Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Only Dance There Is (Ram Dass)

The story of Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert) is a tragic one to some, and a testimony of the exquisite beauty, unpredictability and serendipity of life. After having received his doctoral degree, Richard Alpert was offered a prestigious post at Harvard University, where he eventually held appointments in four departments—the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service where he was a therapist. After some years of research and teaching, he met with Dr. Timothy Leary, who introduced him to LSD and it's effects on consciousness. Intrigued, they began conducting experiments on the psychotropic, administering the drug to individuals in double blind studies, and gradually began to draw a great deal of media attention to their work. The work placed the psychology department at Harvard and the University as a whole in an unfavorable light, and they were pressured by the conservative right to terminate the research. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were subsequently dismissed from Harvard in 1963, and here began a new chapter in psychedelic research and consciousness exploration.

The depth of insights offered by this man are truly phenomenal. He moves along his descriptions of consciousness, experience, and phenomena so fluidly and effortlessly, that one wonders where it is all coming from. In fact, he often says, that "he" isn't speaking, but that there "is" simply speaking. That there is a certain stepping aside of the egoic self so that truth can flow according to the circumstances and needs of the moment.

Ram Dass makes some important allusions to spirituality and its relation to entheogens, particularly LSD, in its ability to give individuals a brief taste of what's possible. He draws a great deal from his own experiences, but makes it very clear that these are only temporary states, and once one comes down from the experience, one is left with the dilemma of how to proceed. One has been metaphorically admitted to the "wedding banquet," but cannot stay. And this is the essence of esoteric Eastern spirituality, to enter into these expanded states of awareness, and there remain, through a gradual process of mind development, and consciousness unfolding. However, the use of entheogens can be useful for many as a kind of initiation or periodic pointer, alerting one to the possibility of what's available to human consciousness. This is particularly apropos for the West, where philosophical materialism makes it extremely difficult to accept something unless there is strong material or experimental evidence.

Ram Dass describes many of his experiences in detail, often times leaving the reader in a state of amazement and perhaps disbelief if s/he has never encountered such possibilities of experience before. But for the initiated, the territory covered is at least partially familiar. He does a wonderful job of connecting the various maps from different traditions, and presenting how they are all similar, and what it is they are accomplishing. He takes examples of some common practices, and examines the purpose and effects of these practices on consciousness. As things become clearer, one begins to develop an appreciation of the esoteric traditions in many cultures. At the very least, one begins to see the value of reproducible verifiable experiments on oneself. One begins to see oneself in the role of the consummate scientist, where one's entire being becomes a laboratory for experimentation.

The book originates from the recording of a series of talks given at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, and Spring Grove Hospital in 1972. The content can best be summarized by providing a topical list of the various ideas covered. There is simply too much breadth, and depth of insight to do justice in the form of a conventional summary of main ideas. However, the golden thread that unites all topics is clearly to do with consciousness expansion. Ram Dass really gets to the crux of issues, and most importantly, communicates them in a very accessible, low key, informal style, that makes for extremely entertaining reading. A series of section subtitles follows.

Part 1: The Path of Consciousness, The Four Component Design of Ashram, Consciousness as Freedom from Attachment, Higher Consciousness as State of Unity, Mantra, The Mandala Process, The Eternal Present, LSD, The "Book", Psychotherapy as a Path, Game Theory, Guide of Consciousness Journeys, Simple Rule of the Game, Chakra Centers, Levels of Consciousness, Krishna, Ram Story, The Issue of Social Responsibility, Increasing the Amount of Consciousness, Interchange of Methods, Modification of Group Consciousness, The Problem of the Experimenter, Limitations of Knowing, Evolving Consciousness

Part 2: Meher Baba and Bhakti Yoga, Edgar Cayce and Two States of Consciousness, Fear and Higher States of Consciousness, Love as a State of Being, The I Ching, Diet and Food, Perceptual Vantage Points and Psychosis, Another Karmic Relationship, Compassion without Pity, Attractions and Dangers of Powers, Need for a Guru, Gnostic Intermediary, The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Chakras, Optimum Being, Transmutation of Energy, Centering, Distinctions Between English and Sanskrit, One-Pointedness of Mind, Teachers as Conveyors of the Universe

Part 3: "Miracle Stories", Nirvana, "Eastern" and "Western" Models of Man, Raising the Kundalini, Maharaj-ji. The Planes of Consciousness, Lawfulness of the Universe

Part 4: Karma and Reincarnation, Attachment, How Do We Know?, Deepest Desires Connected with Survival and Reproduction, Other Forms of Life, Comprehension, Desires, Beyond Dualism

Ram Dass, psychonaut extraordinaire, has given an incredible account of human potential and possibility. With his explorations of mind and consciousness, he has journeyed where few others have gone. And from these panoramic vistas and dizzying heights, he relates back to us that this exploration is truly the only dance there is.