American spiritual teacher Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert in 1931 to well-to-do New England parents. As a professor of psychology at Harvard University in the early 1960s, he researched the use of psychedelic drugs, collaborating with fellow psychologists Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner. Four years after being dismissed from Harvard in 1963 due to the controversial nature of his work, Alpert traveled to India and met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba — known affectionately as Maharaj-ji — who gave him the name Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.” Ram Dass’s training in various spiritual practices in India inspired him to write his seminal book Be Here Now, in which he articulates Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Published in 1971, it became something of an instruction manual for generations of countercultural seekers and has since sold more than 1 million copies. In 1997 Ram Dass suffered a near-fatal stroke that left one side of his body paralyzed and limited his ability to speak. He says of the experience that he’s been “stroked by grace.” He continues to teach via webcasts and retreats in his home state of Hawaii. The following is from Still Here, by Ram Dass, copyright © 2000 by Ram Dass. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
Although my outward life has been radically altered, I don’t see myself as a stroke victim. I see myself as a Soul who’s watching “him” experience the aftermath of this cerebral hemorrhage. Having accepted my predicament, I’m much happier than I was before. This troubles some of the people around me. They have told me that I should fight to walk again, but I don’t know if I want to walk. I’m sitting — that’s where I am. I’m peaceful like this and I am grateful to the people who care for me. Why is this wrong? Though I can now stand and move around with a walker, I’ve grown to love my wheelchair (I call it my “swan boat”) and being wheeled about by people who care. They carry Chinese emperors and Indian maharajas on palanquins; in other cultures, it’s a symbol of honor and power to be carried and wheeled. I don’t believe it’s all-important to be what our culture calls “optimal.”
Before the stroke I wrote a great deal about the terrible things that can happen in aging, and how to cope with them. Now I’m happy to say that, having gone through what some would view as the worst, it’s not so bad after all.
Getting old isn’t easy for a lot of us. Neither is living; neither is dying. We struggle against the inevitable, and we all suffer because of it. We have to find another way to look at the whole process of being born, growing old, changing, and dying, some kind of perspective that might allow us to deal with what we perceive as big obstacles without having to be dragged through the drama. It really helps to understand that we have something — that we are something — which is unchangeable, beautiful, completely aware, and continues no matter what. Knowing this doesn’t solve everything . . . and I’ve still had my share of suffering. But the perspective of the soul can help a lot with the little things. . . .
Recently, a friend said to me, “You’re more human since the stroke than you were before.” This touched me profoundly. What a gift the stroke has given me, to finally learn that I don’t have to renounce my humanity in order to be spiritual — that I can be both witness and participant, both eternal spirit and aging body. The stroke has given me a new perspective to share about aging, a perspective that says, “Don’t be a wise elder; be an incarnation of wisdom.” That changes the whole nature of the game. That’s not just a new role; it’s a new state of being. It’s the real thing. At nearly seventy, surrounded by people who care for and love me, I’m still learning to be here now.