Spotlight on Psychedelic Pioneers: Ram Dass

By Brian Lissak

Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert on April 6, 1931 to a successful Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts. Though he was Bar Mitzvahed and grew up in a traditional house, he considered himself an atheist. “I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics,” Alpert said. His spiritual quest led him through a brief but fiery career in academia, then to India where he became Ram Dass, and ultimately back to America. His practice of cultivating a loving, non-judgemental inner witness informs psychedelic culture and psychotherapy to this day.

Alpert’s First Trip

On March 5, 1961, Alpert had his first psychedelic experience with psilocybin. It was in Timothy Leary’s living room along with the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg. As the layers of his identity melted away, he went into a panic. Academic, therapist, son—all of his name tags were cast aside, revealing an inner “I” that was his true self. This “I” was the foundation of his consciousness, the point at which he both connected to the infinite universe and sprang forth into physical reality.

The young professor who had recently completed his “Achievement Anxiety” thesis was now able to see a wider vision of his place in the universe. The system of values in which he was reared and educated was suddenly thrown into a new light. Scientific rationalism, which held nearly religious status in his previous circles, was now seen more as a tool than the sum account of our world. Already interested in exploring consciousness, this expansive experience ignited his curiosity and would color his brief but memorable tenure at Harvard.

Harvard Psilocybin Project and ‘Good Friday’ Experiment

Realizing the enormous potential of psychedelics, Alpert and Leary launched the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960. Experiments ranged from scientifically rigorous to personal use and exploration. The Concord Prison Experiment (1961-1963) is an example of a more academically sound study, and helped set the stage for clinical trials today. Another famous experiment, the 1962 ‘Good Friday Experiment,’ was the first controlled double-blind study of psychedelics. The goal was to assess whether ingesting psilocybin could induce a mystical experience in the religiously predisposed. Ten divinity students were given psilocybin, and ten took a placebo. The results were immediately clear.  “It was absurd,” Alpert said, “because in a short time, it was obvious who had taken the psilocybin. . . . They would stagger out of the chapel and say, ‘I see God! I see God!’ ”

Though Alpert often played the ‘good cop’ to Leary’s more outlandish behavior, by early 1962 his drift from mainstream academia was evident.

Goodbye Harvard, Hello Millbrook

In 1963, Alpert was formally dismissed from Harvard, though he didn’t seem to mind too much. For over a year, he had been chafing at the rigidity and strict scientific rationalism of formal academia. He was, after all, exploring consciousness, and the current paradigm was not nearly broad enough to encompass his thoughts nor discoveries. Along with Leary and some other colleagues, he moved to the Millbrook Estate in New York where they continued to experiment with psychedelics. Their goal was to uncover a permanent path to higher consciousness. The group also explored yoga, meditation, and group therapy sessions.

Millbrook was not, as people often conceptualize it, just a hippy retreat with copious amounts of LSD—though of course there were elements of that. During Alpert’s four-year stay, he maintained professional relationships with those in the medical, psychiatric, and academic fields. He co-authored a number of books, including The Psychedelic Experience with Ralph Metzner.

Ram Dass

Alpert’s mother’s death, coupled with the feeling that he’d run out of steam at Millbrook, led him into a despair. A friend invited him to India, where he carried his despair around like a suitcase. That is, until he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, at a temple in the Himalayas. At first, Alpert refused to bow down and touch the old man’s feet as everyone else was doing.

But then his soon-to-be guru called him over and said he knew he was grieving for his mother, who’d died of a spleen-related illness. Shocked because he’d told no one how his mother had died, Alpert could find no explanation. And then, he felt a warm, welcoming love fill him—not unlike a psychedelic trip. “It felt like I was home. The journey was over.”

Alpert stayed eight months in the temple, where he learned to observe himself, and reminiscent of his first trip with Leary, encountering his inner “I.” His guru taught him unconditional love, something Alpert had never experienced before. He was given the name Ram Dass—Servant of God.

In 1968, his guru told him to return to America, which he did, barefoot, bearded, all in white, and draped with prayer beads. Ram Dass moved into a cabin owned by his father in New Hampshire, where he continued his self-discovery and growth. When he first started going into town, kids would try and buy drugs from him. “I am not that kind of connection,” he would respond. Intrigued, young seekers began showing up at his cabin.

Be Here Now

The mass following that Ram Dass unintentionally garnered showed him that people were just as desperate for spiritual growth as he was. He realized that his personal journey was helpful and inspiring to others, and settled into the role of a leader and teacher. In 1971 he published his best-selling book, Be Here Now, a guide to conscious living based on his personal journey. Described as “the counterculture bible,” its influence on the various spiritual movements in America is incalculable. He embraced his widespread positive influence, wrote many other works, and published multiple recordings and films.

The Living/Dying Project

In an effort to reach more people, Ram Dass started many foundations, the most famous of which is the Living/Dying Project. To Ram Dass, conscious living includes conscious dying. This is a major theme in today’s renaissance of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Compassionate use of psychedelics for terminal patients focuses on accepting one’s own mortality and living each day to the fullest.

Ram Dass was involved in countless other foundations and movements, all aimed at improving people’s spiritual wellbeing.

A Stroke of Grace

In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a stroke that left him with expressive aphasia—a loss in language production abilities. “The stroke was giving me lessons, and I realized that was grace,” Ram Dass said. As he viewed it, the stroke was forcing him to adapt, to grow spiritually, and he viewed it as a divine gift. “Death is the biggest change we’ll face, so we need to practice change.”

By 2004, his health restricted him from traveling. He settled on the Hawaiian island Maui, where he continued hosting retreats, speaking at small local venues, and teaching through live webcasts.

Relating to his life’s mission, he said, “I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people.”

Ram Dass passed peacefully on December 22, 2019.