Book Note: The Only Dance There Is

This is the second and final post on Ram Dass. The Only Dance There Is is comprised of edited transcripts of two talks Ram Dass gave in the mid-1970s before audiences of health care professionals and scientists (as well as a large number of hippie and general public attendees). The topics covered include LSD, Hinduism, mental cultivation, and spiritual practice in the West.

By the time of these talks, Dass has largely abandoned LSD in favor of Eastern mysticism, which he feels is a more powerful and reliable conduit to the consciousnesses he promotes as the essence of spiritual realization. “I honor LSD. . . I also think that it is very quickly becoming an anachronism. (p.14)” He subtly criticizes Leary for being attached to concepts of good and evil, an interestingly revealing remark because Dass’s agenda is remarkably free of any moral stance. Unusual for a religious thinker, he promotes virtually no distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, offering no advice on proper action other than spiritual practices designed to awaken the practitioner to their own wisdom and divinity. This is in line with Dass’s relatively stunted sense of social responsibility and political action/liberation; he feels that “. . . a peaceful man is the first criterion if you want to have a peaceful universe, (p.41)” and offers little else in terms of application of his realization of “Ultimate Consciousness” to the troubles of modern life. “I saw that, finally, my responsibility was to work on myself. (p. 40)” The absence of social/political rhetoric is striking both because it was a time of social turmoil, and because Dass perpetually promotes his ideas as solutions to the problems of the times. He feels that he holds the answers, but doesn’t have anything to say about what those answers are, other than turning yourself into a Hindu holyman. It is particularly ironic that he feels compelled to criticize Leary of all people for attachment to good and evil, since Leary himself sets out no dogmatic structure for determining morality and seems to view life more as a game than a serious arena in which right and wrong are important determining constituents.

Unlike Leary, Dass is aware of his privileges, probably because his are arguably greater than Leary’s on the whole. Dass is Jewish and gay, but he is also the son of a fabulously wealthy and powerful railroad magnate. His sense of identity is stronger than Leary’s—while he has gone much farther a field into Eastern religion, he is still firmly rooted in the Western tradition: “And I see the way it’s happening to me is quite Western. I am making use of Eastern methods. I am not a Hindu. I am a Western, Jewish boy who has studied Hinduism. (p.53)” Dass’s apolitical stance, diminution of LSD’s revolutionary potential, promotion of self-cultivation, and ability to wear exotic Hindu robes while identifying with a progressive Western audience, are probably elements that have contributed to his greater staying power in the minds of Westerners and continuing influence on spiritual seekers, particularly Baby Boomers.

Another interesting aspect of Dass’s spiritual program is the role that miracles and the supernatural play in it, particularly considering his scientific Western academic background. He readily promotes stories of his guru’s magical abilities and even admits to a few of his own. At the same time, he suggests that these are not miraculous in the sense of violating the natural order of things, but indications that the natural order is more complex and mysterious than we are currently aware or willing to admit. He criticizes Western science for lacking insight into mental and paranormal aspects of the universe, but readily ties his beliefs to science when it fits his needs, particularly when it seems to confirm his assertions. In effect, he is promoting his Hindu/Buddhist practices and beliefs as a sort of spiritual super-science, one that augments and goes far beyond Western materialistic science, but which Western science could catch up to some day by incorporating his ideas about higher levels of consciousness and the vibrational nature of all things.

P.S. to StephenR: If you want to describe or discuss How Can I Help? you’re welcome to do so in the comments. With a title like that, perhaps that book offers more of a program for how Dass’s thought actually engages with the needs of his day and possible real-world solutions than The Only Dance There Is does.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

One response to “Book Note: The Only Dance There Is

  1. “P.S. to StephenR: If you want to describe or discuss How Can I Help? you’re welcome to do so in the comments. With a title like that, perhaps that book offers more of a program for how Dass’s thought actually engages with the needs of his day and possible real-world solutions than The Only Dance There Is does.”

    “How Can I Help?” was co-written (complied) by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman in 1985. It remains in print – you can read reviews by others at Amazon. I believe both were active in the Svea Foundation at the time.
    the small type on the cover says the subtitle: “Stories and Reflections on Service”.
    and that is what the book is, talking about service.
    the introduction says “Both of us have been deeply influenced by spiritual practice and the teachings of the world’s religions, all of which emphasize service”. There are stories about non-religious people, Buddhist monks, Roman Catholic priests and others all helping others.

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