Ram Dass, Fierce Grace (2001)Mickey Lemle
This is a documentary film about Richard Alpert who became Ram Dass and focuses on a life changing stroke that occurred in his mid 60s.
It goes through his story. He was a child the Boston elite, his father a wealthy industrialist. The film has clips from home movies shot in the 1930s and 40s on their 300 acre estate in New Hanpshire, complete with 3 hole golf course. He was the youngest and darling of a family of three boys.
He becomes a Harvard professor. At Harvard he meets up with Timothy Leary, gets into LSD research with him and gets fired from Harvard with him. They land for a time in Millbrook, NY at the Hitchcock Estate and continue the LSD work in a much freer way than they could at Harvard. Ram Dass revisits Millbrook in the movie and marvels at the enormous house it has, with 50 or 60 rooms. This becomes a counter culture scene that went on for about 5 years 1963-68. It eventually falls apart, Alpert describes it getting excessive with him and others obviously overindulging. Alpert breaks from this Leary dominated situation.
Then he goes to India, meets guru Neem Karoli Baba and is amazed by his powers in mind reading. Neem Karoli Baba asks to try some LSD and takes a massive dose afterwhich he exhibits no effect.
I remember reading about this in the old Ram Dass book Be Here Now. Frankly I have trouble buying into it. Neem Karoli Baba might have been a sort of great teacher, but could have also been a bit of a trickster magician. He could have very easily been given the tiny LSD tablets and not actually consumed them. At any rate this is profoundly impressive to Alpert and he goes Indian and returns to the USA as Ram Dass spiritual teacher in Indian like dress and manor, himself transforming into a guru for the new age, the hippie generation. The film shows lovely footage of him in early stages of this at the family's estate where young people have come to be with him and receive his teachings. They chant, sing Hari Krishna on the golf course, young westerners, seekers, embracing this very exotic Indian religious stuff.
This is the background information of a film that is about the aftermath of this stroke. We see him in the year 2000, now reverting to western clothing going through physical and speech therapy, and struggling to get around with the right side of his body not cooperating as it had before.
He speaks of being “stroked” and taking it as a new lesson that he needed even though he did not particularly welcome it.
Ram Dass comes off in this movie as a very nice man. His teaching, not very clear in the movie, appears to be benign at least, a type of self-help therapist. He is clearly a child of wealthy elite and exhibits no hesitation at talking on a leadership role. It is something he feel entitled to. There are a lot of people like him. I have not read any of his books, Just pieces of Be Here Now, but as a popular cultural figure he doesn’t appear to be harmful. I am convinced that many people have found things in his work that help them through life.
The film shows this and depicts him as a caring, compassionate, person.
Yet as I followed the story I saw a man lucky wealthy by birth. A situation that makes even the stroke aftermath, with so many people working to serve and help him, a great deal easier than it might be for so many of us who are less privileged. This does not discount what he has to share but I think it is best listened to in privileged context.
It is not unusual for the psychedelic experience to reset people into “spiritual”. I know people personally who are more or less transformed in this way, some embracing surprisingly exotic modalities. This didn’t happen to me. LSD instantly gave me a new view of life, the planet, and my place within it. But I didn’t feel the need to name it, remediate it, and turn this profound direct experience into something as codified as religion, or “spiritual”, as many others apparently are drawn to do. The attaching of this experience to symbols of religion is an interesting phenomenon for sure.