Ram Dass' books--"Be Here Now," "The Only Dance There Is," and "Journey of Awakening," among others--and lectures have been an inspiration to many people. He is responsible for turning on many people in the West to Eastern religious ideas. 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.
When I was in high school, I carried around a copy of "Be Here Now" everywhere I went. It had a huge influence on how I formed my spiritual perspective. I was very sad when I discovered that Ram Dass had had a stroke in February of 1997.
I interviewed him last spring to find out how the stroke had affected his outlook on life. During the interview, he had trouble finding words. There were a lot of long pauses, but I could tell that his mind and spirit were essentially unchanged. Behind the difficulty with communication was the same old Ram Dass, and I found him more inspirational than ever.
David: 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 65, I thought 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 they were looking at me as an old man--I still didn't realize about the stroke. I 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.
David: How has your stroke changed you 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, although 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.
David: 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 my 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?" 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.