DisPatches, Summer 2000
Ram Dass surfs the silence
Four men hefted his wheelchair up onto the low stage.
Ram Dass sat silent for a minute, right hand immobile in his lap, looking out at the people filling Olney Hall.
He cleared his throat, seemed about to speak. Seemed to think better of it. Stroked his moustache with his left hand. Two minutes.
A few people stirred uneasily. Most were motionless, mesmerized or reverential or high on anticipation. Or worried. They'd heard that his stroke had affected his speech.
He raised a finger. Lowered it. Adjusted the microphone. Three minutes.
It seemed like ten.
When at last he spoke, there were occasional missing words, but no lack of soaring ideas, touching on pre- and post-stroke attitudes, theology, aphasia, the benefits of silence, grace, dependence, humanness, the three "I"s (ego/soul/God) and The Secret of The Moment. Whew.
"I'm a rent-a-mouth," smiled Ram Dass. "You have rented my mouth to tell you what you already know. That's pretty bizarre, isn't it?"
Some three hundred of his friends, admirers and disciples got the joke. Ram Dass's lecture, like his latest book, was entitled "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying." Part of Stroke Awareness Month, the lecture was sponsored on May 6 at College of Marin by Disabled Students Programs and Services and a newly-founded stroke support group called Keeping Hope Alive.
"It's in the silence that we can meet as souls," said Ram Dass, who provided many silent opportunities to do so in his three hour visit. "It's like we're sitting around the fire by a cave."
The former Dr. Richard Alpert, who with Harvard colleague Dr. Timothy Leary was a pioneer in hallucinogenic research in the early 1960s, received the name Ram Dass ("Servant of God") from his guru while on pilgrimage in India in 1967. His books include the million-seller Be Here Now, and his Hanuman Foundation has founded the Prison Ashram Project and the Dying Project, spiritual support structures. A large part of his teaching has focused on service as a spiritual path.
Since his stroke in 1997, much of Ram Dass's time and energy have gone into rehabilitation therapy, and he's tried every therapy he could find.
"I've had shamans work over me," he grinned. "Two shamans. I've had a Chinese acupuncturist, and I have a Feldenkrais person. Oxygenated in hyperbaric tanks -- I did that in Beverly Hills, and it was really far out. Speech therapy. Physical therapy. Medical marijuana. Dean Ornish's diet."
Ram Dass gives the impression that he might work hard at his therapy, but that he's not likely to take it, or himself, too seriously.
"A friend said to me, 'Since your stroke, you've been more human.'" Ram Dass chuckled. "That's a strange thing to say to a 'Holy Man.'"
The stroke has, certainly, affected his speech. The once-loquacious teacher now sometimes struggles with "word retrieval -- and I can't tell you what a good thing that is. Isn't that funny? But actually, when there's a silence, I'm sort of looking for a word for the first five minutes. But then I shift gears and I surf the silence. The stroke and aging are bringing me down to silence, so I can hear. So I can hear."
Ram Dass admonished his followers, "Don't practice waiting" during the silences. "That's not a good thing to do."
Someone asked him later what he meant by that.
"A lot of people, when I'm silent up here, are waiting," he replied, "because that's what their mind is doing -- waiting. Silly thing. That was a moment when you could have been finding God. 'Why weren't you finding God?' 'I was waiting.'"
Ram Dass didn't hesitate to address the major issues.
"Here's the way the stroke was grace for me," he said. "I'm going to die. I don't know about you, but I'm going to die. And I would like to be ready to die. And that means that perhaps aging is a readiness to die."
He quoted his guru, Neem Karoli Baba: "'Suffering brings me closer to God.' Your ego has all these wants. Your soul has only one want. It wants to get to merge with The Lover. Merge with The One. All this stuff is to get free to go to The Beloved. And age is getting free."
A stroke is "learning for the soul," said Ram Dass, but he didn't sugar-coat the difficulties.
