Ben Sinclair Gets Spiritual
The actor and writer examined — and smelled — himself with a community of seekers in Hawaii.
By Shane O’Neill
Ben Sinclair was on a houseboat in the Rockaways section of Queens shooting an episode of “High Maintenance” — the HBO show he starred in and helped create — when he found a copy of “Be Here Now,” the 1971 book that sold millions of copies and helped introduce Eastern spiritual ideas to the American counterculture.
He opened the book to a page with an illustration of its author, Ram Dass, whose beard and balding pate resembled his own features. “Oh wow, that’s me,” Mr. Sinclair remembered thinking.
That chance sighting of his doppelgänger in 2018 sent Mr. Sinclair, who recently starred in the romantic thriller “Spin Me Round,” on a path that brought him to Maui, Hawaii, where he spent several weeks with the spiritual community that surrounded Mr. Dass at the end of his life in 2019 and continues to follow his teachings today.
The Maui trip was, in part, research for a potential TV project, but Mr. Sinclair’s appreciation for Mr. Dass and his followers runs deeper than just professional curiosity. Since he arrived on Maui, he said, he has felt his spiritual practices deepen. “I’m starting to have conversations with God that I never had before in my life,” he said, clarifying that the concept of “God” could include nature, deities or any number of other higher powers.
If that sounds precious or woo, Mr. Sinclair is unconcerned. “I’m starting to feel that cynicism is no longer cool and that it’s OK to be earnest,” he said as he ate avocado and egg toast during a video call in Mr. Dass’s former office.
Mr. Sinclair opened up his camera roll and shared seven photos taken over the course of seven days while living in Maui this summer. Here’s what he had to say about the trip.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I smell so bad right now. It’s like a kick in the face. I haven’t worn deodorant in a couple years. It’s a charade: They never work, and the ones that do work have aluminum in them or whatever. The first month that I stopped, it was really bad. I was working with Martha Stewart on “High Maintenance” one episode and I smelled so bad. I was like, “Oh, man, Martha has to endure my smell right now. We have to get through this together.” There was part of me that just loved that. I trust smell, and I want people to know I’m around.
That’s a quote from the writer Dr. Robert Svoboda. The man who showed me that quote, his name is Carl Golembeski. He’s a sound engineer, and he does these big jobs — like for Beyoncé — then comes back and lives in a tiny house on the property. We get real stoned and then we play with music. One day he was walking on the beach and he recorded this woman who was just singing to the ocean in Hawaiian. At that moment we were taking her voice and putting it through all these filters and turning it into an entirely different sound.
That’s Carl holding a salad I made from my partner Jess Damuck’s cookbook “Salad Freak.” Everyone gets a turn to cook at the house, and I signed up to cook a salad-only dinner. This particular salad is little gem with toasted hazelnuts, creamy lemon dressing and flowers. Carl is wearing one of several blue jumpsuits from Big Bud Press in Highland Park that I brought as gifts to the Hanuman Maui house.
That’s a place on Mount Haleakala called Polipoli, and it’s a big spot to watch the sunset. This was a birthday for Pavan Dass, one of the people who was around when Ram Dass died. It’s a multigenerational community here. You have people in their early 20s and then there are the folks who were into “Be Here Now” in the 1970s, in their 50s and up. This is a place where people trying to start their lives and people who are near the end their lives come together. I actually think it’s a pretty good model for retirement. I’d rather have a bunch of interesting 23-year-olds living on my property helping me die rather than be in some hotel where some clinical aide is just humoring me. I would like to make a show that shows that this is possible.
My friend Jenji Kohan came to visit, so that’s us doing a homeless run, going around giving food and clothes out. The food is stuff that doesn’t spoil too easily: hard boiled eggs and string cheese, stuff like that. The housing crisis here in Hawaii is really bad. There’s a homeless encampment right on the water, and it’s a paradox: There’s a lot of people living together in a small space under sheets, but it’s really beautiful, too. Just going out and doing things and being kind in the name of a higher power seems very attractive to me right now.
This is Ram Dass’s office. I can’t deny it, there’s a palpable energy in here. It feels good. That’s a portrait of Ram Dass, that’s his chair that he sat in. We leave it empty, but when I’m being a rascal I sit in it. Right behind him on the tapestry, that’s the guru Neem Karoli Baba. They call him Maharaji, which means “beloved king.” He’s literally everywhere. On every surface there is a picture of Maharaji.
It’s funny being inside of an American spiritual community that holds Hindu deities like Hanuman and Ram. That is real for them. They latched onto this Jewish American gay spiritual teacher and have found, through him, a path to service as embodied in this Hindu monkey God named Hanuman. Multiple times a day they get together and they light incense and play the harmonium and chant this verse-poem to him. I’m actually starting to know all of the words. I’m going through something here, too. It’s pretty amazing, actually.