The New York Times Company
May 21, 2000, Sunday
The Dass Effect
By Sara Davidson
A full moon was rising on a windy winter night three years ago when Ram Dass was lying in bed in San Anselmo, Calif., trying to fix a book he was writing on aging and dying. He was 65, his hair had turned white and he had spent hundreds of hours working with people who were severely ill. He had completed a draft of the book, ”Still Here” (to be published by Riverhead this month), but on that same day in 1997, his editor, Amy Hertz, had sent the draft back to him. She said it was ”too glib — funny and interesting but not really getting to the heart of the matter.”
As he lay in bed, Ram Dass wrestled with how he might reach deeper and make growing old seem visceral and immediate rather than distant and speculative. He asked himself what people fear most about aging: being sick, mentally impaired, totally dependent, nodding in a wheelchair. He closed his eyes and tried to feel how it would be to have a body that was failing — legs that wouldn’t move when cued — and a mind that couldn’t recall simple facts, when the phone rang. He stood up to answer it and his legs gave out from under him. Hours later, he awoke in intensive care and found himself paralyzed from a stroke — an event that might be viewed as one of the more extreme examples of receiving what you need to complete your book.
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 techniques 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,” 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?”
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company