2016-06-30
This article first appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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?

Ram Dass:

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?

Ram Dass:

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?

Ram Dass:

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.

David: How has your stroke affected your spiritual outlook?

Ram Dass:

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. The stroke shook them. 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.

David: How has medical marijuana been of help to you?

Ram Dass:

It has helped me to quiet down the spasticity and the pain. It's also given me a perspective toward 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 is data that it is good for stroke victims, because it's good for brain function. I've had to fight to use medical marijuana.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after the death of the physical body?

Ram Dass:

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.

David: Is there anything else about how your stroke affected you that you'd like to add?

Ram Dass:

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 those 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 more human, and that I was never as 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.



David Jay Brown is the author of "Brainchild," and co-author of "Mavericks of the Mind" and "Voices from the Edge" His new science fiction novel, "Virus: The Alien Strain," was recently published by New Falcon. For more information about David's work, check out: www.levity.com/mavericks.


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