Ram Dass on Transforming Fear and Denial Through Social Action

Ram Dass gave the following lecture on July 21st, 1993 in Rhinebeck, New York. We chose to share these teachings because although they were given almost thirty years ago, they are still extraordinarily timely in today’s social climate. In the following blog and accompanying audio clip, Ram Dass shares advice surrounding the themes of inequality, social action, fear, and change…

“I grew up reading the books that said Columbus discovered America in 1492. I don’t remember anything about us committing genocide in order to do it. I don’t remember a thing that my nice history teacher taught me. We are now awakening to the collective karma that we all have in this culture, and that we haven’t even yet apologized.

Up until the Second World War, when I was growing up, I had the feeling our government was basically representing what our Constitution and Declaration of Independence stated, and that its concerns were basically the concerns to relieve the suffering of all people. The Vietnam War raised pretty serious doubts about that. It raised the issue. It changed one from feeling one’s government…like Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seen as a great father when I was growing up. He spoke very reassuringly on the radio every week.

I think we now realize, and it’s very scary, that leaders are fallible.

We’ve had Watergate, and many gates. I can go on and on. I mean, there’s lots more, but just take these. This is what we’re living in the middle of. We’re living in the middle of a whole set of stories we grew up with and we invested in, that are at this moment not functional. We thought we could use whatever resources we wanted – we can’t. This country is using 45% of all of the resources? Paltry, what 300 million people out of 5 billion? It’s an inordinate amount.

The question is, does all this change? Take the changes that are the result of economic instability. The fact that in the past 10 years the allocation of resources has shifted within our culture so that the upper 1% of the families have a huge proportion of the resources of the whole culture, almost equal to the lower half. The curve has gotten so skewed. How destabilizing that is. It is so unstable, as the LA riots showed, and because there isn’t any major remedy in sight for that, you can assume it’s going to get worse.

At some point we have to start to treat it as a critical issue instead of something that will go away if we look the other way.

But a situation like that is increasingly volatile; the north-south economic imbalances. The question is, how do you live with that, with all of this? Do you make believe it isn’t? Do you say, “Oh, this is all too much, I’ll just hold on to the past?” Do you go into a dream? Take drugs to escape? Figure, “Well, I’ll be dead before it really matters?” Do you realize the cost of the fact that the ground under you is getting very soft? Do you realize the cost to your psyche?

It intrigues me to examine how I respond to change. Do you realize that most of the people in this culture are panicked out of their mind by the implications of all these things? It’s almost all denial. In the level of defense mechanism there’s tremendous denial. But there are the roots of fanaticism, there’s the roots of Limbaugh, or whatever his name is, there’s the roots of all of that kind of fright, control, and ultimately violence; to preserve the past, to preserve the myths that were.

Anybody that wants power in this society just plays on that fear. You just play on that fear and you get power. It’s the way it works. It’s not the true power, it’s power rooted in fear. It’s not power rooted in truth behind the ignorance.

But I ask us, is there any other place we could stand other than among the people who are rushing headlong out of fear to their own destruction? In this dimension of all our meditation, singing, and reflections, is there anything about personality and social action? Is there anything that gives us some leverage in this situation so that we can live in a world of uncertainty and change in a different way that is not reactive, not full of denial, and not totally captivated by the fear of the unknown?

There’s an example about an experiment with frogs, in which, if you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out, but if you put a frog in cold water, heating the water slowly, it boils to death. I don’t know whether that’s true or apocryphal, but that’s what the scientists tell me. Well, you and I are in very warm water, extremely warm water, and there is a tendency in the personality structure to say, “Gee, it’s warm. I think I’ll get a tan,” or, ‘It’s warm. Now I can have an air-conditioner. I’ve always wanted one.”

There’s a way to keep adjusting to the situation getting more and more uncomfortable, saying, “Well that’s life.” I mean, you try to walk around in Mexico City and the pollution is so bad, just so devastatingly bad, and look at trying to land in Los Angeles on an airplane, you go into a yellow thick smirky yuck. People say, “Well, that’s life.”

There is a place one can stand which has a different relationship to time and to change, such that that which changes becomes that which awakens, rather than that which motivates fear responses. Where could you be standing? Where could that happen from?”

– Ram Dass


Click Here to explore Educational Resources for Racial Justice and Equality.


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