Ram Dass’ Teaching on Viewing Neuroses as Shmoos

Sam Woolfe
5 min readApr 4, 2024

One of my favourite lessons from the late spiritual teacher Ram Dass relates to his relationship with his neuroses. Based on Ram Dass’ character — who he was as a person, and how he presented himself to others — one might assume that he was untroubled by negative habitual thought patterns. But in his talks, he was always open about his human foibles — losing his patience, becoming irritated by others, being demanding, and so on.

He would also have the self-awareness and honesty to bring attention to his ‘spiritual teacher’ persona and demeanour. This is not to say that his noticeable serenity and peace of mind were disingenuous. But he didn’t lose sight of the need for him and others to recognise that he was flawed and neurotic like everyone is. He did not act like those gurus with inflated egos, who present themselves as fully enlightened and pure, unmarked by imperfections.

In one of his talks, Ram Dass discusses how he turned his big, frightening neuroses into friendly, little Shmoos. The Shmoo is a cartoon character created by Al Capp, which appeared in comic strips and then later the American TV show The New Shmoo. A Shmoo physically resembles a bowling pin with stubby legs. They are naturally gentle and frolic in an entertaining way.

In this talk, he said that before all of his spiritual work on himself, his neuroses “were these huge, big things that were very frightening, and they took me over… And now they’re sort of like little Shmoos. They’re little, friendly beings, and I invite them in for tea.” He has brought up this notion of transforming — or changing his relationship to — neuroses elsewhere. What was refreshing and reassuring to hear, however, was that he didn’t believe he had actually eliminated any of these neuroses. As he said in an interview:

Even after many years of psychoanalysis, after teaching psychology, working as a therapist, after taking [psychedelic] drugs for many years, being in India, being a yogi, having a guru, meditating for eighteen or nineteen years now — as far as I can see I haven’t gotten rid of one neurosis. Not one. The only thing that has changed is that while before these neuroses were huge monsters that possessed me, now they’re like little Shmoos that I invite over for tea. I say, “Oh, sexual perversity! Haven’t seen you in weeks!” They’re sort of my style now. When your neuroses become your style, you’ve got it made. Everybody has a personality composed of neurotic patterns. I’ve given up thinking I’ve got to go through the eye of the needle and become psychologically sound. I’m always going to be a mess! At bottom, it’s uninteresting and unimportant. That’s part of the shift that occurs with spiritual practice. As things become less important, they become more available to change. In the early days, the context was so narrow for me — my personality was so real and I so closely identified with it — that it was very hard to change. As the context broadens, there’s less energy invested in my personality, and it becomes easier to change.

What is crucial (and achievable), therefore, is not getting rid of aspects of personality but changing how we relate to personality. And through this cognitive reframing, what was once disturbing can instead become idiosyncratic and interesting. As Ram Dass said of his neuroses now turned into Shmoos: “I see one coming along and I say, ‘Oh there you are again. I remember you. Tricky little thing, aren’t you?’”

I think this realisation can be helpful for many interested in spirituality, self-growth, and mental health. It can ensure one avoids disappointment in the face of the unrealistic scenario of eliminating a certain personal characteristic one dislikes. In Buddhism, it is taught to avoid different types of craving, one of which is the craving for non-becoming (which is the desire to get rid of something). Thus, Ram Dass’ neurosis-Shmoo connection is very much in keeping with Buddhist thought; it is a way of avoiding craving for non-becoming (known as vibhava tanha). This cognitive reframing, using in a sense our capacity for humour, helps to foster self-acceptance.

It is not a sign of personal stagnation or failure to still have neuroses making themselves known. As Ram Dass teaches, neuroses can be seen as part of our personal style. They are our strange (and humorous) inflections and expressions. Yet while they are part of our makeup, they don’t have to define us as people. They become large and frightening things when we identify with them and when we have an aversion towards them. Neuroses can become more impersonal — as well smaller, untroubling experiences — when we disidentify with them and invite them in, as Ram Dass observed in himself.

This has been personally helpful to me. I have been trying to more actively reorient what neuroses mean to me. Rather than see them — things like perfectionist tendencies and recurring worries and regrets — as massive problems that I need to get rid of, I can see them as little tricksterish thoughts. I can see these thoughts as separate entities, with their own agenda. And this is how things truly are if we engage in mindfulness meditation. Through this kind of introspection, where we simply observe (rather than cling to or reject) our experiences, we see thoughts arising (and passing) of their own accord. Thoughts, whether neurotic or otherwise, seem to arise out of nowhere, of their own volition (or without the influence of our own volition). The content of our thoughts appears uncontrollable as well.

Through Ram Dass’ kind of cognitive reframing, which we could call the Shmoo-ification of neuroses, thoughts no longer have to overwhelm and disturb us. They don’t have to consume us and control our moods and behaviours. As Ram Dass discovered, neuroses become just part of the passing show that is human experience: they are visitors who show up unannounced but who are completely unthreatening and friendly — if we choose to perceive them that way.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on April 4, 2024.



Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com