Tribute to a Great Soul

A spiritual teacher once told me that during every generation a handful of pure souls come into the world as pillars of light to keep the world connected to pure positive energy. They bring upliftment to the masses and relieve humanity of suffering. Ram Dass, who merged back into the infinite on December 22, was one of these. His contribution to my life and the lives of millions of people seeking peace of mind is inestimable and unspeakable.

I met Ram Dass when I was in graduate school, searching for what would make my life worthwhile. Although I had been a psychology major, learning about rats and schizophrenics did not explain why I was here or how to find happiness. Then someone gave me a cassette tape of a talk by Ram Dass in which he described how, born Richard Alpert, he became a high-achieving Harvard psychology professor. In spite of his worldly status and collection of material toys, he felt empty and unfulfilled. Then he hooked up with his colleague Timothy Leary, who introduced him to psychedelic drugs, which gave him momentary visions of heaven. The two were famously fired, and Ram Dass traveled to India to search for ways to stay in heaven, since drugs returned him to earth with a crash.

In India Alpert met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, also known has Maharaj-ji, who bestowed him with unconditional love and showed him how to stay connected to God. Maharaj-ji gave him the name Ram Dass, “servant of God.” He returned to America and chronicled his profound transformation in his book Be Here Now, which has become a perennial bestseller.

Realizing that Ram Dass had the answers to my spiritual quest, I became a devoted student. I stayed up sometimes all night listening to his recordings, drove to Colorado to spend a summer studying with him, considered what he would do at every choice point I faced, and emulated him in my teaching. He was my beacon of light, a role model par excellence.

Many years passed and, as destiny would have it, Ram Dass moved to Maui, just a few miles from my home. I reinvented my relationship with him as a peer, and had the honor to spend a great deal of time with him.

Our conversations were filled with deep insights and much laughter. He graduated from icon to friend. Then Ram Dass invited me to co-present some programs with him, the most important invitation I have ever received, for which I will always be grateful. Watch a video of a webinar we shared.

In reflecting upon his passing, I realize that his gifts to me were purity, kindness, humility, vision, patience, and soul strength. He constantly practiced his guru’s advice, “Love everyone, serve everyone, and remember God.” Ram Dass received a steady stream of spiritual seekers with boundless compassion, non-judgment, and grace. I have never met a kinder person more dedicated to helping where he could.

In 1997 Ram Dass suffered a stroke that left him in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. His physical hardships were extremely challenging. Yet I never once heard him complain or lose the twinkle in his shining blue eyes. Even when he was quite ill he received me and others with a smile. He often joked about his infirmities and continued to guide many people, lecture, and socialize right until the end.

I have heard it said that some great souls take on illnesses or hardships as a model for others, demonstrating how to rise above fear and pain, and keep love first. Ram Dass achieved that model with impeccable mastery. He proved by his presence and actions that we are greater than our human suffering.
It was not enough for Ram Dass to simply talk philosophy; he backed up his words with extraordinary acts of service. He established Seva, an organization that helps people in undeveloped countries heal and maintain their eyesight; the Prison Ashram Project to guide prisoners to use their incarceration time for spiritual growth, and the Doorway to Light project to guide souls to cross over in dignity.

Beyond all else, Ram Dass taught me how to fully embrace my humanity as well as my divinity. His lectures were dotted with earthy anecdotes of how he dealt with his human foibles, fear, guilt, sexuality, and ego. He was a master at taking what makes us mortal and weaving it into the greater context of awakening. Many spiritual teachers fall to one side or the other, either indulging humanity or denying it. Ram Dass merged them like none other.

Now as I consider how I might honor Ram Dass’s life and passing, I thought I could write an article, attend his memorial service, or make a donation to one of his service organizations. Then the real answer came to me: Live in a way that honors his teachings. Bring the quality of light and love to the world that he did. The greatest reward a student can give a teacher is to put his lessons into action. As Gandhi suggested, “Be the change you wish to see.”

We are all passengers on the ship crossing the sea of samsara (illusion) from birth to death. The length or facts of that journey are less important than what we make of them. I have no doubt that the moment Ram Dass cast off his mortal coil, a countless reception of angels in heaven greeted him with a huge chorus of “Well done!” While I felt a tinge of sadness learning of his departure, I felt a deep inner peace and joy at his release. He is finally out of his wheelchair.

If anyone has gotten life right, it is Ram Dass. Ripples of enlightenment and healing will go out long after this moment, like a star whose light continues to shine far into the universe for eons after it has gone nova. A Course in Miracles tells us that when you perform any act of love, it goes on to touch many thousands of people you never know about. This unique soul’s legacy will bless the world for time unreachable and in ways uncountable. The world is a far, far better place for him having walked here. May we honor him and ourselves by following in his footsteps. Godspeed, dear friend.

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