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Produced & Directed by Mickey Lemle

True faith is one of those things that can't be manufactured, faked or forced. For the most part you either have it or you don't. For some, simply living by Pascal's Wager (you may as well believe in god, because if you don't, and you're wrong, eternal damnation sure lasts a long time) isn't enough. For spiritualist Ram Dass, faith has helped him overcome a stroke that almost killed him. What is it that Ram Dass believes in? Well, from viewing the documentary by Mickey Lemle about Dass's life after the stroke, it seems to be one of those American interpretations of Indian spirituality, complete with skinny, middle aged white people with 'authentic' American Indian jewelry dancing in circles and a lot of talk about understanding the nature of things. Other than that, it's hard to say. There's talk of 'God' here and there in the film, but not much is said on the subject other than the 'oneness' we share with something or other.

Joking aside, Ram Dass has showed remarkable courage in coming back from a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and with difficulty speaking. In the four years after his stroke, he wrote a book: "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying", which he was planning to write before the stroke, but which took on a special urgency after. Interestingly enough, Dass shows how faith can be completely blind, as when in the hospital during his stroke and at the brink of death, he recounts how he didn't have a single spiritual thought: "It showed me I had more work to do, because that's the test, and I flunked the test!" As opposed to the expected enlightenment he thought he would experience at the moment of death, all he could focus on, he recalls, were the pipes in the ceiling. It seems never to have crossed his mind that maybe that was his enlightenment - those pipes up there and the water and steam they carry and the gurney he was on and this mound of flesh that make up Ram Dass are really all there is. Maybe that's too horrifying a thought for a man who has dedicated his life to the idea that there is a higher purpose or power at work, something akin to that fabled plastic bag in it's star turn in "American Beauty."

Born Richard Alpert to a wealthy family in Boston, Ram Dass began his career stodgily enough as a Harvard professor of psychology and colleague of Timothy Leary. In the early 60's the two famously began experimenting with LSD and were soon dismissed from their posts at the University. There followed a few years of heavy psychedelic abuse under the guise of experiments in 'consciousness', experiments which Alpert ultimately found unfulfilling and which led him to India to find a person who could read the maps of his consciousness. Returning home in the late 60's fashionably attired in a long beard, beads, flowing robes and the blank yet maniacally happy stare known to religious zealots and with the new name Ram Dass given him by his guru, he set up shop on the grounds of his family's summer estate to begin teaching.

For an esthete squired away on his family's sprawling grounds doing his thing, Ram Dass sure managed to garner some great PR. Old footage shows hundreds of hippies wandering the grounds, dancing in circles and sitting watching Dass teach. If nothing else, it's kinda fun to see the corporate lawyers and middle managers of today frolic in their youth. Dass' father, an old-money Bostonian, is shown in this footage surprisingly impressed with the youth of the day, and is glad to be able to provide them with space to get their thoughts together. It's nice to see that the message of peace and tolerance knew no generational bounds, and it actually comes across as a very touching exposition of a parents' unconditional love of their child, even if the child is a middle-aged former professor who now sports a goofy name, lives at home and wears flowing robes.

Though I never read Dass' 1971 best selling book "Be Here Now" (now in it's 39th printing), the documentary does flesh out the basic idea behind his philosophy, which holds that humans are equal parts divine and human. If one goes too far in embracing either way, one risks losing sight of who one is. Basic post-60's relativism, really, but a point of view not without it's merits.

Ram Dass, while not inspiring to everybody, does teach a lesson even to those who don't believe in spiritualism. No matter what comes before or after we shed our physical beings, all we can know is the here and now, a point that Dass had slammed home in no uncertain terms after his stroke. Now confined to a wheelchair, we see him endure painful physical therapy to try and regain some strength in his semi-paralyzed muscles and struggle to complete thoughts. It's sad and a bit difficult to watch a man try and do that which came so naturally to him at one time. But through it all, he still managed to write a book on aging to try and help others his age deal with the same issues he finds himself confronting - namely, the end of life and how to prepare for the final journey. The filmmakers rightfully chose to dwell on the man instead of the message, making the documentary a relatively even handed (though obviously sympathetic) story of one man's life filtered through the lens of spiritualism rather than a hour and a half commercial for Dass' own brand of spiritualism.

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[email protected] | March 2002 | Issue 24
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