Renewal article at JTA
A shawl of a different color

Ram Dass, still here

Last week no fewer than three people recommended that I read a book by Ram Dass, called Still Here. I found it for sale at a used-books store, so I picked it up. It's a quick read, and a fascinating one.

Ram Dass (the name means "servant of God") was born Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Newton. Educated at Tufts and Wesleyan, he became a professor at Harvard, alongside his buddy Timothy Leary. Both he and Leary were ousted from the university for their experimentation with psilocybin. Eventually Dass spent some time in India, at which point he became a disciple of the guru Maharajji and an ardent practitioner of meditation and yoga. (His Wikipedia entry is pretty comprehensive, especially in conjunction with some of the interviews linked at the bottom of the page.) He's probably best known for Be Here Now, to which Still Here is a kind of sequel. Still Here seeks to transform the process of aging "with the fears, losses, and uncertainties that come with it from a necessary evil into an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth."

"The images our culture generates are designed to make you feel that aging is a kind of failure; that somehow God made a big mistake," he notes wryly. "In a culture where information is prized over wisdom, old people become obsolete, like yesterday's computers. " Still Here explores questions of physicality, aging, and death. For me, the most relevant and interesting part of the book is section eight, which is titled "Stroke Yoga."

Dass was in the process of writing this book when he had a severe stroke. He had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, with only a ten percent chance of survival. Afterwards, he began his "new post-stroke life" in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed, requiring round-the-clock care.

After any major physical "insult," as they call it, it's all to easy to see yourself as a collection of symptoms rather than as a total human being, including your spirit -- and thus to become your illness. Fear is powerful and contagious, and at first I allowed myself to catch it, worried that if I didn't do what the doctors ordered, I'd be sorry. But now I'm learning to take my healing into my own hands. Healing is not the same as curing, after all; healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God.

Of course, a stroke isn't identical to aging. (For my part, I'm still barely on the cusp of 32, strokes notwithstanding.) But illness raises some of the same fears for me that aging does, and I suspect I'm not alone there. Ram Dass admits that he had been prone to those same fears, and that moving through his stroke (which he compares to a powerful set of rapids on a river -- not the final set of rapids, but pretty intense nonetheless) has changed him for the better.

"The stroke happened to me for many different reasons," he writes, "inclding karmic and spiritual ones. But on the physical level, one of the reasons for the stroke was that I had been ignoring my  body." He had ignored his blood pressure medication, and various doctors' suggestions, and had over-committed himself instead of saying "no" to obligations from time to time. (Note to self: get better at saying "no." And work out tonight.)

He describes how he came to combine Ramana Maharshi's meditation "I am not my body" (considering each body part and then affirming that one is not merely that physical thing) with a new practice of accepting and embracing the extent to which he is his body, and is in his body. Dass' stroke impacted most of his body, causing lasting pain, so he writes about his practice of meeting the pain through mindfulness meditation. (Reading that makes me feel grateful that my own medical issues have been painless, and very minor in comparison with his.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me is where he talks about his response to his condition, a response he has cultivated with careful intention. He writes:

Many of my doctors have been curious about me. They were curious about the fact that I wasn't reacting the way they expected me to. One doctor said to me, "How can you be happy when you've had a stroke?" I said, "Because my Awareness is on another plane." My Awareness isn't material; it isn't part of the brain. Thoughts are in the brain, but Awareness isn't. That didn't seem to mean much to the doctor, but it was what was making all the difference to me.

My own strokes are much more minor than his was, and I'm far from being the kind of spiritual adept that Ram Dass is. But this passage still rings some bells for me.

Some of what Dass says is foreign to me. His writing about the devotional practice of allowing a guru to guide one's life makes me a little bit uncomfortable. (That's clearly something he's aware of. This interview acknowledges the danger of the power-tripping guru, and contains a line that helps me: "The guru is a door-frame. You don't worship the door-frame, you're trying to go through the door.") Similarly, I'm not sure how I feel about his choice to perceive his stroke as a kind of consciousness-raising gift from his guru Maharajji.

But much of what he writes about ego, mindfulness, the need to become aware of the stories we tell ourselves (and to relinquish excessive attachment both to the past and to the future) resonates for me. And as we continue working with doctors to figure out what caused my strokes and how to prevent them from recurring, I'll have Ram Dass in mind, as someone who navigated far choppier waters than these with a surprising amount of grace.

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