Saturday Night: Is this a wise investment?

Eight hundred people sit in the cavernous sanctity of the Union Chapel, a neo-Gothic church in Islington, waiting for answers.

Most are white, middle-aged, and middle-class: teachers, healers, secretaries, students and social workers, a caucus of faded hippies, some obvious church-goers, a few mothers with pre-pubescent children. Those who have driven up to London are distinguished by home-knitted sweaters, oddly shaped shoes and radiant smiles. They smile at anything, everyone, nothing in particular.

Tonight there will be no Methodism, though perhaps some madness. We have gathered to peer into the eyes of a psychedelic saint, a contemporary of Ginsberg and Leary, a man who scrambled up the mountain of truth and returned with stone tablets. Tonight he will hold them up to us. But will the inscription be legible?

A typist's chair stands before the altar. We watch as a bulky, snowy-haired, 63-year-old Californian perches on it and tucks himself into the half-lotus position. From a red nylon rucksack he plucks a tiny golden Buddha, and places it on the table beside him. He inhales and smiles - at the people, at the ceiling, at the vast space between the two. We all smile back.

'My name is Ram Dass,' he says. 'That means 'servant of God'.' The audience stiffens: this is not what we have paid to hear. 'Actually,' he continues, 'Ram is an acronym. It stands for 'Rent-A-Mouth'. (Ripple of laughter.)

'That's what I do, I rent my mouth out. People ask me if all those psychedelic drugs affected my brain. I say, 'Well, I'm probably psychotic. But you're paying to hear me talk.' ' He shrugs, with comic timing that might have been honed on the Borscht Belt. Sixty seconds in, and we're eating out of his chunky, freckled hands.

Ram Dass was once Dr Richard Alpert, a Jewish wunderkind proto-preppy of 30 years, professor of psychology at Harvard University and director of its Laboratory of Human Development. In March 1961, with his colleague Timothy Leary and others, he ingested psylocibin, the active psychedelic ingredient in so-called 'magic' mushrooms. It changed his life, thrusting him on to a mystical path. He and Leary started a research programme into states of altered consciousness, using psylocibin and LSD-25. As well as administering these drugs to clergymen, students, convicts and friends, Alpert took them himself, more than 200 times.

In 1967, discontented with chemical-induced satori, Alpert went to India in search of enlightenment. He returned a year later as Ram Dass, student of Karma Yoga, a curious mixture of Hindu theology and Buddhist philosophy, which he propounded in books such as Be Here Now and The Only Dance There Is. His guru, whom he worshipped, loomed large in these anecdotal books.

In Be Here Now he relates how this guru questioned him about LSD. Eager to please, he gave his spiritual teacher three tablets, and watched in horror as he swallowed the lot. 'I was around him all morning,' wrote Ram Dass, breathless with awe, 'and nothing happened . . .'

Though once considered an instrument of the Antichrist, Ram Dass is now a bastion of respectability. Told by his guru that he would achieve enlightenment only if he devoted his life to the service of others ('This was not what I had travelled half-way around the world to hear'), he established charities and devoted himself to an endless list of good causes: Aids, Third World health programmes, prison education, care for the sick, elderly and bereaved. He is big on caring: his best-selling titles (more than 3 million units sold) include How Can I Help and Compassion in Action.

But like Richard Alpert in 1967, most of us will get around to do-gooding once we have sorted out No 1. We are still smiling, but we have paid pounds 12 to be here now, and we want the first instalment of our self-improvement course, pronto. Sure enough, after 90 minutes of kosher wit and home-spun wisdom, Ram Dass finally delivers the goods: his five-point guide to enlightened living. Across the room, ballpoints hover over notepads.

'One: prolong not the past. Two: invite not the future. Three: don't alter your innate wakefulness - rest in awareness. Four: don't fear appearances. Five: there is nothing more than that.'

A fairly routine Q & A session follows, until, out of the darkness, a young American woman in the eighth row throws the saintly ex-freak a looping curve ball.

She knows all about the importance of 'letting go', of surrendering our grip on life, and living in uncertainty. She understands that we must give up struggle, and rest in luminous awareness.

But she has a potentially fatal form of cancer, which may erupt again at any time. If it does, how can she let go, when instinct urges her to fight furiously? How can she surrender the will to live, and live? You can hear the audience thinking: let's see you dance your way out of this one, Ram baby.

A long, mellifluous answer follows, about transcending dualism, overcoming polarities, and so on. He quotes a line from the Tao Te Ching: 'Do nothing, and nothing will be left undone.' It seems that she should struggle like hell, yet never identify with the struggle; stare death in the face, and acknowledge fear without being consumed by it. He thanks her for sharing her pain, for giving him 'something real to work with'.

Afterwards, people queue to thank Ram Dass. He hugs them each and every one. I seek out the woman, a healthy-looking, tanned and attractive 34-year- old, and ask if his answer had helped. 'Yes,' she says, her voice faltering slightly. 'Facing death, acknowledging it, is just a part of life.' And with that, she reaches out to hug me.

In that split second I recognise fear, shame and panic in my heart. Fear of embracing a 'dying' person; the shame of that fear; the panic of unrehearsed intimacy. But as I relax into her warm embrace and smell the soap on her skin, I notice she is no more dead than I am. My terror dissolves. We smile, and she thanks me for my concern. I realise I have an answer to a question I never dreamt of asking.

I look around and see Ram Dass, still hugging people like his life depended on it.

Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

    £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice