I try not to add story to my feelings. Each emotion is a feeling state, but adding thoughts to the feeling state creates more problems. For instance, If I’m feeling sad or angry, I let myself feel sad or angry rather than say “I’m upset because so and so was a jerk.” The feelings come and go much faster and more easily if they are allowed to happen and are given room to exist.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Ram Dass.
Ram Dass makes music to open the heart and stir the soul. As a producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter, his constant dedication to render the beauty of human experience–its triumphs, tragedies, and beyond–inspires a unique potency in his musical collaborations and creations. His last release, a collaboration with Nirinjan Kaur and Matthew Schoening, premiered at #1 on the Apple New Age Music charts. He is now offering a series of musical projects born from his own deeply personal experience of joy and sorrow. His spiritually and emotionally restorative music is at the forefront of a movement of musicians aiming to bring healing and solace to the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in St. Louis, MO, but moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at an early age, and grew up in the East Bay near Berkeley. Both of my parents are classically trained musicians, and so I was introduced to classical music essentially from birth, if not before. My dad played piano for ballet classes and I have early memories of sitting under that piano at age four or five, watching the dancers, and listening to him improvise. After class, I’d sit next to him on the piano bench and started learning to improvise with him little by little. I went on to learn clarinet and saxophone and then later guitar and played in a bunch of ensembles and youth orchestras along the way. At some point I wanted to be a veterinarian, but ultimately I ended up going down the road of being a professional musician and then music producer and audio engineer.
You are currently leading a social impact movement through your music that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your music are trying to address?
Music is a universal medium and language that evokes feelings, regardless of origin or cultural background. My experience is that despite a degree of communication that is higher than ever due to social media, there is still so much left unsaid, so much grief, anger, and emotional repression that could use healthy outlets. This record was my own process of working through grief and hard feelings. In making this music, we strived to play “into” a feeling and create a mood based on our own deep emotions. My hope is that the music moves people and gives them permission to express their feelings as well.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
This music came about as a way to work through and heal after the death of my newborn son, who passed due to a rare genetic condition. I went through a deep depression and my life fell apart. I didn’t know how to deal with my life and the circumstances I was facing along with the feelings I was having. I aimed to find happiness, something I was not feeling at all at the time. What I learned was that I could become happy by learning to have my feelings in real-time, as they happened, rather than avoiding them or pressing them down and pretending I was feeling another way. I know that I can’t change the whole world and all of the conflicts within it, but I do know the power that music has and it felt like one of the things I could do would be to advocate for the happiness of others through my music, or at least help people move emotions that may have been sitting or stuck for a long time.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
The pandemic actually cleared a path for me to do this project, and it was rather conveniently handed to me. I was recording the score for a film in Tulum, Mexico, last year with one of my collaborators, violinist and multi-instrumentalist, Bogdan Djukic. He and I have worked together on a number of projects and I have always loved working with him because of the emotionality and purity of sound that he plays with. He mentioned that he had been collaborating in an improvised setting with Matias Da Viá, who he said sounded like he had the most powerful, timeless voice and sung without using real words. Mati came over on one of the last days and I recorded the two of them playing together and felt the potency of their combination. We decided to plan another trip where I’d record the three of us playing together. Spirit Voyage, my record label, was extremely excited at the idea and had been urging me to put something out for a while, since my last solo release was in 2011. The three of us, Bogdan, Mati, and I, sat down together, and the “aha” was obvious. We knocked out the recordings in what was one of the most enjoyable weeks of recording I have ever done — the feelings were so tangible in the music, but it was all so effortless to create.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Certainly- the support I have received has been invaluable. My parents were so incredibly generous after my son passed. We dealt with a medical emergency in the family not long afterward, and so focus went from the grief of his passing to trying to get through medical appointments, surgeries, and that recovery. They housed us and gave us space to try to get back on our feet. If I had to pay rent on top of everything that was going on, it would have been infinitely more challenging.
I received counseling from George Bertelstein, whose book “A Clear And Simple Prayer” summarizes his offerings beautifully. It was his encouragement, unrelenting love, and validation that buoyed me through the darkness.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I’m not an expert on policy or the medical patterns within the country, but I do see how hard people work to make ends meet and how much pressure so many people experience to get through a day, and that’s just at work. Add in relationships, parenting, and social media, and you have the perfect storm for mental and emotional challenges. We see that animals don’t show injury or vulnerability because it leaves them open to attack or death. I know that for me, there is something deeply instinctual about not wanting to appear “off” or unwell in a given moment, so it feels quite biological, but that is also a narrative that can be changed.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Again, without being an expert here, because I know there are people whose job it is to work within the systems that exist and are also advocating for change, I do think there are some basic things that our society could do to change the state of our mental health, but there is also a need for massive upheaval and a complete paradigm shift.
For individuals, finding someone to talk to who is available to just listen and advocate is essential for mental health. We are social animals and grief cannot be fully processed alone — it needs witnessing. The government needs a massive overhaul in the healthcare system, which generally needs some societal change in order to happen. If we can collectively learn and teach that “hard feelings” are not bad feelings, and create safe spaces for people to express themselves — and I’m not talking about social media; this is not about trying to build a profile or gain recognition for having feelings; I think we would see some major change. Our children would be benefited by being given tools to process, understand, and cope with their feelings. If they are taught that their feelings are safe and valid rather than punished for having them, we would see change going forward. Ultimately, I think more funding for education, including somatic-based learning, funding for mental health for adults, and ultimately, more social safety nets to take the building pressure off of people, especially those who are living paycheck to paycheck.
What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- I try not to add story to my feelings. Each emotion is a feeling state, but adding thoughts to the feeling state creates more problems. For instance, If I’m feeling sad or angry, I let myself feel sad or angry rather than say “I’m upset because so and so was a jerk.” The feelings come and go much faster and more easily if they are allowed to happen and are given room to exist.
- This segues into taking responsibility for every part of my life. It’s my responsibility to tend to myself, my needs, my thoughts, and my actions. Yes, people can be jerks, but my response is my business and responding in a good way (with a good mind and a good heart) is what I can do about it.
- Eat on schedule. I try not to procrastinate on my hunger because I know it’s’ the fastest way to descend into being grumpy or having negative thoughts. This one took a while to figure out, accept, and do something about, but it’s super important.
- Pay attention to grooming and hygiene. If I’m putting off bathing, brushing my teeth, or getting out of pajamas and it’s not just a day off from work, I need to take stock and do a reset. I’m probably not in a good way with my feelings or thoughts if I’m avoiding these things.
- Look for the beauty. It only takes a little bit of something beautiful to help crack open negative thoughts. I went through a type of personal hell after my son passed, a pervading hopelessness and sense of fear and crumbling. Seeing the beauty around me gave me something to live for and I remain on the lookout for beautiful things everywhere and find them in the most unexpected places. Kindness in a grocery store, birds on a telephone wire, flowers blooming, it’s all great material to keep my spirits up.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Helpful podcasts I love:
Healing Feeling Sh*t Show — aimed at creating emotional resilience
The Wild and Wise — dedicated to the process of creating wellness within ourselves and teaching it to children
You Made It Weird — great and funny conversations on life, spirituality, philosophy, and art
Unlocking Us With Brené Brown — The godmother of the courage to be vulnerable and authentic
A Clear and Simple Prayer by George Bertelstein
Entering the Healing Ground by Francis Weller
The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Just try to be kind to yourself. A little bit of kindness goes a long way and is the basic currency of change.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for having me and for advocating for positive change in the world!
Mental Health Champions: How Ram Dass of Spirit Voyage Is Helping To Promote Mental Wellness was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.