Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. To remember the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who died last month at the age of 88, we are reprinting Inquiring Mind co-founder Wes Nisker’s interview with Ram Dass after he suffered a stroked in 1997. The article first appeared in the Fall 2000 “Impermanence” issue as “Interview with Ram Dass: A Stroke of Luck.” Be sure to check out related articles in the archive, such as Joseph Goldstein and Robert Thurman’s explorations of impermanence and scriptural quotations on impermanence, translated from their original Pali by Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!
When he is not out promoting his new book, Still Here (Riverhead, 2000), or appearing at conferences and beneﬁts, Ram Dass can usually be found at home these days. He lives in a modest house in Tiburon, California, where he likes to sit in a big overstuffed armchair and look out a picture window over the waters of the San Francisco Bay and nearby Marin County hills. He and Inquiring Mind editor Wes Nisker recently met there for a conversation.
Ram Dass (RD): I love my little cabin here overlooking the bay. I’ve always taken vacations near water, so it feels a little like I’m on vacation here. You can hear the cars passing on the road, which runs right beyond these bushes, but you can’t see the road. You look out at the bay, which is so calm, and then you hear the road, which is a river of mechanized humanity. So from my home, I can hear the river of humanity. And then at night, I see their lights across the water in Sausalito. It’s like being on vacation here.
Wes Nisker (WN): Does it seem as though your stroke helped to put you in vacation mode?
RD: Yes, and it is funny, because I see the stroke as a new chapter in the life of this body. It’s very interesting to me because it is so uniquely diﬀerent than the last chapter. In that chapter I spoke, and in this chapter I’m mostly silent. I have this new identity to explore, which is that of a wheelchair-bound person—someone “physically challenged,” or whatever we are called these days. I’m really exploring what it means not to have power. Remember, I can’t get out of bed or go to the toilet without somebody helping me. I used to drive a car, and I loved driving, but in my new identity, I’m always a passenger. Of course, there are certain advantages: as a chauﬀeured person, I can look around at the scenery because I don’t have to keep my mind on the road.
WN: Aren’t there times when you wish you had your old identity back?
WN: No? Do you really have that much acceptance?
RD: I’ve accepted the fact that one incarnation is over, and now I’m in a diﬀerent one. I still get a lot of invitations to play the old Ram Dass, but what I want to do most is just sit here and meditate.
WN: But you do go out to speak.
RD: Yes, I do that to practice karma yoga. And also because I want to bring people up to date on my dialogue with Maharaji [his guru, Neem Karoli Baba].
WN: The public appearances must give you a sense of purpose.
RD: Yes, but I could also serve society by just sitting quietly, which too few of us do.
WN: Just sitting in that chair you certainly aren’t causing any harm, not polluting or consuming.
RD: And I’m happy just sitting here watching the sun change positions. It goes down right there across the bay. Ohhh, the water reﬂecting the sunsets!
WN: Has your ability to meditate been aﬀected at all by the stroke?
RD: A little bit. But my main sadhana [means to completion or perfection] is not meditation so much as talking to Maharaji, which is like talking to my higher self—a conversation of the heart. Immediately after the stroke, I felt bereft. I felt as though Maharaji had forsaken me or had gone away. I thought, “How could he do this to me?” But very quickly I began to realize that this stroke is also part of his grace. The stroke allowed me to settle into silence. It turned out to be a gift in many ways.
WN: I can think of it as a gift in the sense that you weren’t suddenly ripped off the planet but instead were given the time to come to terms with this physical body and its inevitable fate.
RD: It certainly has given me a powerful new insight into this plane of existence. My stroke was also a gift to the people who love me or who have been touched by me over the years, because it has helped to open their hearts.
WN: Still, you have been trying to heal yourself and retrieve your old abilities to move around freely and to speak without hesitation.
RD: Right. A few months ago a woman in the Maharaji sangha sent me a message suggesting ways that I could get rid of the eﬀects of the stroke. She told me to build a shrine, which I did, and then to light a stick of incense and do a tantric Hanuman [a Hindu god] mantra. The mantra she gave me means something like, “Hanuman, you have been lax in your responsibility. Here I am, a devotee, and I’ve been invaded by this demon! This illness is a negative thing! Take it away from me now!” She told me to do this mantra with great faith, but by then I was already seeing the stroke as a gift. So it was a complete contradiction. I ﬁnally ﬁgured out that Maharaji wanted to give me this double message to show me where I was stuck, to reveal my deepest feelings. This is the kind of lesson that I love. It shows me the two sides of things. I soon came back to seeing the gift for what it was.
