Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying
Riverhead Books, 2000
206 pp.; $22.22 (cloth)
With Still Here, Ram Dass has written what is arguably his best book since his countercultural best-sellerBe Here Now. He calls himself and “advance scout” and his scouting has not plumbed the depths of illness, aging, and pain, as well as the joys and fears of death and dying.
Imagining that at sixty-five he was still really too young to write believably about aging—despite long years spent working with Stephen and Ondrea Levine in counseling the dying and in giving workshops nationwide on “conscious aging” –he decided to lie in bed and simulate being ill, decrepit, and very old-aged. Maybe it would help in rewrite his book. But what he got, he says, was a major gift from his guru. “I was trying to feel my way into oldness. I was thoroughly enjoying this fantasy when the phone rang. In the process of my fantasy I’d noticed that my leg seems to have fallen asleep. As I got up to answer the phone, my leg gave way under me and I fell to the floor. In my mind, the dall was still part of my ‘old man fantasy.’ I didn’t realize that my lef was no longer working because I’d had a stroke.”
Physically, he progressively lost use of his right leg, his elbow, his arm. He also lost the capacity to speak. But in a way, he says, this loss was, ironically, the biggest blessing. While he could conceive of things, he couldn’t find words to clothe the concepts, “like the clothing place was burned out, bombed,” he said. Instead, he found wisdom in silence.
When asked to describe where his mind was when it was supposedly not working, Ram Dass describes something akin to the Buddhist description of pure perception prior to conceptual framework-preconceptual thought. It might also be called primordial wisdom, the state of mind one strives for with intense meditation; non-thought, from the ego’s point of view, and vast-thought, from a larger perspective. And the silence allowed him and those around him the space to really hear and see.
One could accuse Ram Dass of perennially looking on the bright side. Granted, this is also how one might describe an LSD trip. Yet in his book, Ram Dass grounds this kind of thinking in the real dilemmas of finding wisdom in sickness, aging, and dying within a culture that finds them all of no value and locates worth only in health, high-speed soundbites, and youth.
In Still Here, Ram Dass outlines the dislocations that come with age—among them loss of status, power, recognition, achievement, bodily movement, sexuality, and energy—and underscores the opportunities for spiritual development that come with each such profound change in life. He also points to the transformative possibilities—If viewed in the right way—in loneliness, grieving for lost loves, depression, physical frailty, disability, or dependency, and from one’s limited times pan called the future.
Since most of us will one day walk the path he speaks of, we might as well learn how to travel it in an enlightened psycho-spiritual way. In other words, it behooves us to be here now with the spiritual practice of illness and aging. Ram Dass even gives this a metaphoric name in a chapter entitled “Stroke Yoga,” an elaborarion of working more itently with the age-old emotions of fear, pain, hope, and the ever-present time frame of the here and now.
And dying is a similar matter, though in this case, it will be the fate of one hundred percent of us. In what is likely his best chapter, “Learning to Die,” Ram Dass recites the litany o[ modern-day lore on dying well. Hospice is good. Fill out a living will. Use spiritual practice to prepare for that primordial state of mind inherent in conscious dying.
Yet he also adds to this body of good-death knowledge by focusing more than anyone else on the spiritual side of caregiving. Rather than view the act of caring for someone who is ill or dying as only one of service and compassion, Ram Dass sees it as a gift, an opportunity to be present in what he calls Soul Consciousness. It is not just the dying person whose mind is expanded at the edges of life, but the timeless, heightened quality of sitting at the bedside also allows others into that state of mind. And indeed, since we will all one day be at one or another place at this bed, there is the possibility during caregiving to touch on this soul-to-soul communication and to use it to prepare for one’s own death. Again, the wisdom comes in just being with the dying and in allowing the spaciousness of the silence.
Being present at the death of another is also perhaps the most profound opportunity to experience that person’s wisest self. And in expanding on this, with a nod to Dr. Kevorkian, Ram Dass makes what is likely his sharpest political statement: the right to choose our own moment of death and how we want to die.
“Without in any way diminishing the complex issues involved in the right-to-die debate,” he writes, “there seems to me a fundamental oversight at its center: namely, the wisdom of the dying person, and her or his ability to make conscious choices. Except in cases where people are too ill to think clearly, or have been rendered insensible by pain, it is my experience that dying people are quite dependable regarding the state of their bodies and minds, and their own wishes. To deprive them of the right to die when and how they choose is to strip them of this wisdom and rendcr it irrelevant.”
Indeed, he claims that this right is, in fact, embedded in spiritual traditions, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. “In Tibet,” he says, “old lamas historically have invited people to attend the dropping of their bodies, because they have accepted that their time has come. At the appointed hour, the lama turns around three times, sits in meditation, and stops the hean and the breath. Is this a suicide? An immoral act? Or simply knowing when the moment is ripe? It’s up to the individual to decide, not the government.”
Conscious dying, in its larger spiritual, near-death, or hallucinogenic dimensions, is what Ram Dass’s closest comrade and friend Timothy Leary tried to do. In various ways, it is the final journey that much of this generation is now aiming toward. But in Still Here, Ram Dass gives a window into something more:conscious illness. In fact, it might even be better to call disability a gift of our modern time.
At the turn of this century, modern medicine now allows us to expect an additional twenty-seven years of life over what was expected at the turn of the last one. Yet those last years will largely be spent with some kind of difficulty or decline. We can moan about it. Or we can use the failing states of our bodies to expand our minds.
“What changed through the stroke was my attachment to the ego,” Ram Dass concludes. “The stroke was unbearable to the ego, and so it pushed me into the soul level also, because when you ‘bear the unbearable,’ something within you dies. My identity flipped over and I said, ‘So that’s who I am—I’m a Soul!’ I ended up where looking at the world from the Soul level is my ordinary, everyday state—not an occasional experience, with psychedelics or for some other rcason, but my everyday reality. And that’s grace. That’s almost the definition of grace. And so that’s why, although from the Ego’s perspective the stroke is not much fun, from the Soul’s perspective it’s been a great leaming opportunity.” Luckily for all of us, Ram Dass is still here.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.