Raam Das Interview

Raam Das Interview

Ram Dass was one of the most respected and beloved spiritual teachers in the world. His books and lectures have been responsible for exposing many Westerners to Eastern philosophy, and he has been an inspiration to many people, including Carolyn and me. Ram Dass is the author of seventeen books about topics such as personal transformation and compassionate social action— including the classic book of illustrated Hindu revelations, Be Here Now, which was one of the most important books in my, as well as many others, developmental process.

Born Richard Alpert in 1931, Alpert was a psychology professor at Harvard in the early 1960s, who along with Timothy Leary, researched and experimented with controversial methods of consciousness expansion that caused quite a stir at that prestigious university, resulting in them being formally dismissed from the faculty in 1963. Leary and Alpert moved to the legendary Millbrook estate in upstate New York, where they continued their research, and historical advances were made into how to access new states of consciousness, but once again their controversial research methods stirred up added controversy.

Alpert left Millbrook in 1967 and traveled to India, where he met his spiritual guru— Neem Karoli Baba— who gave him the name Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.” Under his guru’s guidance, he began to study yoga and meditation, and this profoundly affected his life. Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation in 1974 to spread “spiritually-directed social action” in the West, and in 1978 Ram Dass co-founded the Seva Foundation , an international service organization dedicated to relieving suffering in the world.

Ram Dass had a stroke in 1997, which paralyzed the right side of his body. Despite the difficulty that he had speaking and walking, Ram Dass continued to teach, write and lecture for another twenty-two years. Ram Dass left this world in 2019.

It was such a great joy to have been friends with Ram Dass, and to have spent time hanging out with him over the years. He had a big influence on the development of my spiritual perspective; I carried his book “Be Here Now” around with me everywhere that I went when I was in High School, and, to this day, I still turn to it for inspiration. Ram Dass was a funny, lovable guy, and he has a lot of charisma, but I think that it was his profound honesty, and openness about his own spiritual evolution, that made his teachings so powerful. He had such a beautiful heart and spirit, and once sat on the phone with me for hours, while I sobbed over a lost relationship.

Here’s a story that stands out in my mind. One evening Ram Dass came to Santa Cruz to pick up his medical cannabis from a WAMM meeting that I was also attending. This was after his stroke, so he would speak slowly, in brief utterances, but still gave a talk to the WAMM members about death and dying. After the talk he took some questions, and I asked him, “Ram Dass, how can you speak with such certainty about life after death?”

There was a pause. Ram Dass thought for a moment and then said, “Well, first there was the mushrooms. Then, my guru, and my reading the works of great spiritual masters.” When he finished I said, “But Ram Dass, I’ve had mystical experiences as well. I’ve also had great teachers and read many books too, but I can’t speak with any certainty about what happens after we die…” Ram Dass interrupted me and added, “And chutzpah!”

When Carolyn first met Ram Dass they had an immediate acknowledgment. Ram Dass gazed into Carolyn’s face and said, “I know you,” and she felt the same recognition of knowing him since ancient times. Also, Carolyn met Ram Dass on several other occasions. Her last memory was of him calling Laura Huxley during the last week of her life, when she answered the phone. Ram Dass told Laura, “Everything is brand new,” which she repeated until she departed.

I interviewed Ram Dass on three occasions. Here is an excerpt from one of my interviews with him.

David: What is your concept of God?
Ram Dass: I think it’s a word like a finger pointing to the moon. I don’t think that what it points to is describable. It is pointing to that which is beyond form that manifests through form. A God defined is a God confined. I can give you thousands of poetic little descriptions. It’s all, everything and nothing. It’s all the things that the Heart Sutra talks about. It’s God at play with itself. God is the One, but the fact is that the concept of the One comes from two, and when you’re in the One, there’s no One. It’s zero, which equals one at that point.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?
Ram Dass: I think it jumps into a body of some kind, on some plane of existence, and it goes on doing that until it is with God. From a Hindu point of view, consciousness keeps going through reincarnations, which are learning experiences for the soul. I think what happens after you die is a function of the level of evolution of the individual. I think that if you have finished your work and you’re just awareness that happens to be in a body, when the body ends it’s like selling your Ford— it’s no big deal.

