Coming of age in San Francisco in the seventies, I had definitely heard of Ram Dass, né Richard Alpert, an American spiritual teacher, former academic, and Harvard clinical psychologist. I knew that he hung with Timothy Leary, and that the use of psychedelics and time spent in India with his guru propelled him on a lifetime journey to become a servant in the quest for conscious being. I knew that he was quite popular on the lecture circuit. And that his simple credo—and popular book title—Be Here Now is one that resonated with me over the years. But that’s all I knew.
Which is why I was looking forward to seeing BECOMING NOBODY, a new documentary that is described as being the quintessential portal to Ram Dass’s life and teachings. Director Jamie Cato spent four years making the film, with the core interview filmed in 2015 at Ram Dass’s home in Maui. He has succeeded in synthesizing the lifetime of work and wisdom of a very special man who shares his concepts with a healthy dose of humor and humility.
We learn about Richard Alpert’s early years, which came with expectations that left him feeling unfulfilled; the effect of psychedelics on him in early 60s (“the game wasn’t to be high, it was to be free”);
and the life-changing revelation of meeting and being inspired by his guru Maharajji in India in 1967 .
Ram Dass suffered a stroke in 1998, and must use a wheelchair for mobility. The now-frail spiritual teacher still has eyes that shine, and more to say. We’re treated to much footage of the seeker in his younger days, with a wild beard, and, for the times, even wilder ideas. The film doesn’t want us to miss some of his best teachings, so we are treated to them in titles, accompanied by the ringing of a bell.
“Be where you are, as honestly and consciously as you know how.”
“Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing that you are more than your drama.”
“We’re all just walking each other home.”
One of Ram Dass’s core messages, and the overriding theme of the film, is that we come to understand how our old roles and disguises become increasingly burdensome, and that only by becoming “nobody” can we become free.
To me, the most interesting part of the film is Ram Dass talking about the American stigma around death and dying. “Death is absolutely safe,” he says, “it’s like taking off a tight shoe.” Ram Dass was an inspirational thought leader in this area, when in 1986 he led the effort to create the first residential facility in American where people could come to die consciously. Now, his nonprofit Love Serve Remember Foundation will be available for generations to come, providing all sorts of accessible media related to the cause.
Raghu Markus is the director of the foundation, and thew film’s producer. He recalls a time in the sixties, when the Montreal rock music station where he was program manager, aired a lecture by Ram Dass. “We put it on in the middle of the day, and the switchboard immediately lit up,” he says. And the effect of Ram Dass on him personally?
“I was flabbergasted and floored,” explains Markus. “He was so full of love and honesty; there was no ‘him,’ just ‘me.’ ” He’s been working with Ram Dass ever since.
The documentary succeeds in conveying the wide arc of Ram Dass’s teachings, but some of the film’s techniques are distracting. It’s definitely a challenge to edit together footage of a series of lectures covering many decades and topics, aka “talking heads,” one that the filmmakers attempt to meet with music, and much b-roll to help with transitions. I found many of the b-roll visuals distracting—clips from 50s TV shows, cartoons, visuals of donkeys and swans– and asked producer Raghu in all seriousness if they represented an ode to the psychedelic consciousness that Ram Dass embraced in the sixties. “No,” he said. “Our main editor Zachary Bennett found some crazy-ass footage from the fifties, and we were trying to match the footage with the mood of the words being said.”
And I could have used some help understanding who Ram Dass’s interviewer was; director Jamie Cato clearly knows him well enough to share much of his own personal story, but viewers might be confused, as I was.
But in the end, learning more about the man who influenced a generation of seekers by sharing teachings like “How do I get free? Feed people,” and “How do I get enlightened? Serve people” seems incredibly relevant in today’s world.
BECOMING NOBODY is playing at cinemas across North America in the autumn of 2019. You can also host a screening.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”
Previous films about Ram Dass include RAM DASS: GOING HOME (2017); DYING TO KNOW(2014); and the classic RAM DASS, FIERCE GRACE (2001).
See Paul Krassner’s review of DYING TO KNOW on EatDrinkFilms.
The Love Serve Remember Foundation is dedicated to preserving and continuing the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass. The foundation facilitates the continuation of these teachings through online courses, blog content, films, podcasts, vast social network channels and collaborative projects with conscious artists and musicians. In addition the Love Serve Remember Foundation sponsors retreats led by Ram Dass and featuring other esteemed spiritual teachers on Maui.
Listen to the “Mindrolling”podcasts of Foundation Director Markus Rahgu.