DSN: You’ve played a lot of
different roles in the past 20 years or so. How would you describe
what you’re doing now and how does it connect with what you did
ALPERT: It feels like a very natural progression. It’s
as if everything I learned as a psychologist and that I learned
through psychedelics and that I learned through yoga, the sum
amalgam of all of it is what I am now, and the role I seem to
have is that of being able to be in a way a kind of mouthpiece
for a process that is going on in a lot of people. I don’t feel
I’m any further advanced or anything else than others. It’s just
as if a lot of us have gone through a similar process at a time
that is very simultaneous. And so when I speak, there’s a kind
of feedback loop that occurs, where I see an audience and their
responses affect what I’m saying. There’s a feedback process
that goes on so in a way we’re talking to ourself. It’s
not that I know and they don’t. We’re just reflecting with
ourselves about what we’re doing and what we’re understanding
about reality and our work on earth.
I feel everything’s been feeding
into it–all of the past. I don’t think I had to deny any part
of my past in order to be in this moment now.
DSN: But you did have to change
to get here. What was Richard Alpert like before he became Ram
ALPERT: It’s interesting now because we’re doing a sequence
because what happened was that Richard Alpert tasted, through
psychedelics, some other part of his being and then that got
named Ram Dass and then he pushed Ram Dass up and all
of those parts of Richard Alpert that weren’t quite acceptable
under, and now, finally realizing I have to integrate
it all, I’m back being Dick Alpert again. So now slowly, Ram
Dass is disappearing into Dick Alpert again. It’s being incorporated.
DSN: You obtained much of
your initial fame as a proponent of psychedelic drugs. How has
that affected who you are now?
ALPERT: It seems to me until about 4 or 5 years
ago I was identified as being Tim Leary’s partner. That’s my
basic identity in the world. And I was that guy, that was my
association. I was always introduced that way. Then things started
to change and I feel now that my identity is pretty independent
of that. I mean, I honor that because Tim was a great teacher
for me, but I don’t feel any longer that it’s a detriment. I
feel like it’s an asset to have been connected with psychedelics.
There are a lot of people who
are part of middle-class America who, the minute they hear I’m
identified with drugs, historically, reject me. I was doing a
radio interview the’ other day in Sacramento, California, and
a woman called in and she said; “How can anybody who has
been so unconscious ecologically about their inner being,
to use drugs on it, be trusted in anything they say?” That
attitude still exists in the culture.
Generally though, what I experience is that it gives me a much
broader hearing in the culture than otherwise…
My role is a funny role because
all I have to prove is that I’m not psychotic. Because here I’ve
taken LSD like 300 times and lots of other drugs and smoked a
lot of dope and all, and yet here I am being sponsored by churches
in America and being in very, very straight social settings and
I come in and all I say to them is, “Well, I’ve taken all
these drugs and since we know they make you crazy, obviously
I’m psychotic so you people are here, hearing a psychotic.”
It’s interesting because then they slowly learn that they don’t
have to feel that way.
DSN: What’s your relationship
with Tim Leary like today?
ALPERT: Tim and I, after we split up in about 1965,
went on very, very different routes in our lives. Our relationship
was a little strained at times through the years, but I visited
him in prison several times and I visited him when he escaped.
But, recently, in the past year, we’ve visited a number of times
together and found that the depth of our love and our connection
is very strong, behind all of the forms and dramas of our lives.
We don’t agree about what kinds of things we want to do with
our time and consciousness, but we certainly go behind those
spaces and meet in a place where we recognize one another. In
fact, the night before last I lectured in Los Angeles and he
was at my lecture and came up afterwards and said hello. I think
we both appreciate the humor of our predicaments.
DSN: How often do you lecture?
ALPERT: Now I’m on tour, so I’m lecturing every other night
for two months. I usually teach about eight or nine months a
year-not as intensively as this, I teach retreats and things
like that. Then I take three months off, usually, and re-collect
DSN: How did you break into
the holy man business in the first place?
