Documentary, 81 minutes, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Love him or — ignore him, I guess. I don’t see how you could hate him. But buy his philosophy or reject it, there is one aspect of Ram Dass that seems incontrovertible, and that is the pure joy he radiates. Embrace him as a holy man or dismiss him as a holy fool, there’s no gainsaying the delight that beams from his face and lights up his surroundings.
The man needs little introduction in this community. He’s the former Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert who, through a series of galvanizing influences, beginning with the psilocybin he discovered with Timothy Leary in the early ’60s, transformed himself into Baba Ram Dass (“Servant of God”), spiritual seeker, Eastern philosopher, and guru.
“For 25 years I’ve been huffing and puffing and trying to get enlightened as hard as I can,” he says in this engaging documentary by filmmaker and disciple Jamie Catto, which covers many years and dips into many old film clips of its subject in a dizzying range of lectures, clothing, and hairstyles. And then he recalls, with a twinkle, running into an old Harvard acquaintance he hadn’t seen in decades. “Dick,” she told him, “you haven’t changed a bit.”
As Catto scatters childhood photos and grainy footage of his subject across the screen, Ram Dass describes our physical equipment as a “spacesuit” into which we’re stuffed at birth, something separate from the inner person we really are. Toward the end of the film, as he focuses more on the end of life, he uses a different metaphor: Death, he suggests, is like “taking off a tight shoe.” (See Gay Dillingham’s excellent 2014 documentary on Ram Dass and Leary’s ruminations on death, Dying to Know.) From birth, he says, we’re subjected to “somebody training” to form our personalities, and it’s as a reaction against this that he is working on “becoming nobody.” It’s a concept that might seem a bit disingenuous, coming from a celebrity lecturer and the subject of a documentary.
The stroke that has confined Ram Dass to a wheelchair since 1997 has done nothing to dampen his spirits or shackle his mind. In his conversation with the director, he’s still open to new ideas. When Catto observes that “seeking is an abundance of lack,” he absorbs this insight with a smile of appreciation.
But then he’s constantly experiencing revelations and discovering new metaphors for slices of truth as the film ranges back over his life. It’s the journey of discovery that’s his driving force, not a destination. You don’t have to believe all of his insights, and he probably wouldn’t want you to, but it’s engaging and sometimes inspiring to listen to them.