One of the country’s foremost self-help masters, Ram Dass is now 88 years old and in a wheelchair, still imparting wisdom while continuing to manage the dramatic after-effects of a massive stroke. Before Ram Dass concludes his journey as a human being on this earth, one of his devoted followers, Jamie Catto, wanted to immortalize him in a film. Becoming Nobody is Catto’s tribute to Ram Dass, capturing the essence of his spiritual teachings while offering a glimpse into his past.
Richard Alpert was born in 1931 to a Jewish family in Massachusetts. While religion wasn’t very compelling to him as a youth, he did exhibit an early interest in human nature, which eventually led to him earning a PhD in psychology from Stanford University. After Timothy Leary introduced him to psychedelics, Alpert went to India in 1967, where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, aka Maharaj-ji. That’s when he became Ram Dass (“servant of God”), and a few years later in 1971, his bestseller Be Here Now was published, catapulting him onto a full-fledged career as 20th century American guru.
The film’s director, Catto first learned about Ram Dass in 1988, then met him on a retreat in the UK a few years later. What followed were interviews that paved the way for a face-to-face discussion in Becoming Nobody, which took place in 2015 in Ram Dass’ home in Maui. The one-on-one interview anchors the biographical documentary, which is interspersed with archive footage, including words of wisdom by Ram Dass himself, carefully culled from an array of scratchy black and white films and glitchy videos.
Becoming Nobody doesn’t go into the life story of Ram Dass much — it’s more like a highlight reel of all the teachings he espoused throughout the decades. Still, Ram Dass talks about his long road as a seeker, discussing the implications of the time when Timothy Leary gave him psilocybin in the 1960s. “It changed my life in the sense that it undercut the models I had of who I thought I was,” says Ram Dass in the film. The scary yet exhilarating experience led him to a deeper understanding of his true being — not of who he was, but that he simply was, period. Ram Dass attributes this, in large part, to meeting his guru. “See, a guru is your doorway to God. Your doorway to the beyond,” he says in the film. “A guru is a spiritual vehicle. An entrance-way. He’s a pure mirror. He isn’t anybody at all.”
Neem Karoli Baba, aka Maharaj-ji/ Courtesy Love Serve Remember Films and Google Empathy Lab
After Ram Dass started to grow out his beard and lecture cross-legged, he began to discover that life’s lessons are embedded in the multifarious paradoxes that present themselves along the journey, specifically the idea that sometimes, true transformation comes from not getting what you want. Similarly, for Ram Dass, life’s low points can be more interesting than its high ones, “because they’re showing you where you aren’t.” He believes that too many of us operate under a model of deprivation, and that the idea of not having enough needs to be surrendered if we are to find true enlightenment. He’s big on suffering as a valuable experience, and believes that humor and love are key. He also believes that the taboo of death is wrong.
“The appreciation of death and the spiritual journey after death is the prerequisite for living life joyfully now,” says Ram Dass in Becoming Nobody. “Death does not have to be treated as an enemy for you to delight in life. Keeping death present in your consciousness, as one of the greatest mysteries and as the moment of incredible transformation, imbues this moment with added richness and energy which otherwise is used up in denial. I encourage you to make peace with death, to see it as the culminating adventure of this adventure called life. It is not an error. It is not a failure. It is taking off a tight shoe, which you have worn well. But those that find the way in the morning can gladly die in the evening, it is said in the mystical literature.”
In a filmmaker’s statement, Catto says, “The intimacy and trust that Ram Dass cultivates through his unabashed realness is a notable contrast to a commodified Western spiritual culture so often laden with self-proclaimed gurus. Above all, I wanted to capture the profound love that radiates from this man’s heart; his humanity and authenticity will allow future generations to be transformed by his wonderfully irreverent yet deeply holy practice of humor and heart.”
In theaters today, Becoming Nobody is presented by Love Serve Remember Films with Google Empathy Lab.