ALPERT: The actual event is a very funny event because
I came back, to just sort of be by myself in a cabin on my father’s
farm and just live like I lived in India. And I had to go into
town for some groceries and I borrowed my father’s car, which
was a Cadillac, and I drove into this little village in New Hampshire.
And I had a Massachusetts license plate and it was New Hampshire,
and these kids sidled up to me’ and they said, “You got
some acid for sale?”‘ and I said, “Why do you ask?”
And they said, “Well, we see a Cadillac from Massachusetts
and a guy that looks like you and we assumed-we were waiting
for a connection to come into town-we assumed you’re it.”
And I said, “I’m not that kind of connection anymore.”
And they said, “Well, what kind of connection are you?”
And I started to talk to them and they came to the house and
then they brought their friends and then they brought their parents
and the ministers and the whole thing developed until pretty
soon 200-300 people were coming every weekend just to hang out
and talk about spirit and stuff like that. It was an interesting
transition, at that point.
DSN: So it was a spontaneous
thing. You didn’t go to India and have some sort of revelation
to come back and lead an American spiritual revolution?
ALPERT: None whatsoever, none whatsoever. I still don’t.
DSN: No Messiah complex?
ALPERT: Uh-uh. Not then, nor now.
DSN:A couple of lecture tours
back, you booked your talks as “Nothing New By Nobody Special.”
And along the way you’ve said that the goal of a spiritual seeker
is not to become somebody but to become nobody. But very clearly,
you are somebody to your followers. Does that create any
psychic tensions or conflicts as you balance the expectations
of your followers with your own need to become nobody special?
ALPERT: It’s more like nobody being somebody. If
I’m identified with being an interviewee at this point, then
I’m caught in somebody-ness. If I’m the person who you think
you’re interviewing, then I’m caught in somebody-ness. But I’m
not. I’m just here, eating my eggs and talking to you
and it turns out that in this process, something’s happening.
But I’m not identified enough with it to make me suffer. So in
a way, I’m not being anybody in particular, and I’m just being
whoever it is you’re asking me to be from moment to moment.
Like when you say to me, “What’s
it like to be somebody famous?” It’s completely irrelevant
to me because that isn’t who I am. Other people project stuff-that’s
their projections. If I buy it, then I’m caught in “How
does it feel to be famous?” Well, I better stand like this
(strikes exaggerated pose), but it’s absurd. It has nothing to
do with me at all. I’m just fulfilling these roles.
The fatigue and the burnout comes
from the identification with the role. I do the roles, but I
don’t have to identify with them. So, in a way, it reinforces,
because every time I’m doing something and I start to experience…like
I’ll get caught in being a lecturer at times. Like before a lecture,
I’ll get nervous or I’ll get tense. Then I’m getting caught in
my role. And I can feel that thickness, that heaviness, and I
know that I’ve got some work to do on myself which is what I’m
doing on this tour: to clean up my act, to get quiet again inside,
to rest in a place where nobody’s doing anything. Lecturing is
just happening, it’s me–being a doer. It has to do with the
Bhagavad Gita’s injunction not to identify with being the actor.
So in a sense, I’m experiencing being more nobody-special all
DSN: So you tour as much to
work on yourself as anything else?
ALPERT: Everything I do is to work on myself. Right now,
that’s all I’m doing. It just happens that you’re getting an
interview out of it.
I don’t know what else to do
other than to work on myself for everybody else. I mean, it’s
part of all of us, collectively, but I am working on myself in
order to get my heart open, my mind quiet, get everything settled
in such a way that I can be there for awhile.
DSN: Over the past 10-15 years
or so, you’ve spent a good deal of your time lecturing, touring,
teaching. What changes are the most important, psychically, spiritually,
that you’ve noticed during this time?
ALPERT: One of the most dramatic things is that what was
new that came into the culture through psychedelics in the early
’60s has now been absorbed into the mainstream of the culture…
not in the full mainstream, but into a very significant segment
of the mainstream. So that while my audiences were a certain
very select age group and cultural background group initially,
now if you look at the audience, it’s incredibly heterogeneous.