by David Jay Brown

Allen Ginsberg Interview

Allen Ginsberg Interview

The late, widely acclaimed poet and writer Allen Ginsberg was the cousin of our beloved friend, Dr. Oz Janiger, and Allen used to stay with Oz whenever he was visiting Los Angeles, so Carolyn and I spent some time with him, and I interviewed him for my book Mavericks of the Mind.

Along with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Ginsberg was part of a core group of experimental writers that came to be known as the “Beat Generation,” and he received numerous honors and awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.

Ginsberg is probably best known for his revolutionary poem Howl, which caused such a stir when it was first published in 1956 that it was seized by the San Francisco police and U.S. Customs. The controversial poem became the subject of an obscenity trial because it described homosexual acts, at a time when those acts were illegal in every state, and it went on to become one of the most widely read and translated poems of the 20th century.

Carolyn used to send some of her manuscripts to Allen when he lived in New York, and one night when we all had dinner at Oz’s home Carolyn showed Allen the book that she was currently working on, The Alchemy of Possibility. Allen returned it to Carolyn with edits and ideas, and she was able to use some of them after “scrutinizing what fit” for her “as the author, and yet much respecting Allen.”

Interestingly, our friends Jerry and Estelle Cimino have documented much of Allen’s work, and have an extensive collection of Beat memorabilia, including original manuscripts, rare books, letters, personal effects, and cultural ephemera at The Beat Museum in San Francisco.

Here is an excerpt from my conversation with Allen in Mavericks of the Mind:

David: What was is that originally inspired you to start writing poetry?
Allen: It’s a family business. My father was a poet, his Collected Poems were posthumously published. . .

David: Was it something that you always knew you were going to do?
Allen: No, but I always wrote poetry; since I was a kid I knew poetry. My father taught high school and college, so I knew a lot of Milton, Poe, Shelley, and Blake when I was five, six, seven years old. And I memorized it, or it just sort of stuck in my head. I started writing when I was maybe fifteen, or younger, but I never thought of myself as a poet. I just thought that it was something you did on the side, like my father had done. But then, when I met Jack Kerouac at the age of seventeen, I realized that he was the first person I had met who saw being a writer as a sacramental vocation. Rather than being a sailor who wrote, he was a writer who also went out on ships. That changed my attitude towards writing, because now I saw it as a sacred vocation.

by David Jay Brown

Edmund Kara Interview

Edmund Kara Interview

The late Edmund Kara was an extraordinary sculptor, and perhaps one of the greatest sculptors who ever lived, yet few people recognize his name. However, people often know his work from seeing it at Nepenthe– a landmark restaurant in Big Sur, California– where one of his wooden sculptures, the Phoenix Bird, is permanently on display near the entrance.

Edmund’s home was overflowing with his incredible museum quality sculptures, but there have been few public showings of his work. This is because the work was born out of his passion for creating, and he had no interest in commercial success, so he never sought it. Carolyn gave Edmund his first gallery show at the Gallerie Illuminati in Santa Monica during the early 1990s. Carolyn honored Edmund with many works of her own art, including her painting, Edmund’s Tree Song.

Edmund Kara and Carolyn Mary Kleefeld

Edmund Kara and Carolyn Mary Kleefeld

Some of Edmund’s sculptures are life-size and larger-than-life renditions of mythological creatures, archetypal personalities, and biblical figures, as well as abstract pieces. The detail is truly uncanny. They have a magical and haunting quality, and almost appear to be alive. I got the feeling that when the clock struck midnight, and everyone was asleep, all of the magical wooden creatures in his studio sprung to life.

