Author, teacher to speak on spirituality

Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 10:20 p.m.


If you go

  • What: An evening with Ram Dass, author and spiritural teacher, and viewing of a new film, "Ram Dass: Fierce Grace"
  • When: Film runs at 3 and 4:45 p.m. Sunday; Dass' presentation at 7 p.m. George Tortorelli plays flute at 6:30 p.m.
  • Where: University of Florida, Reitz Union Ballroom. Sponsored by the UF Center for Spirituality and Health. The Web site is at
  • Tickets: Free and open to the public.

  • In 1963, Richard Alpert, a Stanford-trained psychologist who became one of the youngest tenured professors at Harvard, overstepped the boundaries of acceptable science and found himself without a job.
    Alpert, along with Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg, had been exploring human consciousness by experimenting with LSD and other psychedelic drugs.
    In his quest for understanding the human mind and spirit, Alpert crashed up against the borders of what counted as true in western science. He turned eastward to India, to a Hindu guru who taught him meditation and yoga, and who renamed Alpert Ram Dass.
    On Sunday, Ram Dass will speak at the Reitz Union Ballroom at the University of Florida at the invitation of the UF Center for Spirituality and Health.
    The center, which was officially established last April, is trying to better understand the relationship between spiritual well-being and physical health - a relationship that the director of the center, Dr. Allen Neims, says many scientists treat with skepticism.
    "In the university, it's not OK for scientists to talk about spirituality - that belongs to the philosophers or those who study religion," Neims says. "There is great resistance in our scientific culture to matters of the spirit - after all, how can we define or measure spirituality? How can we observe it? How can we test it empirically? These are some of the things we're trying to find out." Neims, along with other colleagues, is currently studying obesity in children - a problem that he believes is both physical and spiritual.
    "So many premature deaths in this country are caused by lifestyle habits - smoking, overeating, drug use," Neims says.
    "As doctors, we see the products of these lifestyles, and it is our job to treat them. But it's also our job to prevent them.
    "One hypothesis is that if overweight kids - and adults - could discover things that bring them joy and purpose, that could fill a spiritual emptiness, then they wouldn't need to try to fill that emptiness with food.
    "And even if they wind up not losing any weight at all - well, did their self-image change? Do they feel good about their bodies, about themselves? These questions are equally important."
    The study of overweight children is just one of many research projects exploring the connections between spiritual well-being and physical well-being that the faculty connected with the center is pursuing.
    The center's goal is to reach out to the general public by sponsoring similar lectures like the one being given by Ram Dass.
    As a spiritual teacher, Ram Dass has had a tremendous influence on people worldwide, including Neims.
    "A few years ago, my wife dragged me to a workshop given by Ram Dass," Neims says. "I didn't want to go. The second morning of the workshop, I found myself sitting in a room with 500 people.
    "And Ram Dass said, 'Now, we're going to chant for two hours.' I rolled my eyes. I resisted.
    "Then I sat back, and I chanted - and I worried. Every worry I had ran through my mind. I was dean of the medical school at the time, so I had a lot to worry about - money, conflicts, my kids.
    "Suddenly, I simply ran out of things to worry about. And my mind went weird. It filled with light, and with people I'd known and loved. When the bell rang ending our chant, I came out of it and thought, 'What on earth just happened?' "
    "Now, I think that I learned that day what were here for - to give each other light, to connect with each other. And that awareness is the gift Ram Dass has offered to so many people. And for that reason alone, he's a distinguished speaker for us."
    In addition to research, the center offers courses designed to help UF students think about their own spirituality, and how spirituality affects their work as professionals and the way they interact with others.
    "What makes our center distinct from others in the country is how truly interdisciplinary it is," Neims says. "We have faculty teaching and researching this stuff in education, religion, sociology, medicine, the arts - all across campus."
    So far, Neims says, the courses have been filling up, and they've had to turn students away.
    "Students aren't offered many courses that help them think about what's meaningful in life, or that teach them to reflect on such things," Neims says. "Scientists, especially, often feel divided between their spiritual self - the one that goes to church or synagogue or the mosque on Sunday - and their scientific self. How do we reconcile these two sides of ourselves? That's an important and difficult question.
    "Medical students need scientific knowledge, but they also need wisdom - the wisdom to connect with patients, to help them heal. For example, one thing we're not often taught in medical school is that some people heal as they are dying - it's the difference between a good death and a bad death.
    "How do we teach medical students to develop the wisdom to know the difference, and to holistically help patients who are experiencing physical illness or death?" Faculty affiliated with the center also offers workshops for nurses, counselors, massage therapists, midwives and other healers and health-care providers beyond the borders of UF.
    The center, for example, is working with nurses who often feel drained and burned out.
    "In these workshops, we try to help nurses by showing them how they can find the energy to be present for their patients - but then how they can let go, so they can be present for their families when they go home at the end of the day," Neims says.

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