The doctors said the cerebral hemorrhage had been so massive that
he probably wouldn't survive. The news was passed from friend to friend:
"Ram Dass had a stroke. He can't move or speak and may not live."
I had not seen or thought about Ram Dass in many years, but the news
was jarring. This was the man who, as Richard Alpert, a professor
of psychology, was fired from Harvard in 1963 for experimenting with
psychedelic drugs with his colleague, Timothy Leary. This was the
man who traveled to India and was renamed Ram Dass, servant of God.
His book, "Be Here Now," about his transformation from a "neurotic
Jewish overachiever" to a white-robed yogi who had found inner
peace, sold two million copies, struck a chord with legions of baby
boomers and caused others to gnash their teeth, dismissing his ideas
as pretentious and silly. People who read the book remember where
they were when they first saw it or heard him speak. He was, above
all, a master at speaking, a brilliant teacher and hilarious raconteur
who could hold thousands rapt. That he couldn't speak, that he had
been silenced by illness, seemed a cruel and wrenching fate.
A week after the stroke, however, Ram Dass began to recover, and
he embarked on a long course of rehabilitation. Last fall, my friend
Kathy Goodman, an art dealer in New York, asked me to come with her
to see Ram Dass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. "He's
had a stroke," I said. "He can't speak well." She shrugged.
"Let's go anyway."
By 7 p.m., more than 1,500 people had crowded into the synod hall
of the cathedral. There was a sprinkling of young people with pierced
tongues and eyebrows, but the majority were 40 or older: stockbrokers,
editors, doctors, artists, teachers and record-company executives.
Many had been out of touch for years, and there was a sense of nostalgia
and poignancy, as at a reunion.
While people milled about the floor, Ram Dass was wheeled into the
hall through a back door. His face was flushed with color, and he
had pulled a jaunty baseball cap over his bald crown. He grasped the
handrail, hoisted himself jerkily up six steps and into a second wheelchair
placed on stage. The crowd rose and cheered. He motioned with his
left arm for them to sit. His right side was still paralyzed, and
his right arm hung like a bird's broken wing. "I want to say
something." He opened his mouth and stopped, then smiled. "I'm
. . . still here."
The crowd cheered again.
Ram Dass said the stroke had taught him to appreciate silence: "In
my head there's a dressing room where my concepts become clothed in
words. But that dressing room has been bombed out. I can have clear
thoughts but no words for them, so when I speak, you'll see, every
once in a while . . . silence." He invited the crowd to "play
in the silence" with him, and for the next three hours, when
he fell quiet, a peacefulness seemed to descend on the room as people
relaxed with him.
Ram Dass said that he had spent many years working with the dying,
sitting at their beds to help them face death without fear. "I'd
always projected deep thoughts and profound experiences onto these
people," he said. But when he suffered the stroke, "they
said I was dying, and I didn't have any profound spiritual thoughts.
I was looking at the pipes on the ceiling. And I'm Mr. Spiritual!"
The audience laughed. "What this showed me was: I still have
work to do."
I had last seen Ram Dass in 1973 when, after reading "Be Here
Now," I obtained an assignment to write a profile of him for
Esquire. The article was rejected -- the editors found Ram Dass's
ideas "incomprehensible" -- and although the article was
ultimately published in Ramparts, the left-leaning journal, I resolved
not to write further about this subject. Yet there I was at the Cathedral
of St. John the Divine, taking notes.
What had piqued my interest again was that in the 60's and 70's,
Ram Dass had been the man holding the lantern, marking the path, first
to mind expansion and rebellion and then to the East. He had thumbed
his nose at Harvard, given psilocybin to undergraduates and taken
the finest academic credential one could attain and let it go. Six
years later, in 1969, a portion of the senior class at Harvard walked
out on their graduation before receiving their diplomas in support
of a student strike protesting the university's policies.
After being dismissed from Harvard -- to the chagrin of his father,
George, who had been president of the New York, New Haven & Hartford
Railroad -- Alpert traveled through India until he met his guru, whom
he calls Maharajji. Alpert stayed with the guru for a year, returned
to America as Ram Dass and began giving talks about the spiritual
path. During the years when "Be Here Now" was circulating
among people I knew, it seemed that many were "on the path"
or seriously flirting with it. They were learning to sit on a meditation
cushion or becoming vegetarians and reading Sufi stories and running
to Chinatown for tai chi and to hear a lecture by R.D. Laing. As years
passed, though, they began eating meat again, working hard and raising
kids, and Ram Dass seemed to exist in a quaint side pocket.
During the 80's, when the country was caught up in a fever of accumulating
wealth, when walking out on your Harvard commencement would have been
seen as an act of lunacy, Ram Dass urged people to engage in selfless
service. I heard reports that he was working with the homeless, setting
up a hospice for dying people and helping to start the Seva Foundation
to treat the blind in third-world countries. He published six more
books, but for the most part, he was off the cultural radar screen
until the stroke.
He completed "Still Here" at the very moment when aging
and departure had become a growth subject. "Baby boomers are
getting old," Ram Dass says. "Mick Jagger is getting old.