Edmund led a fascinating life. He traveled around the world on his bicycle in his youth, and had a successful career as a fashion designer in New York and Los Angeles. As an interior designer, a stage designer, and costume designer— with clients such as Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Keely Smith and Maria Cole— Edmund had a highly refined aesthetic sense and a masterful creative touch. He personally dressed the actors with his costumes in the productions that he worked on.

Edmund left his successful Hollywood career behind for a relatively solitudinous life in Big Sur devoted to his sculpture. He told me that he thought, “capitalism annihilates creativity, because you start working for bucks, rather than just working to be an artist.” He also said, “one could only become an artist if no one can convince them not to be.”

I once visited Edmund with Carolyn and the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna. Before entering Edmund’s home and studio, I raved enthusiastically to Terence, “You’re in for a real treat; these are some of the most incredible sculptures that you’ve ever seen!” Terence looked at me with more than just a little skepticism, and a facial expression that seemed to be politely saying, “don’t you know who you’re talking to.” He simply said, “We’ll see.” However, after about five minutes inside Edmund’s magical studio, Terence turned to me and said, “I see what you mean.”

There was a timeless quality about Edmund. He seemed to have stepped out of another time, or rather; he seemed to have always existed. He lived on a breathtakingly beautiful mountain in Big Sur— a “suburb of Mount Olympus” he called it (on the mountain road below Carolyn’s)— in a magnificent cabin of his own design.

Edmund’s home was closer to the Pacific than his neighbors, so the crashing of the ocean waves was literally below him, and he reminded me of a sea captain. Edmund had a biblical and powerful presence. He looked you directly in the eyes — with a kind of laser beam intensity — when he spoke, and was dramatic and highly expressive. There was grandness to his style of communication. He had a tough exterior, but a gentle soul. Edmund passed away in 2001 and we miss him dearly.

I interviewed Edmund at his home in 1996. Here are some excerpts from my conversation with him:

David: Has sexuality influenced your work?
Edmund: Of course. I mean look at those fluid lines. Look at those curves and arabesques. There’s no straight hard-edged anything. It’s organic, sensual. I always think the essence of my work is about hair, which is one of the most sensuous things about our bodies. Wood is the hair of the planet. It is an extremely sensuous thing.

David: I guess that makes you a planetary hair stylist.
Edmund: That’s right. I’ve often called myself a cosmic hairdresser. Yes, It’s all bundles of fibers.

David: I suspect that sexual energy and creative energy are one and the same.
Edmund: Well I’ve always felt there is nothing but sexual energy. It’s the first and primal energy.

David: And every other form of energy is…?
Edmund: A sub-division, that’s right. I’ve only ever been craving one thing – that’s reunion with the One.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after the death of the body?
Edmund: I prefer to know when I experience it. . . .

David: Do you think that consciousness survives death?
Edmund: It’s plausible, but I don’t know. I prefer that it didn’t. Let’s face it. I know all the stories about karma and reincarnation. I’m familiar with all the theories about it. I’ve heard them all. I’ve thought about them all. I feel indifferent to that idea. But I have read things that I think are wonderful. Like I read once that “you are reborn according to your heart’s most urgent desires.” Think about that.

There’s a great beauty and truth in that, because that does occur in you daily life. You are reborn continually, and you could be reborn— in God knows what fashion— according to your heart’s most urgent needs and desires, which is something you could not intellectualize, because it doesn’t say your brain’s urgent needs, it says your heart’s urgent needs.

So that’s a very comforting idea to me. If there is a continuation of consciousness, it will be a re-birth based on my needs in a karmic frame, what I have to achieve on the next step.

David: What do you think is the most important thing that you’ve learned in your life?
Edmund: That humor is above death. . . .

David: What’s your concept of God or the Divine?
Edmund: Well, I’ve gotten over the most common images of God that are fed to us as children. I’ve gotten over the images of “Him” or “Her.” I do believe there is a central seed consciousness that is fused in all of the universe. There is some potent, high-exulted energy that represents God to me, and it manifests in nature particularly. All of nature awakens an inner reverence, a sense of holiness to our existence within my being. And I’m very aware of it in my work. I’m very aware of it when I walk, and when I’m out in nature, when I see something growing, when I plant a rosebush and watch the buds spurt out of the stems in the springtime. I’m very aware of this power that is infused in all of life— from every star in the heavens to every minnow in the sea.

