Author of iconic ’70s bestseller Be Here Now, Ram Dass is still being here now. As we see in Becoming Nobody, opening Friday (September 6), even at a frail, poststroke 88, the twinkle in his eye remains undiminished.
The doc captures the man formerly known as Harvard psychology prof Richard Alpert in a recent conversation with filmmaker Jamie Catto. Archival footage provides a neat summation of the spiritual technology that turned Ram Dass into a counterculture guru, all of it inside a crisp 81 minutes.
Catto’s first encounter with Ram Dass was via an audiotape he heard, evocatively enough, during a naked yoga class in the ’80s.
“I just fell in love with him immediately. Couldn’t get enough,” he says, calling the Georgia Straight from Oxford, England. “I read all the books. The only book I didn’t enjoy was Be Here Now, which is wonderful, but it didn’t really touch me particularly. But the other ones—which are really just transcriptions of his lectures—really moved me, and I knew I’d found my spiritual home. ‘This is my guy.’?”
Those lectures also form the arc of Becoming Nobody, as Ram Dass evolves from Ivy League academic to pioneering psychonaut to effectively pithy interpreter of eastern mysticism. Besides an obvious humility, it’s his Jewish-American wit that makes the package so appealing.
For Catto, Ram Dass’s work amounts to a “kind of spiritual curriculum trying to show you things, trying to heal you, trying to illuminate you, trying to let go of old wounds, and educate you.”
There’s a Ram Dass-ian feel to the language Catto uses to describe what attendees should expect when he arrives in Vancouver for a special screening of Becoming Nobody on Monday (September 9).
“My whole mission as an artist and as an activist is to dissolve the illusion of themness and to promote the truth of usness,” he says.
His own background is illuminating and not dissimilar to Alpert’s: he was raised in London by a wealthy Jewish family “who were emotionally kind of shut down”. He speaks obliquely of childhood trauma that developed in his teens into crippling anxiety and suicidal impulses. His salvation came through the kind of inner work that was dismissed at the time as “joining the Moonies or some other kind of cult”.
As a musician, decades later, Catto enlisted Brian Eno, Michael Stipe, and Dennis Hopper, among other eminent partners, for 2002’s 1 Giant Leap film and music project. By any measure, the man emerged a success. But it’s touching to hear him talk about his first teacher.
“You can see how he treats me in the film,” Catto says, with a chuckle. “You can clearly see I’ve come to get anointed, and he’s really patient with it. Right at the end he says to me, in so many words, ’Look, if you’ve come to get anointed, that must mean you think you’re outside.’ And he goes, ‘You’re inside, you just don’t see it.’ And it was beautiful.”
Significantly, Ram Dass then goes on to assure Catto on camera that he’s a “good son”.
“Yes,” he says, softly. “After 30 years of me trying to get it out of him, he finally cracked, and gave me what I wanted.”