And they all are hearing each other. What I experienced was that
the psychedelics broke through, then that got interpreted through
rock-and-roll music and got into the mainstream of the culture
the whole idea of realities being relative rather than absolute.
And that is now much more an accepted part of the mainstream
of the culture. So that now, kids who never took drugs, I can
meet, and all the stuff I got to through taking drugs, they already
know. And so in a way, the drug experience for that purpose is
anachronistic, it’s used up, it’s irrelevant. Which is interesting,
because I’d say a good 50 percent of my audiences now have never
taken any drug at all other than aspirins, and sleeping pills,
and coffee, and cigarettes, and liquor. I mean they are mainstream
drug users rather than . . . New Age drug users.
And that’s interesting to me.
Previously, the gulf was very great and there were those that
had and those that hadn’t, and now it’s cut across much more
DSN: So you feel that drugs
served some sort of useful purpose?
ALPERT: I think they did to social perceptions what Einstein
did to Newton. They shifted our perception of reality. They weren’t
the only things that did it. I think they were part of
a complex of determinants which included television, mobility,
affluence.. It included a lot of products of technology other
than chemicals. But they were certainly a major influence. I
don’t question that.
I think they’ve been bad-rapped
badly by the fears of the society about growth and change. Tim
and I argued in that article “Politics of Consciousness,”
which was back in the Harvard Review back in the ’60s
that society in a way needs these kinds of pseudopods
of experimentation but they usually can’t handle it because it’s
too heretical. I mean that’s what I felt we were doing
at Harvard, we were heretics and we were a heresy because the
worship of that time was of science and the intellectual-rational
mind and we were saying “You’ve gotta go out of your mind,”
like Ronnie Laing would say.
DSN: Do you think that drugs
continue to have a meaningful purpose? Or are they just an evolutionary
stage you leave behind?
ALPERT: I still find chemicals useful to me in different
ways. I’ve been working with a chemical that is not on any list.
It doesn’t exist yet. I was in therapy this winter and
my therapist gave it to me and it was a chemical that allowed
me, really, to look at a lot of my personality psychodynamics
from a more impersonal-space. And it was extremely useful to
I have found that every year
or so to take something like LSD reminds me of what I forgot.
There are certain kinds of toxicities that build up just from
being part of a culture that are certain kinds of lock-ins or
blinders that you oppose. And you take it like a physic and it
just kind of cleans all the cobwebs away and “Oh, wow, I
I don’t feel an urgency to take
it or an attachment to take it. Sometimes I don’t even particularly
want to take it. My guru’s instructions to me were “If you’re
in a cool place and you’re feeling much peace and your mind is
turned towards God and you’re alone, it could be useful.”
And I found that under those conditions, it is useful.
I’ve taken it in other conditions and they’ve been a mixed bag.
Sometimes it helps and sometimes not.
Now the milder psychedelics–hash
and marijuana and stuff like that–I use off and on. I find,
again, a mixed effect. I find that they, at times, will override
certain kinds of inhibitory mechanisms in me and allow my mind
to flow more freely and other times they will exacerbate my paranoia.
Because a mild psychedelic isn’t strong enough to override whatever
is an existing pattern. So if you’re in a really good space it’ll
take you into a better space; if you’re in a bad space, it’ll
take you into a worse space. Powerful psychedelics do something
else–they override no matter what. I mean I’ve taken intravenous
LSD that didn’t give a damn what state I was in, it just took
me beyond it so fast there wasn’t even a moment. You were just
on the elevator going up to the Trade Building in New York and
it was like–zap! It was out there.
But gentle psychedelics don’t
do that and Often I make the mistake, I still make the mistake,
of being in a bad space and thinking that if I take a mild psychedelic,
I can override it. And actually, all it does is exacerbate it,
just makes it worse.
But the amount of psychedelics
I use now to intensify sensual experience…unless somebody else
initiates it, I don’t do it. I’m still social enough that if
somebody hands me a joint I’ll smoke it, but I don’t initiate
it unless I really need to use it for something about my consciousness.
