Ram Dass: Why are comedians following this spiritual leader?

Ram Dass—you’ve heard his name on podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience, You Made it Weird, and the Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Thanks to the enthusiasm of quite a few popular comedians, Ram Dass is enjoying a surge in popularity among a millennial audience.  What is it that so many comedians see in the octogenarian spiritual leader?

Richard Alpert started his spiritual journey to stay high on LSD 24/7

Ram Dass has his fair share of crazy stories — even more than your favorite comedian on Netflix. Before he adopted the moniker Ram Dass, Richard Alpert lived a very different life. He started teaching at Harvard in the 1950s, where he met famed LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Leary introduced Alpert to psychedelics, but he felt dissatisfied with the effects and went to India as part of a quest to attain the feeling of connectedness without the help of a drug. In his first book, Be Here Now, he recounts giving a guru known as Maharajji an enormous dose of LSD, which appeared to have no effect. Finally, Alpert had found his guru—someone so enlightened that they never experienced a “come down.”

Ram Dass is funny…

Ram Dass’s sense of humor is a part of what makes him such a compelling speaker. There’s something delightfully unserious about his outlook on spirituality. He describes Maharajji, still a guiding light many years after his death, as the “cosmic giggle.” The former Harvard professor peppers his talks with asides like, “I have a lot of chutzpah, which is Sanskrit for…” He never finishes the sentence but holds for a laugh. When Holmes once found himself seated across the table from Ram Dass at a dinner party, he took the chance to tell Ram Dass that he is his favorite comedian.

…but he isn’t too funny

Despite his vibrant sense of humor, Ram Dass isn’t always on the same page with big names in the comedy world. Markus expressed some chagrin when he found out Ram Dass didn’t find Larry David funny, but maybe that’s for the best — as Natasha Leggero has pointed out, “We don’t want [Ram Dass] to have a wicked sense of humor.” On an episode of Mindrolling, Leggero mentioned that she and Trussell had Skyped with Ram Dass, saying,  “We were really interested in what Ram Dass would think of comedy, and making fun of things.” He told them it was okay, but that they shouldn’t be mean.

Even Ram Dass has a podcast

Ram Dass: Here and Now podcast cover

Even more recently, Ram Dass has thrown his hat into the podcasting ring. Raghu Markus, the Canadian-born executive director of Ram Dass’s Love Serve Remember foundation, credits Trussell with introducing Ram Dass and fellow spiritual teachers to the podcast world. He regularly refers to Trussell as his “podcast guru.” The Love Serve Remember Foundation has its own podcast network, called the Be Here Now, which hosts Markus’s own podcast, Mindrolling. Thanks to the Trussell connection, Markus has snagged comedy guests like Pete Holmes, Dan Harmon, and Leggero.

Garry Shandling, Ram Dass had chemistry

If biting humor and Curb Your Enthusiasm are off the table, then what makes Ram Dass laugh? Garry Shandling gave us some insight during Judd Apatow’s two-part series, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, which examines The Larry Sandler Show star’s relationship with Zen Buddhism. During a Skype call featured in the Apatow documentary, Shandling says, “I’ve been meditating for 35 years, so I can meditate until my mind is pretty empty, pretty blank, but then there’s no one to blame.” Ram Dass bursts into laughter and Shandling quips, “Now I have an audience for my meditation material.”

Ram Dass responded, “Humor is great in spiritual work. It gets you in here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “Not here,” he continues, gesturing at his head. “Here is serious, here is the judge.”

He offers unconditional love

That wasn’t the only time Ram Dass offered that insight. Shortly after Trussell’s mother died, Markus brought Trussell to Ram Dass’s house in Maui. Trussell said of the experience, “Those of you who know me know that this is identical to a teenage girl going to Justin Bieber’s house.”

When Trussell first met him, it wasn’t his words, but his look of unconditional love that stirred him the most. He mentioned that he wished his mother could have been there, to which Ram Dass responded, “She is here,” before echoing what he said to Shandling: “You have to move from here,” he said, pointing at his head, “to here,” he said, pointing at his heart.

Comedians are taking a spiritual route towards comedy

There’s a common creative thread connecting many of the comedians who openly discuss their spiritual side. They feel the most productive when they can get themselves to stop thinking. Garry Shandling described preparing for his 1981 stand-up performance on The Tonight Show as mostly metaphysical, telling himself, “The only way for you to do this is to become one with the Tonight Show.” He used meditation to reach the point where “there’s no room in the mind…to start judging.” According to Holmes, Judd Apatow has described writing a successful script as channeling something that exists outside of his conscious mind.

Molly Kendrick

Molly B. Kendrick writes about science and culture. Her work has appeared in Racked, Vox, and the BBC. She also hosts a cultural oddities podcast called Yeah, No, Yeah.

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