To learn more about Edmund Kara and see his artwork, we invite you to visit his website.

by David Jay Brown

Timothy Leary Interview

Timothy Leary Interview

During the early 1990s Carolyn and I visited the late psychologist Timothy Leary a number of times at his home in Beverly Hills. Timothy was a good friend and a great inspiration, as well as a public icon of great controversy and one of the most influential psychologist-philosophers of the twentieth century. He was certainly one of the most brilliant, charming, and funniest people that I ever met.

Because of the sensationalized media attention that Timothy received, many of his accomplishments have been obscured and his image distorted in many people‘s minds. Timothy was a successful research psychologist, who received his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley, and was on the distinguished faculty at Harvard University from 1959 to 1963. The Annual Review of Psychology called his book Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, “the best work in psychotherapy” in 1957, and it remains a standard text in its field to this day.

When Timothy’s studies into controversial methods for altering consciousness lead to his dismissal from the prestigious university in 1963, he continued his research into visionary states at the Millbrook estate in New York, working with many influential writers, artists, scientific researchers, and philosophers. Timothy began traveling around the country— appearing at peace rallies, giving public lectures at universities, spreading messages of hope and cognitive freedom— and he became one of the most popular counterculture figures in America during the 1960s.

Timothy‘s influential public appearances, books and lectures, made him popular among young people and feared by the cultural establishment, because of his message to “drop out” from mainstream society. President Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man alive,” and he was sentenced to ten years in prison for less than a half an ounce of cannabis in 1970. Around eight months later Tim escaped from prison, and after being chased around North Africa and Europe by government agents for several years, and spending more time in prison, he was paroled by California governor Jerry Brown in 1976.

Throughout all his persecution, escape and capture, Timothy never lost his sense of optimism, or his sense of humor, and it is rare to find a photograph of Tim in which he isn’t smiling broadly. Timothy’s brave and upbeat approach to his own dying process was every bit as instructive and inspiring as his approach to life had always been. When Tim learned that he had terminal cancer, he announced that he was “thrilled and ecstatic” to be entering the mystery of death, and he made his final year on this planet a great celebration.

Timothy will certainly be remembered as one of the most original and creative philosophers of our time. He is the author of more than twenty-five books and many of his recorded lectures can be found online. Timothy was buzzing with lively electrical energy whenever we were around him, and his good-humored optimism was contagious. He had a wonderful ability to make people around him feel good about themselves. Timothy once said to me, “You have a very healing face. You radiate a kind of quiet joy. It’s amazing.” I was glowing for days after he said that to me, but most of all though, he made us laugh.

David Jay Brown, Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, Dr. Timothy Leary, Nina Graboi

Left to Right: David Jay Brown, Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, Dr. Timothy Leary, Nina Graboi

I interviewed Timothy twice, in 1989 and again in 1996, a few months before he left this world. Here are some excerpts from my conversations with him:

David: What kind of insight do you think we can gain from exploring the molecular and atomic realms?
Timothy: . . .The greatest wisdom is always housed in the smallest package. I think I even said that in the Psychedelic Prayers twenty-eight years ago. Look at the DNA code. The DNA code is invisible, and yet the DNA code has enough information to build you an Amazon rainforest, or build a hundred David Browns. I mean it’s there. The point is certainly obvious. We’ve now learned that the atom is not just a bunch of billiard balls going around Bohr’s solar system. The atom, we have every reason to expect, is charged with enormous miniaturized information. . .

