For me, Ram Dass has long been a beloved friend, and as for so many others, a wonderful spiritual mentor. He has served as a bridge between ancient and modern worlds, between East and West, between spirituality and psychology. Throughout his own journey he has been relentlessly open and honest—no one ever has to wonder if Ram Dass makes mistakes, because he can hardly wait to announce them. He has also been an avid experimenter, willing to try new experiences and practices and never hesitating to question old wisdom or barbeque sacred cows. With Ram Dass, his life is his message: He has counseled the dying and distressed, offered his services to numerous causes, written books such as How Can I Help? and cofounded service organizations such as Hanuman and Seva.
Ram Dass’s stroke in February 1997 sent shock waves through my heart and that of the world’s spiritual community. Initially completely paralyzed on one side and quite unable to speak, he has since made a difficult but steady recovery. Not surprisingly, he has used the stroke, like everything else in his life, as grist for the mill, and in doing so offers us yet another gift, as the following conversation makes clear. This discussion took place on Ram Dass’s sun porch at his home in San Anselmo and was joined by Inquiring Mind editor Wes Nisker. —Roger Walsh
Ram Dass: What do you want to know about? (Laughter)
Roger Walsh: Well, how about telling us what it’s like being in a body that doesn’t work so well.
Wes Nisker: We could all chime in on that one.
RW: Yes, I have here with me a back support for my painful back and a thermos of nutrient mixture for my stomach. (Laughter)
WN: As we age, our conversations become filled with a litany of aches and pains. Somebody said that when older people get together they begin with an “organ recital.” (Laughter) The question is whether people who have done a lot of spiritual practices will handle the process of aging and sickness differently than, say, our parents who just relied on their homespun wisdom of, “Well, that’s life.”
RD: As the stroke has come upon me, I have been aware of a number of choice points. I either take a spiritual tack, or I become completely identified with my body. And all around me, people are seeing me as my body, partly because of the fact that people who treat the body are the ones who gather around you when you become sick. (Laughter) It’s peculiar.
But there are different ways of seeing what has happened. I had to confront the fact that even though my guru, Maharaji, loves me, this stroke still occurred. But then, he just looks at me and says, “What do you see? What is this thing that is suffering?” He says, “Suffering is grace.” So this is my special rootie-toot, spiritual take on my stroke, as opposed to the I-am-body take.
Sharon Siskin. Finale (detail, partial installation view). Found papers, drawn wings, cotton sewing thread. Dimensions variable. 1996-1998. Used by permission.
RW: How do you bring the spiritual take and the body take together without doing a spiritual bypass? That seems like a real challenge.
RD: I figure that Maharaji is on top of the mountain and can see further than I can, so his metaphor must be superior to mine. You have to realize that I have projected into him the deepest part of myself. For me, he’s the personification of the deepest wisdom. Sometimes, to make it work, I have to see my guru as the joker or the coyote or trickster. You also realize that I’m only talking to my guru in my head. He died, you know. (Laughter)
WN: So there is no contradiction between your stroke and the fact that Maharaji is looking out for you.
RD: That’s right.
RW: So effectively, that perspective allows you to hold the stroke as a teaching.
RD: Yes. I like to say, “Your karma is your dharma.” I don’t know who first said that line, but it’s a good one. In other words, the stuff of my life is the guru’s teaching. So I’m playing a soul game with him, and down on the chessboard are our lives.
RW: For myself, I find that to be an optimal perspective. As the Tibetans would say, the world is the activity of the lama, and it is all here for teaching purposes if we are willing to use it in that way. The challenge, of course, is to hold that view in the midst of suffering, which I do with varying degrees of success. I find it much easier when everything is going my way. I’d be interested to know what the sticky points are for you. Where and how do you lose that optimal perspective?
RD: Well, in short, this illness introduced me to pain, intense physical pain, and I can now see what physical pain can do to a perspective.
RW: Yes, it does seem as though physical pain is THE big one. Buddhist psychology says that the mind “wilts” in the face of chronic, overwhelming pain.
RD: Right. “Wilts” is a perfect word for it. The mind can’t hold any space, any mindfulness.
WN: Are there other sticking points for you? How about a desire to be your old self?
RD: No. I determined at the beginning of this trip that holding on to the past incarnation is sure grounds for suffering. I realize that my car has a gear shift, my cello has a bow, my golf clubs need two hands, and any desire on my part to drive or play as I used to would be an invitation to misery. It would be like going around wishing I had wings like a bird. (Laughter)
I have to realize that I’m a new person. For instance—Ahh! Yes, here’s a good one—just last year, last incarnation, I was getting social power by helping people. I cowrote the book, How Can I Help? for instance, and I was getting a lot of honor and regard for being a helper. Since my stroke I am “help-less.” (Laughs) If I want to go to the bathroom, stand up, or do anything that requires two hands, I have to call my caretakers. If I’m in bed and the shade is down too low, I’ve got to call somebody. Just three years ago I was taking care of my father, and now people are taking care of me. Now I’m just like my father. (Laughs)
RW: So you’ve had this very dramatic switch in roles from being one of the country’s best-recognized helpers to needing help yourself. What have you learned about the act of helping from your new perspective? What really helps?
RD: I realize that the contract between the helpee and the helper is between two beings, and that the helping can go either way. I have also learned how invasive the psychological strategy of the helper can be to the person being helped.
RW: What makes it psychologically invasive?
RD: A helper is trying to appear good, okay? So somehow, I become somebody that needs to have good done to him.
RW: So to the extent that helpers are locked into a specific image of themselves, they require the people they’re with to fall into specific, complementary roles, and this can be invasive to the person being helped.
