Being here now isn't as easy as it used to be.
That's the word from Ram Dass, a guy who should know.
The author of the seminal "Be Here Now" is internationally known as a spiritual teacher. Following a stroke and debilitating illness a decade ago, he has been a Haiku resident. His face now radiates the health benefits of living on Maui. He may speak more slowly from his wheelchair, but his compassion, wit and the twinkle in his eye never left.
When he first came to Maui, he liked it well enough, he said during a phone interview Sunday. But an infection that put him in Maui Memorial Medical Center and limited his ability to fly made him "an island boy."
The man born Richard Alpert to a prosperous Jewish family 83 years ago in Boston is the subject - along with fellow former Harvard professor Timothy Leary - of "Dying to Know," the documentary that opens the Maui Film Festival's Castle Theater screenings at 6 p.m. June 4.
Directed by Gay Dillingham with help from Robert Redford, it chronicles what happened when the driving ambitions of psychology professor Dr. Alpert were entirely rerouted by experiments led by his charismatic, mischievous colleague with a new substance known as LSD.
In fact, society itself was rerouted by those experiments, leading into an era, a renaissance and a mindset known as the '60s. Leary emerged as sort of an intellectual rascal, half-leprechaun, half-outlaw, who eventually succumbed to cancer. Alpert went off to India and came back a holy man.
"The director, Gay Dillingham, is in Santa Fe," Ram Dass explained of the film's origins. "She filmed a meeting with Tim and I. It was the last time we saw each other. So she had that film and provided a lot of background material, then the guy at Sundance - what's his name? Ah, yes, Bob - he came in and narrated it and helped her clean up the film."
The chance to catch up with Ram Dass periodically - he's also one of the interview subjects of a new documentary I worked on with Tom Vendetti and Bob Stone called "The Quietest Place on Earth" - is one of those great things about Maui that's not in the tour books.
In this case, I was calling looking for some answers. I had been worrying about technology's increasing role in our lives, pushing what makes us human aside, replacing it with convincing but ultimately fake imitations of life, on one screen after another.
Some liken our embrace of technology to an addiction. In Santa Barbara last weekend, a toxic mix of technology and loneliness turned horrific beyond belief.
"I think it's harder and harder to be here now," agreed Ram Dass, "because there's more distraction, the Internet and so on."
But there's an upside, too.
"I think it's both. I Skype with people all around the world and talk to them about spiritual stuff. And the messages of our hearts get through. That's pretty good - I can feel my heart and their hearts, too.
"The bad thing is the distraction. Each individual has a here-now of the world and it's basically a worldly world - worldly facts. I think it focuses people's attention on the here and now that is not spiritual. The here-now that I wrote about is pretty spiritual.
"When we were doing the psychedelic
stuff, it was the '60s. The '60s had an ambiance of getting a chance at creativity - anything goes. You were out of the box. Now, the spiritual here and now is out of the box in our culture."
Prompting me to ask the dumbest of questions: What does "spiritual" mean? And does being on Maui help?
"Spiritual means planes of consciousness where we are souls. We have access to the universe. It's subjective. Spiritually we are souls who are living in human bodies. Most of us think we're humans with souls.
"On Maui, nature rules, and nature is spiritual," he concluded. "The Hawaiian people have kept the islands with spiritual underpinnings. I think that the land all comes from the volcano. It's like living in Middle Earth. I found I could study contentment here. I have studied it and have become very content."
"Awake: The Life of Yogananda," playing in Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. June 6, brings another message from the East to the festival. Paola Di Florio's documentary captures "a saint's life that changed the Western world - the first yoga master to donate his life to non-Hindu humanity," writes Paul Wood in the festival program
* Rick Chatenever, former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and Emmy-nominated scriptwriter. Contact him at email@example.com or 344-9535.