Dass: Fierce Grace
Produced & Directed by Mickey Lemle
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
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
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.