David: What have you gained from your illness, and how has the dying process affected you?
Timothy: When I discovered that I was terminally ill I was thrilled, because I thought, “Now the real game of life begins. Oh boy! It’s the Super Bowl!” I entered into the real challenge of how to live an empowered life, a life of dignity. How you die is the most important thing you ever do. It’s the exit, the final scene of the glorious epic of your life. Death is loaded with paradox and taboo, so it’s hard for me to be thinking this through, even though I’m involved in the process of dying full-time. Do you follow my confusion? I can not exaggerate the power of this taboo about dying. It’s spooky, it’s something we’re supposed to be frightened of. Death is something symbolized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

David: What has been the secret, all these years, to your undying sense of courage and optimism?
Timothy: It’s common sense. It’s all common sense and fair play. See, because fair play is common sense. It’s a very obvious approach to life.

My interviews with Tim appear in my book “Mavericks of the Mind,” which also contains my interview with Carolyn.

by David Jay Brown

John Lilly Interview

John Lilly Interview

Carolyn and I met John Lilly in the late 1980s, and we become good friends over the years. He was an extraordinary human being and a gifted genius.

John C. Lilly, M.D. was a brilliant visionary researcher and maverick thinker, whose interdisciplinary work helped to revolutionize numerous scientific fields. He was a physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, mind explorer, philosopher, writer, and inventor, who lived from 1915 to 2001 and made significant contributions to the fields of neurophysiology, biophysics, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy.

John pioneered radical new frontiers in psychology and neuroscience, and he charted his brave explorations of the human mind. However, John is perhaps best known as the man behind the fictional scientists dramatized in the Hollywood films Altered States and The Day of the Dolphin.

John was educated at CalTech, Dartmouth Medical School, and the University of Pennsylvania, and he did a large part of his scientific research at the National Institute of Mental Health during the 1950s. John pioneered early neuroscience research in electrical brain stimulation, mapping out the pleasure and pain pathways in the brain. He was the first person to conduct scientific studies attempting to communicate with dolphins and whales, which he recognized as having high intelligence, and he built his own dolphin-communication research lab in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. John also invented the isolation or flotation tank and did significant research in the area of sensory deprivation.

When I lived in LA during the early 1990s, I used to hang out regularly at John’s estate in Malibu, and after he moved to Hawaii, I spent a glorious month at his place in Maui. I loved John. I miss John’s brilliant mind, his clever jokes, and his unique perspective so much. John was eccentrically lovable, often unpredictable, and he had a great sense of humor. I interviewed John in 1991 for my book Mavericks of the Mind,” which also contains my interview with Carolyn. John was 76 at the time and I was 30.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

David: How did your work with the dolphins influence your experience in the isolation tank?
John: I discovered that dolphins have personalities and are valuable people. I began to wonder about whales, which have much larger brains, and I wondered what their capabilities are. There’s a threshold of brain size for language as we know it, and as far as I can make out it’s about 800 grams.

Anybody below that, like the chimpanzee or the gorilla can’t learn to speak a language. But above that language is acquired very rapidly, as in a baby. Well, this means that the dolphin’s life is probably as complicated as ours, but what about their spiritual life? Can they get out of their bodies and travel? Are they extraterrestrials? I asked those kinds of questions. Most people wouldn’t ask them. . . .

. . .when I started going out on the universe. . . in the tank, I’d come to a certain group of entities and I’d say, “Are you God?” And they’d say, “Well, we say that to some people but God is way up there somewhere with the angels.” And it turned out no matter how big they were, God is bigger. So finally I got to the Starmaker. But as Olaf Stapledon says in his book, it’s impossible to describe the Starmaker in human terms. . . .

I call God ECCO now. The Earth Coincidence Control Office. It’s much more satisfying to call it that. A lot of people accept this and they don’t know that they’re just talking about God. I finally found a God that was big enough. As the astronomer said to the Minister, “My God’s astronomical.” The Minister said, “How can you relate to something so big?” The astronomer said, “Well, that isn’t the problem, your God’s too small!”

[Note: Bottlenose dolphins have larger brains than humans— 1600 grams versus 1300 grams— and they have a brain-to-body-weight ratio that is greater than the great apes do (but lower than humans).]

by David Jay Brown