What Old Hippies Can Teach Us
Ram Dass, an icon of the counterculture, was this millennial’s unexpected COVID savior
In late March 2020, I was interviewing paramedics on Zoom. As the world shut down around me, I had to build a team willing to treat very sick COVID patients at home. Only a couple of wrinkles: it was my second day on the job, I had no experience in healthcare and the already-complex regulations were in flux. At the same time, we were getting desperate calls from patients. They could barely breathe, let alone walk. They feared the overcrowded hospitals. As their lives hung in the balance, I felt a deep personal responsibility to help.
But helping wasn’t easy. I was juggling impostor syndrome, a team of frontline workers that was burning out, technology that was breaking, and metrics that showed how many people we didn’t save. At home, I was grieving the death of a grandfather I couldn’t bury. I feared catching and spreading the still-unknown disease. My aging parents lived in a country that denied the epidemic’s existence. Tensions with my partner ran at an all time high.
I tried to numb my pain with forgettable content, our culture’s favorite anesthetic, by binging shows about jailed tiger zoo owners with presidential aspirations. But fate and content algorithms had a different plan for me. They served up the wrinkled face of a white-bearded man, smile ebullient, neck dissolving into pixelated nothing: a documentary called Becoming Nobody. Would I be interested in watching it?
The bearded man, it turned out, was Harvard Psychology professor Richard Alpert who was kicked out in 1963 for giving magic mushrooms to a student as part of an experiment. After a whirlwind adventure across Mexico, New York and Indian ashrams, Alpert returned as Ram Dass, published the bestselling “Be Here Now”, and over the following years became a traveling spiritual guide to an entire generation of baby boomers. As a millennial, Dass is easy to miss or, at least, dismiss: a Jewish kid from Boston wearing long robes on grainy footage talking about gods and gurus.
But his message touched me immediately. In the documentary, Ram Dass explains how, when he was born, he put on a “spacesuit for living on this plane”. As we learn to use our spacesuit, society rewards us with gold stars, affirmation, money. “You get so good at using your spacesuit that you can’t differentiate yourself from your spacesuit anymore. And everybody comes up and says what a nice suit. And you’re constantly looking into other people’s eyes to find out if you’re really wearing a nice spacesuit. It’s what I call somebody training”.
I realized how I was trained to be somebody by my Ukrainian Jewish parents. In their guidebook to life, Ivy league diplomas made someone a somebody, as did career achievements in law, finance or medicine. If not that, I should at least make a lot of money. Mentions in the press that could be cited to earn the approval of various aunts and uncles helped. Of course, I also had to have a well-informed opinion on current events and, if not too much to ask, be happy. I followed the somebody recipe to the letter, and found myself in a spacesuit that didn’t fit right.
The reminder that I am not my suit, that there’s a truer me beneath it, was liberating. But shedding the suit hasn’t come easy. Even as I write this, I feel a strong pull to show off my suit. Notice how important it was, as a first order of business, to establish myself as a high-impact healthcare operator, or to hint at my refined taste by dismissing popular TV. An earlier draft of this article made it sound like my transformation was complete and nearly immediate, like my story is only worth telling if I can demonstrate I’ve completed life’s personal growth curriculum and have an A to show for it.
The truth is that this journey with Ram Dass has been far from a complete makeover. There was no big budget cut scene transforming me from strung out executive to Zen monk. But there are important lessons I learned from the old spiritual professor that I wish I had known sooner, lessons that helped me soothe an aching heart and be a little kinder to myself – and others.
First: take the curriculum. Soon after I started my new job, a dissatisfied paramedic sent my CEO a scathing email, tearing down my credentials and questioning my ability to lead the team. It was scary and hurtful, salt in the wounds of my insecurities. A couple of sleepless nights later I heard Ram Dass, in an old recorded lecture, tell an exasperated audience member looking for guidance: “you’re in school. Why don’t you try taking the curriculum?”
That was a wake-up call that shifted my definition of “normal”. If each life has a curriculum – a series of challenges that we can choose to learn from – then I was naive to think of “normal” as some problem-free state we arrive at once the current, visible, slate of problems is resolved. Instead, I try to remember that an infinite treadmill of challenges is “normal”. And when I do, I find myself approaching each challenge with curiosity, like a grandmaster might approach a well-designed chess problem. Or a nasty email.
Second, seeing everyone I meet as God in drag. It’s easy to feel like our anguish is caused by other people. I felt this most acutely during the COVID lockdowns when my then-girlfriend and I found ourselves spending an unprecedented amount of time together, cooped up in a tiny Manhattan apartment where my “office” was inside her closet, and her “office” moonlit as our kitchen. Working and living on top of each other, cut off from family and friends, and anxious about the uncertainty of our lives was a recipe for conflict.
But when I heard Ram Dass say everyone you meet is God in drag, the image stuck. I like to imagine a mischievous God dressing up as other people to test whether we can find him in them. Recalling this image has helped me pause in moments of frustration with my now-wife and wonder, playfully, God? Is that you? Doing so re-ignites my compassion when I find myself stuck in unhealthy patterns with another human, and by injecting humor and levity, makes it easier to hear them. I now look for God everywhere: the clerk at the post office, the dentist, a colleague on the accounting team. The funny thing I’ve found is that when you look for God, you find the human.
Lastly, I started noticing where I am milking the drama of it all. Before Ram Dass, I defaulted to feeling like everything happening to me was so heavy, so serious. Like my decision to see my parents, who at the time were in Croatia, a few months into the pandemic. To get there, I had to navigate a set of byzantine COVID regulations defined by the Croatian border authority.
International travel isn’t a joy at the best of times, but the added layers of frequent flight cancellations, contradictory and poorly translated requirements, and the fear of infecting my parents induced deep anxiety. I would stay awake for hours: would we be detained at the border? Or sent back for getting the wrong test on the wrong date? Would regulations change again before our flight? Why couldn’t my parents just live nearby?
If Ram Dass peeked inside my brain, he’d probably remark that I was really milking it, wasn’t I? It took me some time to admit it, but… I was. It felt good to milk the drama of it all because it put me squarely at the center of the universe, a main character whose trials are unique and who deserves the world’s sympathy. But the poor-me mindset makes it hard to feel gratitude for what I do have, and I’ve found gratitude to be the most reliable source of fulfillment. Ram Dass teaches us to laugh at how seriously we take ourselves and, in doing so, hold the steering wheel of life a little more gently.
So I guess it’s not entirely true to say Ram Dass saved me. I am still wearing a spacesuit, one with sleeves a little short and a chest that’s a bit tight. But in one of the deepest valleys of my life, his teachings reminded me that I am not the image I project unto the world, that there is a deeper part of me that is whole and worthy of love, and that on this brief journey through space and time, I get to choose my own suit.
About Me and My Substack: Hi. My name is Gil. I work in healthcare tech and love to write, do karate, and ride around New York on a little black skateboard.
I write optimistic takes on things we usually worry about like social media, climate change, and mental health. I also like to analyze trends in human behavior and learn from them, like the rise and fall of ringtones, and what rap can teach us about foreign cultures.