I don’t sit around my room smoking, in other words.
DSN: Well I’m glad. It would
have destroyed some of my illusions about you if you did.
ALPERT: But I think that it’s important not to get into
the good and evil thing about drugs. I keep coming back always
to the same thing that the issue is one of education. The society
and individuals should be educated but everybody should have
the right still to do what they need to do with their own consciousness.
And the government does not have the right to legislate about
human consciousness. I still feel as strongly about that as I
did when I worked with Tim. And I think Tim feels strongly
about that, too.
DSN: What do you think that
groups like the Moral Majority represent? Is it a reawakening
of spiritual consciousness or lust the old Puritan ethic coming
ALPERT: A lot of it comes out of fear and the fear
comes out of the uncertainties of the moment. It comes out of
economic uncertainties, terrorism, anarchy, the potential annihilation
of the world. And it’s a way of saying, “If I hold tight
to what I always knew, I can reassert the familiar and I’ll reduce
my anxiety. I want it to be like it was 30 years ago.” It’s
also a clinging to righteousness: “If I’m good enough, I
will get rid of evil out of the world.” It’s externalizing
those forces in the world that are really in all of us, and making
believe they’re in the other guy so it just feeds paranoia on
itself. I think it’s just another sign of the anxiety. I don’t
think it’s the essence of what we are about in this culture.
I think there are other forces equally as strong as this. I think
it’s been overly built.
It’s like the difference between
the living Christ and Christianity. It’s the same thing. It’s
a kind of a clinging to a set of rules in order to protect yourself
from the unexpected and fear. It’s a world of ritual and superstition:
“If I do this and do this and if we make believe this doesn’t
exist, it’ll go away.” And that isn’t the way the world
seems to really work. And so it’s constantly creating an unreality.
I’ve watched the Moral Majority
do a lot of horrendous things to a lot of very beautiful politicians,
and I’m sure they have a lot of power. I personally don’t feel
that ultimately they’re any great threat to the world situation.
DSN: One of the areas that
Moral Majority-type groups have particularly focused on has been
youthful drug abuse…
ALPERT: Well, there is a hell of a lot of youthful
drug abuse. The thing is, we don’t want to sweep under the counter
the fact that young people have said, “Well, the hell with
it, I’m just gonna get what I can now…” See what happens
is, when I say you’re in nobody training, I realized finally
that you have to become somebody before you can become
nobody. A lot of kids start to go into nobody training
a little too early, and they haven’t developed. I mean, I think
smoking grass in junior high school is really a stupid thing
to do. Because it seems to me that what you’re doing is you’re
cutting down the sharpness and clarity of the cognitive tools
you have to develop a structure for grounding, for effectively
functioning within the social structure. And then once you have
that, then you can start to develop the other parts of
I mean I pay my taxes and I know
my zip code and I can drive and all that stuff, and that’s where
I think the kids blow it a little bit because they don’t develop
the ground first…They’d rather have the little candy bar now
than the big candy bar later, in the terms of gratification.
DSN: How do you prevent that?
ALPERT: That’s a tricky one because that’s so much part
of the culture now. There’s a lot of hedonism in the culture
at the moment.
I think that there are ways in
which parents and educators and society can be concerned without
being repressive. I think they can be concerned in a way to increase
education, to increase a respect for the kid’s predicament, to
listen to what the kid’s predicament is. I think that all they
do is alienate and create revolutions. I mean, the problem is
that there’s a lot of hypocrisy in this culture, like
the relation between the laws regarding alcohol and the laws
regarding pot. The kids can see that this is hypocrisy. The kids
can see that alcohol is more detrimental. Yet because of the
power of the liquor lobby, drug research is often political.
It’s political and supported by the lobbies, political lobbies,
in order to preserve the legality of alcohol. And that’s being
supported by the guy 5 who were the rum-runners back in the Prohibition
days, who were the pushers. It’s like imagining all the
pushers now becoming the establishment 50 years from now, and
knocking some other chemical that comes along because it’s gonna
cut in on their territory. And you know damn well they’d do it.
