Waking Up, Loving More: An Interview with Ram Dass

September 18, 2016    BY Kathryn Ashworth

When Ram Dass returned from India in the 1970s after spending countless hours with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (lovingly known as Maharajji), his newfound purpose was to introduce the concept of guru to Western minds. What followed was a series of books (the first being the classic spiritual text, Be Here Now), more than three decades of lectures, and the Love Serve Remember Foundation, an organization which—through the use of webcasts, private “Heart 2 Hearts” with Ram Dass, online courses, and eBooks—tirelessly continues the teachings of Maharajji. I recently contacted Ram Dass to discuss various topics he has touched upon throughout his years of teaching—from devotion to surrender, accessing our inherent intuition, and more.

Ram Dass currently lives in Maui. One of his most poignant and timeless teachings is that spiritual seekers can “come close to God” through every experience—even our suffering. The film Fierce Grace documents his own very personal experience with this concept that suffering can bring us closer to God, as it (in part) features Dass’ emotional, physical, and spiritual transformation after he was—in his own words—“stroked” in 1997.

Ram Dass’ practice is to witness the cosmic hand behind all experiences—throughout it all, he sees grace—and he invites us all to do the same.

The following is a conversation that can remind us all to love more, and to find the perfection in embracing who we are.

Since meeting your guru, Maharajji, in the 1960s, you’ve devoted your life to his teachings. Your name itself means “servant of God.” What does it mean to be devoted?
What it means to be devoted is to be in an unconditional Love relationship between you and the Beloved. When I met Maharajji, he gave me unconditional love, and that was my first experience of true love. That experience has been nurtured over all these years by His grace. And now that devotion has become a constant inner dialogue with Maharajji.

How does guru's grace manifest in practice?
Guru’s grace is manifested as whatever practice brings you closer to God. The guru brings you into contact with what is perfect for you to get free. That includes the awareness to transform suffering into grace—as what happened to me when my body was stroked.

You once said, “When you learn how to listen, everybody is the guru.” Could you tell us what this means?
When you can sit quietly and have your spiritual heart be the perspective from which you see your life, you can see how each event, each arising of phenomena is grist for the mill of your awakening. So indeed each person you meet offers a specific teaching, and they become what’s called in India “Upa Guru”—anyone and everyone who crosses our path has come to teach us something.

How does one connect to their inner guide? What advice would you offer?
Usually people awaken when they are very discontent with their lives, or they have a sudden experience of awakening—be it through psychedelics or listening to sacred chant In the case of suffering, they look inward, and once that happens their guide or guru introduces them to books or teachers that start to point the way to a deeper understanding of how the universe works. And if you want to connect, there is such a wealth of resources through the internet or your local yoga or meditation center.

In Chapter 2 of your book Be Love Now you said, “Lots of people like to be seeking God, but not too many want to actually get there.” What kind of shift is required to truly go all the way?
Well, as people tread the spiritual path, there always comes a time that’s called the dark night of the soul. It’s then that many difficulties and self-questioning arise, so we may get down and fall off the path for a while. What it takes is a certain courage—a persistence, a faith that everything is moving at exactly the right speed. And, of course, the most difficult concept for us in the West is “surrender”—but that is absolutely necessary before we can be truly merged with the One.

You’ve expressed that one of the greatest shifts in your practice has been moving away from the idea of becoming holy toward the reality of embracing your own humanity. I think many of us on spiritual paths from time to time feel that to come closer to God means that we must also come closer to a state of perfection within ourselves. What are your thoughts?
Perfection is contentment with what is—being at ease with whatever comes our way in life. We are human, and that allows us to develop compassion within ourselves and with those around us. And holiness is embracing that compassion and love for all manifestations of God.

For those who feel inspired by the Love Serve Remember Foundation, the teachings of Maharajji, and the practice of bhakti yoga (the path of love and devotion), what can we do today to be of greater service to these teachings?
Simply share your true being—radiate your unconditional love with everyone you come into contact with. And our foundation title is what Maharajji gave us [his devotees] to share: Love everyone, Serve everyone, and Remember God. He also said “Tell the Truth.”

Kathryn Ashworth
is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."