The book I am reviewing – The Only Dance There Is – is a compiled transcription of two lectures Ram Dass gave to a room of psychotherapists in the early 1970s. The first lecture was at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, and the second at the Spring Grove Hospital in 1972. Seeing as Ram Dass was a trained Harvard professor and psychiatrist before he transformed into a yogi, he was in the fortunate position of having two perceptual vantage points to overlook the whole thing. His clear insight into the Western approach to solving man’s spiritual problems through psychology, and his new understanding into the Eastern approach through yoga and meditation allowed him the opportunity to act as a solid concrete bridge between the worlds of East and West. Prior to Ram Dass bridges existed, but they were of the old and fragile, made of rope variety, which were rarely crossed out of fear of the bridge collapsing and you falling into the abyss below. Because of this the game at this point in time was very polarised – us vs them, hippies vs police, East vs West, and so on.
In these lectures Ram Dass attempted to share the Indian’s non-dualistic outlook on life, called Advaita Vedanta, to an audience very much attached to the separation of all living things. Ram Dass eloquently shared what he had learnt in India, and what he had given up in Harvard, by comparing the comparatively new Western psychology to the 10,000 year old Eastern method of yoga and meditation. For example, he discusses in detail the Hindu chakra system, and how it closely resembles psychological systems for understanding human motivation – an area that Ram Dass happened to specialise in when he was a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Richard Alpert.
The 1970 Menninger lecture occurred at the same time that ‘Be Here Now‘ was being written, and a year before it was released to the public – it displays a Ram Dass in the flush of discovery of a method infinitely times more fulfilling than anything he had encountered or studied in the West, including psychology and psychedelics. And here he was, delivering this news from a far away land to his old colleagues and suit wearing brothers of psychotherapy – the result is this book, a bottomless pot of honey.
“Psychotherapy is just as high as the psychotherapist. If your psychotherapist happened to be Buddha, you would get enlightened in the process, see… you will get as free of your particular role-attachments as the psychiatrist is free of his… I really see therapy, in terms of personality, as body and repair work. But it has nothing to do with essence. Essence means that the therapist has to know who he or she is. A therapist who thinks he is a therapist can only create a patient who thinks he is a patient. A therapist who thinks he is a personality can merely exchange one personality package for another personality package. He can’t even imagine that there is a way of being that has nothing to do with personality.”
The transcript for the Menninger lecture not only made it into this book, but was also published into the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. I have the complete audio recording of the lecture and have uploaded it to the web, if you would like to listen to it then you can download it here.
The second lecture, from 1972, exhibits a different approach as Ram Dass has had some time to let his spiritual discovery sit and rest, it is just as if not more fascinating than the previous lecture – unfortunately I do not have an audio recording of it. In ‘The Only Dance There Is’ the two lectures are woven together seamlessly in order to retain their magic and substance, but within a new framework that allows the two lectures to complement each other and also to flow more naturally. The lectures are split up and grouped categorically so that a heading such as ‘Karma and Reincarnation’ will appear above lecture excerpts that relate to that particular subject. No words have been altered, only the order has been modified, and yet it flows so well that as you read it you will never guess that one page is from an entirely different lecture than the next.
This book is perfect for anyone living in Western society who is not finding answers to the many questions that the soul seeks. It is a spiritual reservoir overflowing with perennial wisdom that anyone on the path may drink from. This book is also perfect for those who really want to know what the hell ‘it’ is all about, but can’t get a straight answer from anyone who practices a spiritual lifestyle: eg `I can’t tell you because you wouldn’t understand’. While Ram Dass acknowledges that there is a big difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing something through experience, he still takes down the veil for a moment and allows anyone who is curious enough to take a peek at the dance that is occurring behind the otherwise closed curtains. He tells it as it is, and invites you to scoff with disbelief or marvel with wonder. As he repeats time and time again he has no vested interest in whether or not you believe him, as the ego that thrives on such trivial matters has been replaced by a free floating consciousness, no longer bound by thoughts and expectations.
“So, what I’m saying is that this evening is part of my work on myself because I realize that the only thing you have to offer to another human being, ever, is your own state of being. You can cop out only just so long, saying I’ve got all this fine coat – Joseph’s coat of many colors – I know all this and I can do all this. But everything you do, whether you’re cooking food or doing therapy or being a student or being a lover, you are only doing your own being, you’re only manifesting how evolved a consciousness you are. That’s what you’re doing with another human being. That’s the only dance there is!”
I’m not going to tell you to go out of your way and buy this book, because if you have read this far you will no doubt be able to make that decision for yourself. And only you can make the decision of wanting to read a book such as this. I will warn you: the contents of this book are really far out and may not be for everyone, but then again, it might be just what you’ve been looking for all this time.
“Last evening, here in Topeka, as one of the journeyers on a path, a very, very old path, the path of consciousness, I, in a sense, met with the Explorers Club to tell about the geography I had been mapping. The people who gather to hear somebody called Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, have somewhere, at some level, in some remote corner, some involvement in this journey, All that I can see that we can do with one another is share notes of our exploration. I can say, “Watch out, because around that bend the road falls off sharply to the left… stay far over on the right when you do that.”
The motivation for doing this is the most interesting – it’s only to work on myself. It’s very easy to break attachments to worldly games when you’re sitting in a cave in the Himalayas. It’s quite a different take you do of sex, power, money, fame, and sensual gratification in the middle of New York City in the United States with television and loving people around and great cooks and advertising and total support for all of the attachments.
But there is the story of a monk who got very holy up on the mountain until he had some thousands of followers. After many years he went down into a city and he was in the town and somebody jostled him. He turned around angrily and that anger was a mark of how little work he had really done on himself. For all the work he had done he still hadn’t clipped the seed of anger; he still got uptight when somebody pushed him around
So that what I see as my own sadhana (my work on my own consciousness – it could also be called my spiritual journey) is that it is very much cyclic. There are periods of going out and there are periods of going back in. Just as living here in the market place is forcing things into the forefront, so sitting in a room by myself for 30 or 40 days in a mountain is forcing other things to be confronted. Each hides from the other, each environment hides from the other sets of stimulus conditions.”