DSN: Over the years, you’ve
been actively involved in working with prison populations and
others in the therapeutic use of LSD and other drugs, and ultimately,
of meditation. Do you still feel that LSD and other drugs have
legitimate therapeutic applications?
ALPERT: Probably psychedelics in conjunction with other
therapeutic and setting variables are incredibly valuable for
bringing about behavior change–behavior modification. I think
it can’t be done to a person, it has to be done in collaboration
with them. I don’t think it can be injected in a medical
kind of way. It has to be taken where there is some trust, where
there is some rapport, where once the person has overridden their
habitual thought patterns chemically, then there is somebody
to help them re-perceive the traps that their mind gets them
into. Otherwise, they just go out and come back in. But there
has been some good research and there’s still some good research–much
too little, as far as I’m concerned.
DSN: Over the centuries, drugs
have played an important part in the formulation and practice
of any number of religious and spiritual movements. What is it
about the state of intoxication or transcendence that various
drugs produce that appeals to the human spirit?
ALPERT: Well, historically, they have been parts of initiation
rites and processes in which people have been able to go beyond
the facade of their own minds in order to connect to the living
spirit, to God, to living truth. We are much, much more than
we think we are, and in order to function on this plane of reality,
we get addicted to our thinking minds, which is our ego structure.
We forget about our own divinity. We forget about this higher
part of our being. Chemicals have been used traditionally to
bring back that memory, to remember God, to reawaken–not only
to remember intellectually, but to experientially remember–the
living spirit. When we transcend any kind of limited framework
of thought we also transcend standing in any place in time and
space, so we start to have all kinds of not only feelings,
but actual instances, of omniscience, omnipotence, all kinds
of parapsychic phenomena, all the miracles that the bibles of
the world refer to, those are all possible…I’ve lived in India
too long to question any of that anymore. And these doorways
are opened by the proper use of chemicals under certain conditions.
In fact, in Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga, which is a very ancient
form of yoga in India, drugs are considered one of the traditional
vehicles–along with other techniques for plumbing the depths
of being and for opening up the door to these siddhis, or
psychic powers, or spiritual powers.
DSN: How do you feel about
the future? Are you optimistic about our chances? And what do
you think we have to look forward to?
ALPERT: I really found, finally, that I can have
an infinite variety of scenarios about what’s possible, but I
saw that whatever scenario I had I still had to do the same thing
day by day. I had to open my heart and quiet my mind and deepen
my compassion and deepen my emptiness, the empty quality of my
being. And that I had to do all that no matter whether the world
was going to end in one minute or whether it was going to go
on for a million years or whether we were at the beginning of
a new age or whether this was the end of a cycle. And so I’ve
really lost interest in what I call these astral melodramas of
how does it all come out. I’m not, basically, either pessimistic
or optimistic. It all just is.
It seems to me a very scary and
exciting time. It’s scary for that part of me which is separate,
it’s very exciting for that part of me which is the One at play,
because I’m playing with chaos and change and instability and
uncertainty. What a great playground for developing equanimity!
There’s an old Chinese saying, “It’s a curse to be born
in an interesting time,” because it’ll catch you and you
get so lost in it. But it’s only a curse if you’re not really
centered. If you start to be centered, then it’s a way of cleaning
up your act a little more. It’s just a hot fire of purification.
I think that there are, in us,
some wishes, like an Armageddon wish: “Let’s get it over
with because we’ve blown it anyway.” There are wishes in
us that we want to have more pleasure and more possessions, and
we want our government to do whatever it has to do to protect
those things. Then there are parts of us that say we want to
be compassionate and caring about the have-nots of the world…We
have to get our own act together in our own beings because it
is inside each of us that these forces are ripping against each
other. So, I really see that one of the things we have to do
is develop the integrity within our own being of bringing all
those things together. So that you don’t go to one place and
see the Oneness and come to another place and say, “Yeah,
we’re all one but, nevertheless, this is mine…”
You have to be impeccable across levels…
DSN: What are your own plans
for the future?
