi medicine, was okay at first, but we should not rely on it for any connection to God. Meditation can bring us into a headspace just like LSD, psilocybin, STP, or any other hallucinogenic drug does with the same profound understandings and awakenings. Ram Dass teaches that with every high there is always a down. Every aspect of psychedelics is fully available through meditation and relationship with God.
Ram Dass has spent 50+ years giving teachings after his time in India. There’s one in particular that resonates so well with me. One of Ram Dass’ friends, Raghu, approached Maharaji and said “I would like a mantra. How should I meditate?”. Maharaji said, “Meditate like Christ.” Now, to hear that statement be told to a group of jews from a Hindu guru is absolutely astonishing! Raghu, Ram Dass, and Krishna Dass have shared this story and every time it’s absolutely amazing. Raghu asked Maharaji, “How does Christ meditate?”. At that moment, Maharaji began to cry and he said “Love everyone unconditionally”. This is the core of what Ram Dass teaches. Love everyone, serve everyone, and remember the teachings of Maharaji.
Out of any spiritual teacher that I have found, I have never seen anyone love as much as Ram Dass does apart from Maharaji in photos and videos that I have seen and another guru named Shyam Sundar Das. From the twinkle in his eyes to the presence of love in his voice, there is no doubt that he encompasses a divine love for all people. If you have never heard of Ram Dass, or you are new to his work, please go to RamDass.Org and read some of the articles. If you’re new to his story and his work, it may seem a little far out at first, but I have never found anyone more genuine than him.
I’d like to give a special thanks to the Love Serve Remember Foundation for allowing me to use this photo of Ram Dass and Bhagwan Dass. For more information on Ram Dass and the Love Serve Remember Foundation, visit RamDass.org.