(Originally published in Alternative Therapies, 2001.)
I am always so grateful when somebody jumps into the water first, and then gives me a report on the temperature. Of course I sometimes have a little trouble believing the subsequent verbalization: “Come on in; the water’s fine.” I like to look for subtle nonverbal messages, like blue lips and convulsive shivering, before I take the plunge.
As has been his wont for the past three decades, Ram Dass has taken another plunge for us. I believe that this is his tenth book, in addition to innumerable workshops, lectures and articles. This time his report on the water temperature is somewhat conditional. That is, the water is fine, if viewed in the right framework. For Ram Dass, this framework is some amalgam of his Jewish roots and his far-ranging adventures in Hinduism, Buddhism, and entheogens, with a resultant conviction that the soul is eternal.
Historical Note: Ram Dass was known as Richard Alpert, Ph.D., bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young Harvard psychologist, back in the days when entheogens were called psychedelics. Just as the name for these compounds has evolved to reflect more explicitly the spiritual significance of the experiences they can engender, so did our young psychologist assume a name more in keeping with a spiritual view of life. His rather unbridled enthusiasm for psychedelics caused him to be excommunicated from academia, which freed him to follow a new spiritual path.
Writing Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying was a fairly logical next step for a man on this path, which stresses the suffering caused by attachment to impermanent things--especially for a man who was in the middle of his seventh decade of life. The original draft was nearly complete in February of 1997, and Ram Dass was struggling with a sense that something was missing, some sense of depth or grounding. Searching for what was missing, he tried to imagine himself as a very old and feeble man, perhaps 30 years older and in his nineties. What he was attempting to imagine suddenly became reality, as a massive stroke nearly killed him on the spot.
As he has struggled to survive and to recover from the stroke, Ram Dass got all the material he needed to finish the book with the depth of experience and insight he needed. This golf-playing, globe-trotting, life-loving mystic, who could expound extemporaneously for hours about the nature of God and the meaning of life, now gets pushed around in a wheelchair and works hard to utter a few sentences, with long silences between them. All of this becomes grist for the mill of psychological and spiritual growth, and distills out in Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying as wise insights and practical suggestions for those of us who consider ourselves to be aging and moving toward death, and also for those of us who imagine that such might just possibly be our situation at some distant point in the future. The gaps in his speech don’t show up in print, so the book reads with all the flow and flare of his earlier writings, and with the added depth of his living experience of profound disability.
I often hear the saying: “Growing old is not for sissies.” Ram Dass would probably agree. Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying can help anyone who feels within themselves a trace of sissihood to work actively on developing more courage. For Ram Dass the source of this courage is embedded in the concept and experience of grace. When asked whether he sees grace in his having a stroke, he answers in the affirmative, struggling to get out the words “fierce grace.”
Read this book if you dare.
Ignore this book if you dare.