Ram Dass started out life as Richard Alpert, born into a wealthy Jewish Massachusetts family in 1931. Despite his bar mitzvah, he did not consider himself spiritual until he had tried LSD more than 377 times – many of those on trips with his close friend, Timothy Leary – and been fired from his teaching position at Harvard.
On a trip to India in 1967, he met Neem Karoli Baba, the man who would be his guru and the one who renamed him Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.”
From that point forward, Ram Dass became one of the country’s foremost spiritual seekers, writing numerous books and influencing thousands. Now 81, and paralyzed on one side from a stroke, Ram Dass lives in Maui and is still spiritually seeking.
Lynn Kaufman, the author and playwright, had long been fascinated by Ram Dass’ journey. That interest intensified after he suffered a stroke, which launched him into a new phase of self-examination. The author of 20 plays, Kaufman decided to write her first one-person play. Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass, opens tonight at The Marsh at 2120 Allston Way. The play starts Warren David Keith as Ram Dass and runs through Nov.24.
Here is an interview with Lynne Kaufman, who lives in San Francisco:
What inspired you to write this play?
I’ve been interested in spiritual growth for a long time. I was very influenced by Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist. I met him when I was in my twenties and we became lifelong friends. He talked about ‘being transparent to the transcendent’. There are people and events in your life that help you to pierce the veil of ordinary reality and see the transcendent behind it. It’s something I’d been looking for and trying to understand for a long time.
Acid Test is my first one person play. I’ve written twenty plays and they’ve always been multi-character. I wanted to see if I could maintain one voice through an entire play. Technically, the challenge interested me, but the man REALLY interested me because of his life journey.
The shifts in his life were more extreme than any of the other figures, going from tenured Harvard academic, to taking 377 LSD trips, to becoming a major spiritual teacher and finally suffering a major stroke. Those four distinct phases drew me to his life. I was intrigued by his sexual issues, too. By the shame. In the fifties being gay was considered a disease that had to be cured. In England it was a crime.
Ram Dass was Jewish and so am I. His relationship with his father moved me deeply. I was very close to my dad ,too.
Also, he has a great sense of humor. I thought if I can capture hid voice, it would be worth listening to.
So, you also identify with parts of Ram Dass’s life like your actor David does?
Yes. I identify with his resilience. My brother had an automobile accident when he was 19 and he’s in a wheelchair , a paraplegic , because of that. It’s been many decades since the accident and my brother has a wonderful life. He’s married, adopted a son, and all of that but I still feel how devastating that accident was. I strongly connect my brother’s accident to Ram Dass’s stroke.
I was deeply drawn to how Ram Dass had to re-invent himself after the stroke. He was so badly debilitated by it. He had lost his faith. He said, “I failed the test.” I love that remark. When he was near death, directly after the stroke, he looked up and didn’t see the tunnel or the white light. All he saw were the pipes in the ceiling and he said, “I’m supposed to be Mr. Spiritual, and I failed the test.”
He was angry after the stroke and it was so human. It was, why me? He was angry at needing help and angry at not being able to speak. He had been so articulate and so incredibly verbal. So, his new challenged reality really moved me. Each time you think you’ve got it nailed, “ I’m fine, this is the truth and this is who I am,” something comes along and pulls the rug out and you have to develop a new sense of who you are.
I also identified strongly with Ram Dass’s seeking. His spiritual search.
What was Ram Dass searching for?
I think Ram Dass was seeking bedrock. What’s the meaning of my life? How do I engage fully in this life? How do I feel most like myself? And here is the connection to Campbell. Joe Campbell’s most quoted statement is “Follow your bliss.” The entire quote is “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors and they will open for you.” And what Joe meant by bliss, is that which is deepest in you. I think for Ram Dass, the LSD experience peeled away all the trappings and moved him into what was really authentic.
I think the play is relevant today because we’re all seeking, trying to be comfortable in our own skin, not to keep looking over your own shoulder thinking, how am I doing? Anybody who helps us remember that. In the play, there is no one answer but it’s like the finger pointing at the moon. It’s not the finger, it’s the moon. It’s just an example of what we can be.
You’re part of the world and you can give your gift to the world and you stop judging yourself as much. Watch Ram Dass on Youtube at one of his retreats, it’s tangible, the love that people feel. It’s like breathing, it’s self-acceptance and accepting other people. There is a lot of good in the world. I believe the last line of the play that says, “We’re all God in drag.” I think we are.
How did you bring Ram Dass into this play?
I joined “Love, Serve, Remember,” which is Ram Dass’s foundation. You give a small donation and then you get these emails every so often with short lectures or bits of information. One said that if you want to, you can have a one to one talk with Ram Dass via Skype, from his home in Maui. I signed up for that and eight months later my name came up.
At this point, I had sent him a copy of the play for his approval. When we Skyped, he said that he had read the play, thought it was just fine, and suggested a few tiny corrections. Then he added, “But you know, Lynne, I don’t work from a script. I never memorize anything.”
“ I’m sure you don’t.” I said.
“So, he continued, ‘I don’t know that I’m going to be able to do this play for you.”
“Oh, no, I wasn’t thinking of that,” I said. “ I’ll get an actor to do it.”
It hadn’t ever dawned on me that he would think that I’d want him to go traveling around to do the play. It was so sweet. So, he was very relieved that I wasn’t asking him to.
But the script is all him, his words. I’ve edited some of his stories and moved them around, but virtually everything in there is true to his life.
What makes Ram Dass relevant today? Why did you think he was worth listening to?
The seeking for authenticity. We’re living in a time where we’re confused about what matters, what ultimately can give us a sense of contentment and peace. It’s not the next car. The next house. The next job. Nothing material is stable. We long to be connected to something larger than ourselves.
In the times we’re living in we need more of this message again?
Absolutely. So many plays are popcorn, this is crackerjacks. Acid Test will stick in your teeth.
Your play takes you on a spiritual journey. Did you think about that as you were writing it?
I knew where I wanted to wind up. I wanted to capture his spirit. I wanted to capture the experience I had personally with Joseph Campbell, being in his presence and feeling better about myself and better about the world. Inspired. I felt that way reading Ram Dass’s life. I thought, this is a good man. Not a saint, but a good man who is struggling to become his higher self. We all have higher selves. They are our better angels.
I hope at the end of ACID TEST, by following Ram Dass’s journey and seeing how human he is, how flawed and funny, and courageous and kind, we recognize the spiritual underpinning of our own lives. It’s there. All we have to do is pay attention to it. I’m moved when a baby smiles or when somebody opens the door for me. There is a lot of goodness in the world and I hope this play helps us to remember that.
To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.