ALPERT: There are a lot of different things that are bubbling
around that will undoubtedly happen. One of them is that there’s
going to come a time when I really want to be quieter and live
a more sedentary life, so I can touch deeper parts of my being
and I can be there in society in a quieter way. I think that
society needs that. Our society, which is an action society,
keeps getting people to do more and do more, and I think that
if we did a lot less we’d be a hell of a lot better off. I don’t
think we nave to keep achieving at all. I think that if
we just stop for a while and cool out, it would be better. Less
might be more. Small might be more beautiful.
Now that I’ve said that, in a
funny way given lip service to it, I’m just finding my way to
honor what my humanness is about, and that involves my dealing
and struggling, often, with my relationship work, personal relationships,
and also with my responsibilities as a member of society, and
a member of humanity, and so on. I’ve become very involved in
the realization of the absurdity of the nuclear weapon build-up
and the whole bizarre idea of using annihilation or massacre
of a billion people as a political card of power politics. It’s
too bizarre it’s so unconscious, it’s so out of control, that
something in me rises up–not anger, but my intuitive
sense of disharmony of things rises up to say, “That has
to be righted.” So, I find myself more active in anti-nuclear
demonstrations, and I probably will be open to acts of civil
disobedience at some point and things like that. So, that’ll
play a part in my life.
I’ve been lecturing now for 20
years, roughly, on tours, and I have been always afraid of television
as a medium because I felt that I would get lost into the power
world of it. But I’m maybe feeling stronger now and less attached
to my own need for power and think that maybe I could play. I’d
like to have a weekly television show and explore the way in
which spirit and consciousness manifest through various aspects
of life. Do depth conversations with people like truck drivers
and housewives and mothers and political activists and
DSN: And drug newspaper editors?
ALPERT: Drug newspaper editors and all, yes.
DSN: How do you hope to be
ALPERT: I hope not to be remembered. I don’t care.
It’s just irrelevant. I feel now that what’s exciting is the
concept we call, in the positive sense, networking–which means
the recognition that the basic social institution is the individual
human heart. That means every individual human heart. We don’t
need these kinds of hero figures and mythic models that way any
more. I think we have to develop more self-respect for ourselves.
I’m feeling very much part of a process, part of a wave of consciousness.
I don’t feel like I’m a leader in it, and I don’t feel like I’m
a follower. I merely feel that I’m part of it. I don’t feel put
down or put up. I think that what is historically interesting
are these waves of consciousness and these movements of awakening…rather
than the individuals involved…
I don’t think it’s important
that I be remembered, nor do I think I will be. For a long time
I thought I was just sort of an anachronism from the ’60s. And
now I feel like I seem to have a continuing role in a broader
part of society, and it’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying myself more
because I want it all less–which is important. I don’t want
specialness. It’s interesting that when you don’t want the specialness,
you can allow yourself to be special in the projections of other
people without burning out through it. Because it’s your wanting
of it that burns you out, not other people’s projections. People
say that fame is a real drag, but it’s only a drag if you want
it. If you don’t want it, it’s no drag at all. It goes through
you, just like Chinese food.
DSN: You don’t think that
you’ll be remembered as Ram Dass, the great spiritual leader
who turned America around and ushered in the age of spiritual
enlightenment and discovery?
ALPERT: No. Isn’t that funny? That sounds so bizarre to
me. I mean it does nothing at all. Nothing resonates in me. It
isn’t even interesting to me.
DSN: You don’t even grant
it as a possibility?
ALPERT: Anything’s a possibility. I don’t know what people
will do with their minds. It’s interesting because people came
along and collected all of Tim’s memorabilia, but no one’s ever
done that with my stuff. I always assumed that I was a kind of
hustler who was using other people’s juice to play with. I was
using Tim and I was using my guru and all that, and, now, I’m
using God’s juice. I just feel like a middleman.