I'm learning how to get old for them." In the book, he describes
growing old as an opportunity to reach for wisdom, contentment and
a deeper connection to the soul. He writes not from theory but from
the viewpoint of someone who is sitting in a wheelchair and needs
a caretaker to help him get out of bed, wash and shave, put on his
clothes and cut his food.
When I flew to San Francisco to meet with Ram Dass, I wondered, Hadn't
he struggled with bouts of rage, self-pity, frustration or despair?
He will never be able to play the cello again or drive his car or
hit a golf ball. He suffers continual pain, particularly in his right
arm, and also has high blood pressure, gout and apnea, which requires
him to sleep hooked up to a respiratory machine so that he won't stop
breathing. Hasn't he cried out, as the respirator beeps and blinks
through the night, Why did this happen?
To my surprise, he addressed these questions when he gave the keynote
talk at a conference on body and soul, organized by the Omega Institute,
a spiritual retreat center. In the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency
in San Francisco, Ram Dass told 2,000 people that after the stroke,
"everyone saw me as a victim of a terrible illness. But what
happened to my body was far less frightening than what happened to
my soul. The stroke wiped out my faith. It took me so far from my
guru that I felt my oxygen cord had been cut." Ram Dass's guru
died in 1973, but Ram Dass maintained through the years that he could
still feel his "closeness."
Ram Dass held up his left arm. "Over here, I have my guru. He's
compassionate, and he promised he would shower me with grace."
Ram Dass moved his hand to the other side of his body. "And here
I have a stroke." He sawed his hand from side to side. "Grace
. . . stroke. I couldn't put the two together. Then I thought, maybe
the stroke is a form of grace, and I hunted for that: how could the
stroke be seen as grace?" In the following months, he said, he
began to look at the effects of the stroke. He had become more humble
and more compassionate, he had been forced to slow down and he had
learned what it was to be dependent instead of being the one who helps.
"The stroke was giving me lessons, advanced lessons," he
said. "It brought me into my soul, and that's grace." He
dropped his left hand. "Fierce grace."
Later, sitting in his room with his caretaker and secretary, Ram
Dass said this was the first time he had "dared to speak publicly
about my loss of faith." He frowned, rubbing his left hand over
the stricken right arm. "My faith was that my guru was compassionate.
God is compassionate. And I had a stroke -- something that everyone
around me saw as bad: 'Poor Ram Dass."'
Marlene Roeder, who has been Ram Dass's secretary for 11 years, said,
"That's when you told us to remove Maharajji's picture from your
room." Ram Dass nodded and said, "Because when I looked
at the picture, it reminded me of what had been shattered."
It was Roeder and her friend Jo Anne Baughan who found Ram Dass on
the floor of his bedroom and camped out in the hospital while the
doctors were saying he wouldn't live. After a week, one doctor gave
Ram Dass a test to determine the extent of his aphasia -- the loss
of the power to access words. The doctor held up a pen. "What
do we call this?" Ram Dass said, "Pen." The doctor
pointed to his wristwatch, and Ram Dass said, "Watch." Then
the doctor held out his necktie. Ram Dass stared at it.
"What do we call this?"
"Shmatta," Ram Dass said.
Roeder and Baughan burst out laughing. Ram Dass had used the Yiddish
word, suggesting that the necktie was a cheap rag. The doctor looked
shocked and walked out of the room. "It was so outrageous and
so Ram Dass," Roeder said. "That was the moment we knew:
he's all there."
Ram Dass spent months in therapy -- physical, speech and aquatic
-- learning strategies to communicate and to re-enter the world. Friends
noticed a marked change in his personality after the stroke. The arrogance,
the edge, the judgmental waspishness he had sometimes displayed were
gone. Elizabeth Lesser, a cofounder of Omega, said: "He became
much sweeter and softer. As a friend, I felt very loved by him and
understood on a deep level." Dr. Andrew Weil, the advocate of
natural healing, said: "In the past, I was a little mistrustful;
I wasn't sure I believed him completely. Now, as a result of the stroke,
I feel he really does have something to teach us."
When Ram Dass was able to speak with his editor, his first words
were, "I see what you meant about the book being glib."
He said the stroke had given him "respect for the extreme suffering
and vulnerability that can come with age." In revising the book,
he wanted to show people how to use spiritual tools like meditation
and staying fully present in the moment to ease the suffering. If
people find their memories failing, for example, Ram Dass says, "It's
amazing how little of the past you need for a present moment."
Ram Dass had introduced many of the spiritual tools in "Be
Here Now" when he wrote about detaching from the ego and dwelling
in the soul. But "Be Here Now" was written in the flush
of discovery. "When I wrote that book, I thought I could blow
down the door with concepts," Ram Dass says. "In 'Still
Here,' I bow to the formidable . . . solidness of the door."
He laughs. "But my spiritual resources are also more formidable."
Despite the slow speech and poor word retrieval, Ram Dass still has
the power to amuse and fire a crowd. After he spoke at Omega, the
organizers wanted to whisk him out the back so he wouldn't be swamped,
but he pointed to the lobby. "I want to talk . . . people."
