Ram Dass and the "digital darshan" experience
Back in the summer of 1976 my buddy Bruce and I took off in his ’65 mustang on a drive-about through New England. On our loop back to New Jersey we drove down through New Hampshire. As we passed through the small town of Franklin we noticed a bunch of VW vans and other funky cars parked on the lawn of an estate near a lake. It was hot, the people looked inviting and we pulled into the driveway not knowing what to expect. Here’s what it looked like then…
Getting out of the car and asking what’s up, someone told us that this was Ram Dass’ father’s farm and we were welcome to come to RD’s afternoon talk. I’d never experienced an eastern mystic before (but little did I know it would only be four years later that I’d travel to India for 6 months to study at an ashram in Pune). When Ram Dass sat down and started to speak about presence, the nature of duality and suffering from the ego, I completely melted and was brought to tears. It shocked me that I was moved so deeply and we pitched a tent and stayed a few days… my first experience in a group of people who were creating a “buddhafield.”
Returning home and reading RD’s seminal 1971 book about consciousness, “Be Here Now,” furthered my initiation in the study of who we are as beings and firmly put me on the path I’ve been on since… investigating the nature of being and reality.
Ram Dass gave me my first taste of darshan, which is an experience in which we behold a holy person (or natural phenomenon). It’s an interactive experience between the viewer and the perceived spiritual being, but it requires nothing more from the viewer than seeing. It’s a way of receiving a divine blessing and it can occur in person, at an altar with a photo, be visualized in meditation, or (as you’ll see) it can now be achieved in a virtual reality headset.
As it turns out, a few years ago I discovered that one of my friends in Maui, Dr. Joel Friedman, was also Ram Dass’ doctor. I shared my >40yr-old New Hampshire experience with Joel and he offered to introduce me to RD. I’ve been sitting with that for the last few years knowing that Ram Dass (at age 87) isn’t going to be around for that much longer, and had suffered a very severe stroke in 1997 that left him with a condition called “expressive aphasia” which severely limited his ability to communicate. He wrote a book (with some assistance) called “Still Here” in 2000 about his condition and how (in his words) it left him in a “state of grace.” The book moved me profoundly and I’ve taken it off the shelf many times since then, but it wasn’t until I watched the recent Netflix film “Going Home” this summer about his life on Maui that the lightbulb went on over my head and I realized that I now had the means of capturing Ram Dass using the Z CAM V1 camera to create a virtual reality “digital darshan” experience. (!!) So, after a few discussions with his caretakers I found myself with my daughter Ruby at his house on the north shore of Maui, being introduced to this man that was so formative in my life.
After chatting and having some tea, Ram Dass asked me to give him some direction for the creation of the VR experience. He’d never done anything like this before but was totally engaged and wanting it to be the most optimal experience possible. I told him that it would be best to provide a guided meditation that would last 5-8 minutes on any subject he liked. He asked me what I thought would be a good subject and since I knew he had just finished a new book about dying, I asked him to use that (very loaded) subject since it would make for an intense experience in the headset. He told me that instead of dying, he’d prefer to do it about love and of course I agreed that love is absolutely a better subject than death!
We went out to his garden with the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu god who is the symbol of devotion and energy and the servant of Ram, who is the supreme being in Hindu mythology. This garden is featured in the Netflix film and I thought it would make a great location for the experience and after we got into position, hidden the lav and leveled the camera we were ready to go. I instructed RD to look at the camera as if there was a person there instead of a machine and focus on that “virtual” person above all else.
I got into position hiding behind the bushes and began monitoring the audio. 5 minutes went by and he was still going, then 10, then 20, then 30! Finally at 32 minutes I heard him saying something very special… something that I knew I could end the piece on. I walked back into the garden and told him that we could stop but he could’ve even kept going! What made me so happy was that after he spoke for awhile on love, he then turned to the subject of dying and the experience went full circle.
In terms of the stitch and edit, this was a bit of a bear because I was finishing in 6K stereo and 32 minutes is a lot of data. (each frame is >30 Megapixels!) I ended up stitching the entire piece first as low-res offline in MistikaVR, editing that to tighten the longer pauses and got it down to 18 minutes, then taking those sequences into Wonderstitch for the online 6K render. Once that was stitched I brought it into MochaVR for rig removal, which just left the (very simple) spatial audio mix… only 1 point-source track for Ram Dass and another spatial track for the ambient sounds in the garden (which I recorded later once he was back in the house) and then layered that in Logic Pro. The biggest lesson learned for me was how tricky optical flow can be with foliage as a background, especially in this case in which he was being backlit, causing highlights on the edges of his face (which also had a tendency to confuse the OF algorithm). That’s what this year of experimentation is all about and I’m incredibly honored to be able to capture this very special experience for posterity. This is certainly a legacy piece.
I split the 18-minute experience into two parts to make it easy for people to take a break from the headset after part 1 and the only way for you to watch this right now is through the SamsungVR app, which is available for web, mobile, Samsung GearVR and Oculus Go. I sincerely recommend that you don’t watch this as a flat video… you’ll completely miss the darshan experience. At the very least please get a Google Cardboard unit and put your phone in that… it’ll work fine. You can search on my name “Gary Yost” in the SamsungVR app to find my channel, or on desktop you can plug this url into your browser (if you must). When you do watch this in the app, PLEASE download both parts locally and watch them without having to deal with the resolution problems of streaming. The few extra minutes it’ll take to download the files are more than worth it, and you can delete them after watching to free up space.
These two short experiences (9 minutes each) are best viewed on a headset in the SamsungVR app, which is available for the Samsung GearVR and Oculus Go headsets. In the SamsungVR app please search on my last name “Yost” to find my channel (remember to click on the channel button) and before you watch this in the app, PLEASE download it locally to view it without having to deal with the resolution artifacts inherent with streaming. (The few extra minutes it’ll take to download the file is more than worth it, and you can delete it after watching to free up space.) If you don’t have a headset you can order one here for only $200. Until then, you can watch it in your browser by clicking on the thumbnails above and watching directly on your screen on the SamsungVR website.
This picture that we made before leaving says it all. Thank you Ram Dass.
Here’s Ram Dass watching Ram Dass after I sent him an Oculus Go. And this is his quote after seeing his experience... "When done well, the VR experience allows two souls to communicate, it allows love to come through." Note his comment about being "done well"... he absolutely scored with his level of presence and his teaching (it was not possible for anyone to do this any better than he did). And so far all of the people who I've done this with have also been 100% present for the viewer to encounter them in the headset, which is encouraging for the rest of the project.