The Day Ram Dass Died

I woke up every thirty minutes the night before Ram Dass died. Stretching my perception through the big divider that separated his study—where I lay on a narrow couch—from his bedroom, I’d count the seconds between the short, ragged breaths churning through his sleep-apnea machine.

Four years later, I still have no idea why I was chosen to watch over him that night. I was at the bottom of the caregiver pecking order when it came to things directly related to Ram Dass’s body. I lacked the size and strength to transfer him from bed to wheelchair, or wheelchair to recliner, on my own; was too much of a novice to help organize his schedule or coördinate with his doctors; and was too unfamiliar to offer intellectual comfort in the rare moments that he wanted to talk. I’d met him ten months earlier, had his voice in my head for just three years. There were people in the house, on Maui, who had known him for more than three decades.

Before arriving, I had no formal medical training, but I had done three weeks of volunteering at a hospice facility in anticipation of coming to the island. Most of it involved moving Kleenex and changing the amount of light in empty rooms. Several times I sat with the dying. It was overwhelming to look at their closed eyes, feeling the heaviness in the room, the sense of something happening or about to happen. I scanned their faces for signs of pain, of fear or bliss, of transcendence. Through the palliative haze of opioids, they were impossible to read. No one was thrashing in pain; no one was smiling, either.

But it somehow buoyed me, being so close to death. The heaviness seemed critically important to my spiritual growth. I imagined myself giving peace to the dying through my presence, and in the process conquering my own fear of leaving life behind.

During my time with Ram Dass, I flitted constantly between self-righteousness and self-pity, one day indulging in grandiose fantasies that I was the heir to his legacy, charged with scattering his ashes, and the next imagining that everyone in the house hated me. The caregivers called it the classroom or the fire—a site of purifying work, a pathway to enlightenment.

My own work, purifying or otherwise, consisted mostly of handling various chores needed to keep a six-bedroom cliffside home with a pool, guesthouse, and two-acre yard going. For the bits that mattered—the scrubbing and the laundry and the cooking—there was a team of cleaners and a rotating cast of chefs. I ended up doing a lot of the rest: separating recycling, washing dishes, and replacing cat-scratched screens. There were three other caregivers in the house, and I was given a modest salary, plus my own room, meals, and shared access to a truck. I was an employee, but most days the house felt like a family, for better or worse.

Still, this was only the second time I’d been asked to spend the night in the study. It was generally perceived as an act of intense devotion: accepting a horrible night’s sleep, on a couch that reeked of cat pee, while facing the prospect of Ram Dass dying on your watch. I hated it, but I was there to care for the guy however it was decided that he needed care.

Most of the deciding was done by a woman affectionately dubbed Dassi Ma, a seventysomething lapsed-Catholic firecracker from Philadelphia. Dassi Ma was Ram Dass’s primary caretaker, and, though she no longer did the more strenuous physical tasks, she was still in command of what he got and when, often more so than Ram Dass himself. He was eighty-eight, and his health had been steadily deteriorating owing to a host of issues, including chronic infections. When I moved to Maui to be near him, in February, 2019, he had almost died the night I arrived. He bounced back, to everyone’s surprise but his own. “It wasn’t time,” I remember him saying in his stoic way, neither relieved nor disappointed. Now he had another spreading infection, and what appeared to be a cracked rib from being transferred to and from his wheelchair.

Ram Dass’s life is the subject of multiple documentaries, an autobiography, and a docuseries in development starring “High Maintenance” ’s Ben Sinclair. He was born Richard Alpert in 1931 to a wealthy Boston family. His pedigree was sterling: a Stanford psychology Ph.D., tenure track at Harvard, visiting professorship at Berkeley. In 1963, after five years at Harvard—much of it spent studying psychedelics with his fellow-psychologist Timothy Leary—he was fired for giving psilocybin mushrooms to an undergraduate.

He bopped around for a few years, often taking obscene amounts of mind-altering substances with Leary at the Hudson Valley estate of his friend Peggy Hitchcock. In 1967, like so many other Westerners of the time, he travelled to India in pursuit of exotic answers to life’s biggest questions. He’d grown disenchanted with the psychedelic world, which had come to seem rotely defined by highs and comedowns. In India, he met a Californian hippie named Kermit Riggs and followed him to a village called Kainchi, in the Himalayan foothills, to meet Riggs’s guru.