"Pre-stroke, I was a golfer," he said. "I was a cellist. I drove sports cars with a stick shift. If I start to compare that time span with this time span, I would be suffering right there. If I say to myself, 'I'm an ex-golfer...' I get in the car, and I used to be a driver.Yet I don't sit there feeling sorry for myself for not being the driver. And I don't hate the driver. Chauffeured people can look out the window. Now that sure is grace."
He also recalled, with a rueful grin, flying airplanes.
"I wasn't a good pilot," he said. "I wasn't the kind of pilot I would like to be in the air with. But now I can be a good passenger."
Ram Dass recalled a book on which he collaborated several years ago, entitled How Can I Help?
"Now that's funny," he said, "because now, from when I wake up until I go to bed, I'm saying, 'Can you help me?' And I always had grace with 'How can I help?' I was graceful. But I don't think I'm graceful yet with 'How can you help me?'"
He made a difficult admission:
"The people who do help me, I resent," he said somberly. "Sure. This culture has a thing for independence, and I've now come to dependence. And this culture doesn't have any good things to say about dependence."
He quoted a Buddhist saying:
"Prolong not the past. Invite not the future. Alter not your innate wakefulness. Don't fear appearances. There is nothing more than this."
Ram Dass was very open to questions and comments. Many of them came from other stroke survivors, including a woman who had a stroke in the Himalayas. She lost her powers of speech for a long time, but felt that she wouldn't trade her stroke for anything, because it was a Godsend that brought her closer to her soul.
"You're giving me such strength," murmured Ram Dass earnestly.
There was a prolonged and charming exchange with a woman who, since her stroke two years ago, cannot control her crying. At first, Ram Dass politely shrugged her off.
"I'll tell you, I've had crying all the time now," he said. "I mean, all the time."
"But how do you turn it off?" she persisted through her tears, voice choking.
"I don't turn it off," he said. "Crying is such a trip."
"I know it's a great release," she admitted, "but I don't like to do it. I want my dignity."
"I see you as dignified," he said, and the audience applauded its agreement.
"You said, 'Forget the past,'" she continued. "But I don't want to forget the past. It helps me."
"But in your past," he probed, "you didn't cry?"
"I did!" she said, and the audience laughed heartily. "I did cry!"
"Ah!" said Ram Dass. "You're a crier!"
"I cried when they took out my old refrigerator," she said, laughing herself now. "But my husband doesn't like it."
"Is he here?"
"No." More laughter. "But he's wonderful."
"If he's wonderful, he'll appreciate your crying."
"He does." Lots more laughter, but she tried to get serious again. "You cry now?"
"I do," he said.
"But you haven't cried all day," she said shrewdly. "I like to talk, but I don't like to cry."
"This 'liking' and 'disliking' is where your problem is," said Ram Dass, also serious now. "Not your crying."
"I will take into my heart what you have said," she replied. "And I thank you."
Most of the questions were proper chela (pupil) questions, and Ram Dass gave proper guru answers. A small sample:
How can I be compassionate when I'm angry? "When you look at anger, you will find judgment. Give up judgment, and then you will have clear compassion."
Why are we born in a world with such distractions? "Distractions are like sandpaper."
How is it possible to be motivated in life with no preferences or judgments? "One has preferences, but one doesn't identify with one's preferences. You're wearing a red shirt. Do you think of yourself as wearing a red shirt now? It's not your identity. The thing is not to identify with preferences, not don't have preferences. I think it's a very sticky point."
Will our consciousness be the same after we die? "That doesn't happen. You can't take your ego with you. Your ego is like a program that only works for this incarnation."
How does one deal with the dichotomy of desiring desirelessness? "It's just another moment. You might eat, meditate, walk. They're all parts of the here and now. When you sit and stir a pot and contemplate things, you're living in the world. If you're not stirring the pot, you're still living in the world. The world is always somewhat in my thoughts, and I don't want to live in my thoughts, so that's why I do meditate."
"Can we really live in every moment?" asked the last questioner. "And still be in physical form?"
"Yes," said Ram Dass. "Yes. Yes. Yes."
The questioner persisted: "Then is the best way to achieve that by just living in the moment?"
"Yes," said Ram Dass. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes."
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