Ram Dass’s books and lectures have been an inspiration to many people. Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert, Harvard professor and longtime friend of Timothy Leary’s) is responsible for turning on many in the West to Eastern religious ideas and is the author of such spiritual classics as Be Here Now; The Only Dance There Is; and Journey of Awakening. He created the Hanuman Foundation to spread spiritually directed social action in the West and co-founded the Seva Foundation, an international service organization working on public health and social justice issues, which has made major progress in combating blindness in India and Nepal.
Ram Dass had a stroke in February of 1997. I interviewed him on April 7, 1999, to find out how the stroke had affected his outlook on life. During the interview he had trouble finding words, and there were a lot of long pauses, but I could tell that his mind and spirit were essentially unchanged. Despite the difficulty with communication it was the same old Ram Dass, and I found him more inspirational than ever. —David Jay Brown
What do you remember from your stroke? I was lying in bed fantasizing that I was an old man. I was trying to a find a way in myself to experience that fantasy because I was writing a book about conscious aging, and since I was only sixty-five, I thought that I was too young to write the book. A friend of mine called from New Mexico and said that I sounded sick. While I’d been fantasizing about being old, I hadn’t noticed that I was having a stroke. So he called my secretaries, who lived nearby, and told them that he thought something was wrong with me. My secretaries came right over.
By then I had gotten out of bed and was lying on the floor. I had this weak leg, which I figured I would have as an old man. My secretaries looked at me and then called 911. The next thing I knew, I was looking up into the faces of these young firemen. I just thought that they were looking at me as an old man—I still don’t remember anything more that happened except being wheeled on the gurney in the hospital. Friends, nurses, and doctors all came in with concerned looks on their faces, because they were told I was dying. But I just thought I was enjoying this fantasy of being an old man and wasn’t really sick at all.
How has your stroke changed your body physically and mentally? It damaged my brain in such a way that I’m unable to move my right arm and leg. The whole right side of my body is pretty much numb at the skin, but there is plenty of pain. The stroke also affected my ability to speak. I have difficulty expressing concepts. The dressing room for concepts—where I dress them in words—has been harmed by the stroke. I have the concepts but I don’t have the words to play with.
What have you learned from your stroke? One of the things my guru said is that when he suffers, it brings him closer to God. I have found this, too. The stroke is benevolent because the suffering is bringing me closer to God. It’s the guru’s grace, and his blessing is the stroke. Before the stroke, I enjoyed playing golf, driving my MG sports car, playing my cello. Now I can’t do any of those things. I can’t do, do, do all the time.
The way I approach what happened is that with the stroke I began a new incarnation. In the last incarnation I was a golfer, a sports car driver, a musician. Now I have given all that up. The psychological suffering only comes if I compare incarnations—if I say, oh, I used to be able to play the cello. So I say my guru has stroked me, to bring me closer to a spiritual domain.
I’ve learned that silence is good. I knew that before, but I’ve learned it thoroughly now. I’ve learned about helping. In my life before the stroke, I was a “helper,” and serving was power. Now I am powerless. Instead of my book How Can I Help?, now I can have a book called How Can You Help Me? From the point in the morning when I wake up, I need help: Going to the bathroom, eating, going anywhere, I need to ask for help from those around me. That’s powerlessness. But I’ve learned that even that role can be played with compassion, so that my helpers and I can serve each other.
How has your stroke affected your spiritual outlook? It’s gotten me deeper into karma yoga. This is my karma, and it is also my yoga. I think that it’s taught me more about how suffering is a stepping-stone toward a spiritual goal. My stroke has also affected people. I was a spiritual friend for many, many people—through my books, tapes, or lectures. I was an identification figure for them, and the stroke shook them. They couldn’t figure out why a person with such spiritual naches could suffer a stroke. It undermined the feeling that only good comes to those who are good. I wanted to open the hearts of people, and my stroke did this much more than my books, tapes, or anything else.
How has medical marijuana been of help to you? It has helped me to quiet down the spasticity and the pain. It’s also given me a perspective towards the stroke that’s spiritual. I haven’t found too many doctors who understand that medical marijuana is good for people who have had strokes, although there are data that show it is good for stroke victims, because it’s good for brain function. I’ve had to fight my way against doctors to use medical marijuana.
Have you had any psychedelic experiences since your stroke? Sure.
Have they been any different from experiences you had prior to the stroke? No, they were not particularly different. But I think that psychedelic experiences helped me gain perspective. They helped me escape from the perspective of the minds that are around me—the healers who are focused on the body. I needed to use a psychedelic to focus on the spirit.
What do you think happens to consciousness after the death of the physical body? I think it jumps into a body of some kind, on some plane of existence, and it goes on doing that until its identity is with God. In the Buddhist sense, it jumps into form until it merges into formlessness. From a Hindu point of view, consciousness keeps going through reincarnations, which are learning experiences for the soul.
Is there anything else about how your stroke affected you that you’d like to add? I think it’s increased my humanness. It’s a strange thing to say, but when I started out my spiritual journey I was a psychologist, and I was busy being an ego. Then I got into my spiritual nature. I was a soul, and pushed away my ego and body. Now I am not pushing away these things. I’m making friends with my body. The stroke taught me to honor those planes of consciousness which include the physical. Since my stroke, some of my friends say they’ve found me human, and that I was never human before. They mean I’m inhabiting my ego. Now they can find me as an individual, whereas before they could only find me as a soul.
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