The guru was an old, squat man named Neem Karoli Baba. Before long, an enthralled Alpert was reborn as Ram Dass, or roughly “servant of God.” He returned to America later that year, arriving at the airport dressed in white robes and with a long, scraggly beard, and began his career as a spiritual teacher. Most of what he talked about, from 1967 to his death, were the experiences he had with Neem Karoli Baba, whom he called Maharaj-ji (“great king”), and the spiritual beliefs that emerged from those experiences.

One of his main ports of call became death and dying. In 1981, he co-founded the Dying Center, in Santa Fe, an organization that described itself as “the first place specifically created to support and guide its residents to a conscious death.” The center sought, in effect, dying people who wanted to use their death to become spiritually enlightened, and staff members who wanted to use other people’s deaths to achieve the same. Even before the Dying Center took shape, Ram Dass was lecturing on the spirituality of death, its place in the natural order, and the starkly contrasting way that he believed it was perceived in the East. His teachings were rooted in a specific vision of metaphysical reality, as informed by his guru and by the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text. Roughly, he believed in nondualism, that there existed an unchanging and absolute entity—the Hindu Brahman, which Ram Dass more frequently called God, the divine, or oneness—from which all material reality came. Included in that reality were souls (something like the Hindu atman), which by their nature were caught in the illusion of their separateness from God, repeating a cycle of birth, suffering, death, and reincarnation until they remembered their true nature as part of the oneness—that is, until they became enlightened.

Death could be a crucial moment for remembering this nonduality, as it was when the “veil of separateness” was thinnest. In his 1971 book, “Be Here Now,” which has sold more than two million copies worldwide, Ram Dass summarizes his views: “You are eternal . . . There is no fear of death because / there is no death / it’s just a transformation / an illusion.”

He often spoke to crowds afraid of dying, repeating that he had “no fear of death.” He sat with people on their deathbeds and talked routinely about the power of “leaving the body,” his efforts to “quiet himself” so that the dying could see where they were in the reincarnation process and do what they could to escape it. His stories were sometimes graphic—people dying prematurely, or dying in tremendous pain—but always tinged with a lightness and humor.

Perhaps Ram Dass’s most memorable remarks about death came not from his own mind but from a woman named Pat Rodegast, who claimed she had channelled a spirit named Emmanuel from 1969 to her death, in 2012. Rodegast was working as a secretary, raising children, and practicing Transcendental Meditation when she began to see a light, which evolved into what she called telepathic auditory guidance. Some of that guidance was captured in three books published in the eighties and nineties, two of which came with forewords from Ram Dass. According to Ram Dass, when he asked Emmanuel what to tell people about death, Emmanuel replied that it was “absolutely safe,” “like taking off a tight shoe.”

I first encountered the voice of Ram Dass in 2016. I was twenty-seven and living in New York, in a Chinatown building that rattled every time an empty box truck drove down First Avenue. Each morning, I tumbled down five flights of sticky stairs and placed one of his talks deep into my ears, letting his distinct blend of scientific erudition and spiritual mysticism carry me across town.

He had a habit of segueing from psychological concepts, like attachment theory and childhood trauma, to cryptic ones, like Emmanuel’s messages and the astral plane, pausing briefly to ask listeners if they could really, truly “hear this.” He seemed to build on the insights of others who had revolutionized end-of-life care in America—thinkers such as the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross—but also spoke in the New Age argot of Alan Watts. I gobbled it all up, feeling my spiritual life deepen exponentially by the day. His lectures made me more prosocial, more anti-capitalist, more curious, and decidedly more self-loving.

This was my second rodeo with spirituality; growing up, a rigid strain of Protestantism had been foisted on me like a chore. In Kansas City, Missouri, I was enveloped by an atmosphere of creationism, tent revivals, and anti-abortion screeds. I still recall standing on a busy street as a six-year-old and holding a sign that read “Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You—God.”

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