The crowd surrounded his wheelchair, kneeling to hug and thank him.
Ram Dass smiled and patted his heart. "Boy, oh, boy," he said. One
woman told him. "I work with stroke survivors, and I want to
bring them the inspiration you've given me." Ram Dass couldn't
speak now; tears started from his eyes. A man who was an insurance
salesman said, "Thank you for always being one step ahead."
Ram Dass laughed through the tears. "I'm a wheel ahead."
The next morning, I visited Ram Dass in his room after his caretaker
had dressed him in a brown sweater, tan slacks, rose-colored socks
and scuffed brown shoes. Ram Dass held up a plastic bag containing
medical marijuana. "This is why I could speak the way I did yesterday.
In California, the stroke is incredible grace because it gives me
a prescription to buy pot." He took out a joint that had been
rolled for him. "Pot takes away the pain and frees me from spasticity."
As he smoked, I watched the fingers of his right fist uncurl and the
hand relax. "And then there are side benefits." He laughed.
"It provides . . . perspective about the illness. The ego's view
is, 'Oh, I've had a stroke, this is horrible!' But the pot takes you
to the soul view which is. . . ." He pretended to look down from
a distance. "My, what an interesting occurrence.' The marijuana
gives me soul perspective. It makes the stroke livable."
I was somewhat startled to hear him speak this way because in his
lectures he had often told people that once they began to meditate,
they wouldn't need to use drugs to attain higher states of consciousness.
Ram Dass said he refuses to be held to anything he has said before.
In "Still Here," he quotes Gandhi as saying that only God
has access to absolute truth: "My understanding of truth can
change from day to day. And my commitment must be to truth rather
than to consistency."
He is careful not to smoke around other religious teachers "because
it's not spiritually correct." Deepak Chopra, the author of "How
to Know God," said in an interview that "recurrent use of
psychedelics is dangerous" and that it is possible to attain
the same shifts in awareness by "going into deep meditation."
Ram Dass said, "That's true." He held up the bag of marijuana.
"But pot works faster."
This shape-shifting and willingness to break ranks with colleagues
have long been trademarks of Ram Dass. He appears to be the spiritually
focused, grace-imbued survivor of a stroke and then, as if with a
turn of the prism, he is the inveterate tripper. "I'm a mixed
message," he said.
After the conference on body and soul, he was driven across the Bay
Bridge to Berkeley for a friend's party. His caretaker helped him
out of the car and set up the walker so Ram Dass could negotiate,
painfully slowly, the two steps up to the front door.
Jerry Brown, the mayor of Oakland who was formerly governor of California
and also a Jesuit seminarian, headed straight for Ram Dass. "I
saw you in the 60's in San Francisco," Brown said. "You
were Richard Alpert, and you held up a little blue pill and said,
'With this pill, you can have a vision of Jesus Christ!"'
Ram Dass laughed. "Did I say that?"
"I don't think I made it up," the mayor responded. "I
asked, 'Where do you get that pill,' and you said, 'Mexico."'
Ram Dass wagged a finger at Brown. "If you'd taken it, you would
be a different person today."
Ram Dass spoke about the pull he feels toward silence and contemplation.
"Talking keeps you in your mind," Ram Dass said. "Silence
is the royal road to God. Silence prepares you for death."
Yet Ram Dass has committed himself to a hectic schedule of speeches.
In March, he flew to New York for a conference on the art of dying,
sponsored by Tibet House and the Open Center. Robert Thurman, the
pre-eminent Tibetan scholar who knew Alpert at Harvard and whose wife,
Nena, was formerly married to Timothy Leary, introduced Ram Dass as
"our astronaut, our psychonaut, who went first." Later,
Thurman said that in the 60's, "Leary was leading people toward
doom. Ram Dass found a more responsible way to encourage people to
go on vision quests. He also pushed them into service so they weren't
being self-indulgent. That was crucial."
Ram Dass spoke at the conference about the need to make dying a "sacred
ritual" and to create environments where people can prepare for
death with caretakers "who are not afraid and are not pretending
that it's not happening." He showed a film taken of him and Timothy
Leary shortly before Leary died of prostate cancer. Leary looks gaunt
and ashen, yet his eyes still hold an impish mad glint. Sitting on
cushions, Leary says, "When I knew I was dying and wanted to
do it actively and creatively, I called Ram Dass because I knew he'd
understand." Leary had planned that after his death, his brain
would be frozen and the rest of his body would be placed in a space
capsule that would orbit the earth.
Ram Dass, filmed the year before his stroke, wears a lavender shirt
and sits cross-legged beside Leary. "If you see death as the
moment when you engage the deepest mystery of the universe, then you
prepare for that moment," Ram Dass says. "That's what the
Eastern traditions are about -- preparing you so that you'll be open,
curious, equanimous, not clinging to the past. You'll just be present,
moment by moment."
He turns to Leary with a grin and hugs him. "It's been a hell
of a dance, hasn't it?"