Greeting Life with Fierce Grace: The Story of Richard AlpertMelissa C Palmer, LCSW, ACHP-SW, APHSW-C, JD Nov 28, 2023
Richard Alpert grew up in Boston, Massachusetts to a prominent Jewish family of privilege that valued education and prestige. Although a brilliant man, he also was known to be a bit verbose; he was captivating to others even as a child. The Alpert’s owned a 300-acre farm in New Hampshire in a community not unlike where I grew up about 30 minutes away. Interested in how the mind works, he earned a PhD in Psychology from Stanford, against his father’s wish for Richard to study medicine. He moved back East and joined the faculty at Harvard. Richard Alpert was one of the first faculty to be fired from Harvard due to his unorthodox research with psychedelic substances. With his former Harvard colleague Timothy Leary, they took an unconventional path according to mainstream standards of the time to learn about how the body reacts to psychedelic drugs, in particular psilocybin, with regard to transcendence.
After his time with Timothy Leary and at Millbrook, India transformed his spiritual path. Richard Alpert is more commonly known as Ram Dass. As a spiritual leader and philosophical teacher, he was accustomed to being listened to and active in his life. People who spent time with him felt a calm serenity wash over them. Some say that his guru chose his Hindu name, “Servant of God”, because Neem Karoli Baba (also called “Maharaj-ji”) believed that Ram Dass would be able to bring Eastern spirituality to mainstream society. Ram Dass had a freedom that allowed him to share his teaching and influence the Western world’s spiritual climate. Over the course of his life, he traveled the world, educated many about Eastern philosophy and wisdom, and wrote many books.
In 1997, however, Ram Dass was at home alone and had a stroke, which he refers to “being stroked”, with resulting aphasia and paralysis. The difficulty with speaking changed Ram Dass’s life and caused him to look deeply into who he really is, his soulful self, and put aside his ego and accomplishments. Because he experienced losses to his function, speech, and writing, Dass had to reinvent himself, look deeply and be present in his suffering. Dass relays that his stroke brought him “fierce grace”, and forced him to reconsider his purpose in the world and re-awaken to his true inner self. Most of all, the stroke brought Ram Dass a sense of humility and gratitude that allowed him to live his words. Dass coined the phrase “fierce grace” to explain the intensity of the feelings that came with snipping the ties of our bindings to the earthly realm.
Watching “Fierce Grace”, a 90-minute 2001 documentary about his “phoenix transformation” through the darkness of traumatic changes in ability, I reflect on my own life and how I would react to a near instantaneous, catastrophic event in my body. He reflected that “my doctors see me as a stroke victim” and “all my (functional changes) are like sirens in the rocks, I would like to be free”. He considered his stroke as an “experiment of consciousness” and said “something like a stroke, it’s so captivating to the consciousness. I want to see how this captivates my mind. And I want to pull my consciousness out and be free in the middle of the stroke”. He wrote his book “Still Here” in order to normalize aging and give hope regarding our changing bodies. Both his writings and documentary allow me insight into the possibility for both suffering and enlightenment as a result of serious illness/functional decline.
If you are interested in learning more, please watch/read:
Ram Dass, Fierce Grace, a 2001 biographical documentary directed by Micky Lemle
Dass, R. (2001). Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying. Riverhead, Penguin Group. ISBN 978-1-101-66160-4