WN: I think it must be like many of us who understand the gift of growing older yet get caught in the desire to be younger again.
RD: Ah, yes. There was a little kid visiting here this morning, and I said, “Alexander, how old are you?” He said, “I’m ﬁve and a half.” Then he asked me, “How old are you?” I said, “I’m sixty-eight and a half.” As I said it I had to laugh. I realized that for him half a year was a big piece of his life, and for me it was a very small portion.
WN: Are there any other ways in which you can see your stroke as a gift?
RD: Well, I ﬁnd that I no longer need to impress people or be clever or profound or entertaining. My god, I can barely talk. I was recently appearing at a gathering in New York, and as I was getting up onto the stage I fell over. As I got up, my canes were slipping and falling all over. The audience was aghast. Meanwhile, I realized that I felt no embarrassment whatsoever. Another example of my newfound freedom occurred recently when I attended a healing circle for someone. I had been silent the entire evening until the woman who organized the event ﬁnally stood up and said, “I wish Ram Dass would say a word.” All eyes turned toward me, and I just said, “Boo!” [Laughter]
WN: So your stroke allows you to be more rascally and let out more of your trickster side.
RD: Age itself is a license for eccentricity. There’s not so much fear, because there’s no place to go, nothing to lose.
WN: You’re no longer building anything, such as a reputation.
RD: Yeah, and what a relief it is.
WN: Are you happy with your new book? [Still Here (Riverhead, 2000)]
RD: I really like this book. It’s the ﬁrst time I’ve ever liked a book before I published it.
WN: Do you think you might like this one because you are no longer worried about your reputation?
RD: [Laughter] Yes. You know, I started writing this book before my stroke, when I still had a reputation to uphold. It is very ironic that I was sitting in bed one day thinking I was really too young to be writing a book about aging, trying to fantasize about what it would really be like to be an old person. Then I got up out of bed, and my leg fell out from under me. I had just had a stroke. For weeks, I couldn’t quite believe it. People kept telling me that I had had a stroke, and I would think, “No. I’m just having old age.”
WN: An old-age attack! Hadn’t you actually put aside the book on aging because you thought you were too young to write it?
RD: Yes, and after the stroke I was able to write it quite easily.
WN: What is your favorite part of the book? Is there something you wrote that you think is totally fresh, a delicious new truth?
RD: In the chapter on dying, I explain that there are three main fears when confronting death. Some people are anxious about the pain of dying; others are afraid of the moment of death, fearing that it will be a horrible moment, like a bad acid trip; and some people are anxious about what happens after death.
WN: Which of the three do you fear the most?
RD: Oh, no question about it: the pain. On the other hand, I’ve had so much pain that it is starting to feel stale and almost boring.
WN: Well, I suppose that is a welcome message. If you have enough pain, you can get used to it. Thanks for letting us know.
RD: It’s the message that suﬀering is grace.
WN: How much has your meditation practice helped you in dealing with the pain?
RD: I have learned to be diplomatic about that question. Now I say that pain is a worthy adversary for my spiritual practices. [Laughter] But I don’t have any fear about what will happen after death.
WN: You’ll cross that bardo [in-between state] when you get there.
RD: There’s gonna be a bardo, but nobody to cross it. So why be frightened?
WN: So once again, the gift of the stroke is that you get to practice dying to a certain identity.
RD: Yes, and that’s what our meditation has been about all these years. We’ve been learning to die to our identities. In some strange way, I’ve already had some experience of dying to the particular identity I’m in now. I took care of my father when he was 90, and I used to wipe him, give him his pills, do all of those things for him. He had a little expression whenever we accomplished something—got a pill down or moved into a more comfortable position. He’d say, “There we are,” like a little statement of relief. Now I ﬁnd that I use the same phrase. “There we are.” I make similar gestures and even take some of the same pills that he had. So I’ve already dealt with this identity to some degree, through my father. Except he would never have seen the gift in having a stroke.
WN: So life is good for you now.
RD: Life is actually fun. That wasn’t something I could say back in my teens and twenties. I wasn’t having fun back then because I was so concerned about achieving something and always afraid of failing. I was also constantly worried about whether people were going to like me. Some of that had dissipated by the time I was 50, but the stroke has cut through the last vestiges of striving. Now I can just sit here and let consciousness play, enjoy the scenery and the visitors. My consciousness has withdrawn from worldly things and can now prepare for death. Thank god, I am no longer trying to have fun!