Books & Culture

What is a Mystical Experience? Be Here Now by Ram Dass

In his very rare and very out of print book, Mysticism and Philosophy, Walter Terence Stace categorized the features of mystical experience. Whether a person was a mystic, a nun, a monk, a Buddhist, a Christian, a Sufi, lost in meditation, or lost on psilocybin, mystical experiences exhibited certain key characteristics. These characteristics included an awareness of the unity and interconnectedness of all beings and often included the actual unification of the self with the universe. Mystical experiences involved the transcendence of time and space, and appeared to happen outside of time and outside of space altogether, or within infinite space. A person would often be filled with the sense that everything was imbued with consciousness or presence. Mystical experiences are by their nature paradoxical and ineffable, but despite the obliteration of logic, they also seemed to bring about a kind of epistemological certainty in their truth, accompanied by a sense of sacredness, reverence, deep peace, joy, and even love. And so, while reading Be Here Now, by Ram Dass, a work of art on paper that is more mystical experience than literary artifact, more an object to be encountered rather than a book to be read, I found myself thinking about commonalities I’ve seen in various mystical texts I’ve read.

Mystical literature often describes the crossing of rivers and waters to attain transcendence. I don’t think this is trivial. I had to cross several oceans myself to have my first mystical experience, and I have to agree with W.T. Stace’s categories about the features of mystical experience. I also understand that everything gets lost in transcription and translation and so I won’t write here of what I found in my own mystical perigrinations for fear of sounding too maudlin or mad. Ram Dass says you can’t force it, that you have to be really pure to get there.

And so I have to empathize with Ram Dass, who tries to put into words and images his own encounters with the mystical. If the highest achievement of mystical literature is its ability to create a mystical experience in the reader, then I’d have to admit that Dass failed on that front—for me, at least.

But back to that river.

The Mycelium: The Interconnectedness of all Beings. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
The Mycelium: The Interconnectedness of all Beings. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood

Ram Dass illustrates transcendence as existing on the other side of the ocean of illusion and attachment. Once that final river or gate has been crossed, a person is free and the “divine mother” awaits. In the Purgatorio, in order for Dante to enter Paradiso, he had to cross a river that would cleanse him of his earthly attachments. And in the ancient Pearl poem (which I write about here), the pilgrim observes the divine parade from the bank of a river he is not permitted to cross because he hasn’t died yet. Ram Dass writes about crossing the Van Allen Belt, a fire that will cleanse you of your attachment. Dante crossed through similar fires, but they were there to purge him of his desire for all the women in Florence. The narratives about transcendence are fascinating in their specificity, and remarkable in how the process of the transfiguration (baptism by fire or water) renders them almost banal. Mystical experiences begin in the specificity of an individual narrative and end in generalities. This is why they are so difficult to write.

Sometimes a work of art touches “pure idea” and “gets so essency you feel you are touching god.”

Who is Ram Dass?

Ram Dass was once Richard Alpert. He was a professor at Harvard University. In Be Here Now, he writes of his time as a professor. “In a worldly sense, I was making a great income and I was a collector of possessions. I had an apartment in Cambridge that was filled with antiques and I had very charming dinner parties.”

The story that follows is like so many stories of spiritual awakenings. Richard Alpert felt like something was missing from his life, even as he enjoyed wealth, success, admiration, fame, and adoration. Eventually, Richard Alpert meets Timothy Leary, an eccentric professor who occupies a closet at Harvard not far from his exuberant corner office. Timothy Leary introduces Richard Alpert to psilocybin. What follows is a banal travelogue that takes us into Alpert’s experience on magic mushrooms, which, like most accounts of drug use involve such extraordinary paradox and maudlin sentiment, that the account provides no real meaning in the reading. Dante and the Pearl poet also struggled with putting their mystical experiences into words, opting to transform the experience into poetry and metaphor, apt vehicles for the ineffable.

In his peregrinations, Richard Alpert discovered a place within himself of immense wisdom and knowledge. There was a problem, though. He couldn’t stay there. After yet another trip that left him feeling depressed, Richard Alpert would find himself back at Harvard doing lectures, or reading books, or raking the leaves, and every second he did these things, he felt the veil being drawn down. There was the place where Richard Alpert Knew, and there was the place where he was just Richard Alpert.

Anyway, Richard Alpert and his friends, being the scientists that they are manage to distill the active compounds in these mushrooms, and they basically invent LSD.

So eventually, Richard Alpert decides that he’s going to take his very powerful LSD to India and try to find a monk or holy man who maybe can explain to him how he might be able to stay in contact with the place within that Knows what it Knows.

In India, Alpert meets a Californian, who takes him all over, and encourages him to meditate. One night, while peeing under the stars, Richard Alpert suddenly has a feeling that he is in the presence of his dead mother. The next day, the Californian takes Alpert to see his “guru.” When he meets the guru, he doesn’t think much of him. He’s just this bald man lying under a blanket in the middle of a monastery, surrounded by grown men who are touching his feet. Richard Alpert is a Harvard man, a man of science. He has no intention of touching the blanketed man’s feet. But some time later, the guru pulls Richard Alpert aside. The man says: “You were out under the stars last night… you were thinking about your mother.”

In this moment, Richard Alpert’s rational brain dissolves and he breaks down weeping at the feet of the man under a blanket.

Richard Alpert gives this man a very high dose of his LSD he made at his fancy school. Nothing happens. But something happens to Richard Alpert. He becomes Ram Dass.

That’s not the whole story of course. To understand the whole story, you’ll have to read Be Here Now.

What follows his story is a work of art on paper that is somewhat ineffable, and incredibly unique. Yogis surf waves. A nautilus hangs over “a gravitational field of time and space.” Ram Dass reminds you, gently that you are the guru.

He writes, “As you find the light in you, you begin to see the light in everyone else.”

You don’t need to be a mystic to access the mystical. The mystical can be love, can be achievement, can be poetry, or art, or a flower.

But what is a mystical experience, really?

Be Here Now, Ram Dass at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Be Here Now, Ram Dass at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

Walter Terence Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.