RW: I’m so glad that I am not locked into being kind to you. (Laughter)
RD: It’s also a matter of the helper having his or her own agenda, his or her own timing. My helper may be concerned about my heartbeat and assume that I am as well. But maybe it’s at breakfast, and I really don’t want to be concerned about my heartbeat right then. Or if the helper tries to make you feel good or cheer you up, oh boy, that can be hell. (Laughter)
RW: So in order to be a skillful helper, it helps to release any attachment to outcome, recognition or playing a particular fixed role.
RD: The helper has to give up the role of helper and just be there.
RW: You’ve talked about the helper, but what about the other side of it? What have you learned about being a “helpee,” because we are all going to be in that role at some stage, unless we die suddenly. I would imagine that all of us have a lot of barriers to being helped.
RD: That’s right. And getting to those barriers in yourself is hard work. It’s THE work for me. In my previous incarnation as helper, I hated to catch myself using another person. It offended my ethic. But now, when I go to the toilet, I can’t wipe myself, so I have to call one of my caretakers. Now that’s using someone. (Laughter)
WN: How can you be a good helpee in that situation?
RD: Well, you can go up-level, meaning you are a soul watching this drama, and that pulls your identification out of the drama. Another strategy is to take the role full on and play it well.
RW: So you’re saying to really play out the role of needing help. That sounds like a kind of judo maneuver.
RD: It is. (Laughs) And a good helpee can be very helpful. When somebody comes in and massages me, I can be the perfect massagee. “Ooh it hurts, it feels good, ooh, ah, eee!” It’s not exactly an act, but I’m fulfilling the role.
RW: You’re playing it out consciously or choicefully.
RD: When I realize that karma is dharma, then I want to get the full teaching juice from this situation. I’m not going to get dharmic teaching from this incarnation by staying in the witness, outside of it all.
RW: That’s very helpful to me. I’m thinking of the ways that I resist playing certain roles, and by refusing them I may be missing some important teachings. What you are saying is that one way through our resistance to any role is to really play it flat-out. Particularly in the early stages of my spiritual practice, I often thought that practice led to a distancing from the emotions and juice of life, but it can also foster more complete immersion in life.
RD: You got it right there. I have always been such a purist. I was trained just to push away attachments and roles. That’s why I always went away to the cave to meditate. I would learn how to separate the witness from the impulsive person, believing that to be the quickest way to God.
RW: You learned how to distance yourself from your personal karma. Do you now feel a new shift in your perspective?
RD: One of my dear friends said to me, “Ram Dass, you’ve become so human since the stroke.”
RW: (Laughter) What an insult!
RD: It was a compliment, of course.
RW: Ken Wilber writes of ascending paths and descending paths. The ascending path is the ascetic withdrawal from the world, purely witnessing, not involved. The descending path is immersion in the world, where our karma can teach us what we need to learn. It sounds like what you’re talking about is a marriage of the two paths.
RD: That’s right. And if you only use the ascending path to distance yourself, you won’t get the full depth of the teachings.
RW: Perhaps it is useful to think of going through cycles, of sometimes being more on one path, and at other times more on the other. We withdraw to develop the capacity to witness, and then come back to immerse ourselves. That is also a recurrent theme across spiritual traditions—a cycle of withdrawal and return. But I think what you are saying—and it is a valuable point—is that if you get too lost in the withdrawal or too immersed in the drama, that’s when you get in trouble.
RW: I remember asking you about how meditation was for you after your stroke, and you said it was hard for you, that concentration was difficult.
RD: Well, there are two difficulties. The main one is my body and the pain involved. There is pain in this knee, and then in this ankle, and then in this shoulder, which is separated. My body feels as though it is divided in half, with different feelings on the two sides. And my mind is constantly going through the organ recital. So, yes, meditation has become very difficult. The other problem is that my living circumstances are not suited to practice. Most of the people around me aren’t practicing. Oh yes, and a third thing—I used to love sitting cross-legged in the great stable seat of meditation. I could just get into the posture and let go. But I can’t sit cross-legged any more.
WN: You said earlier that the stroke had introduced you to intense pain. Are you able to bring your mindfulness practice to the pain and create some space and ease around it?
RD: It works to a limited degree when I am able to use breath as my primary object. For instance, I have a mask that I wear at night that is attached to a machine that gives me extra air. It’s for sleep apnea—in case you stop breathing. If I go to sleep without my mask, I will be consumed by pains—pains in all my joints, stomach pains, urinary pains, pains, pains, pains—okay? (Laughs) But if I put my mask on, I will be able to focus on my breath (mimics deep breathing) and can forget all the pains. This thing captures my attention so much that when my caretakers come to wake me they look like Martians. (Laughs) I’m going to tell the sleep doctor how this mask helps me meditate. They probably never considered that side effect.
But when it comes to ordinary mindfulness, I’m sorry to have to report that this stroke has been too strong for my meditation training.
RW: That rings true. One of the most humbling aspects of meditation practice for me is to realize that I’m a fair-weather yogi. When things go wrong, and particularly when I get sick, it’s very humbling to watch my concentration and delightful mental factors wilt.
Nonetheless, in Zen they talk about joriki, meaning meditation power. Over years of practice one accumulates a certain spiritual power or stored-up energy, kind of like a battery. Perhaps you have brought a lot of joriki into this stroke situation. It may have helped to carry you though.
RD: Is joriki the same as faith? Because my relation to my guru bridges no lack of faith, and if that’s a part of joriki, then I’ve got some of it.
RW: One of the things I take away from the conversations we’ve had over the last year is that under real stress, such as the stroke you’ve been through, practice allows you to make skillful use of whatever comes up. My guess is that’s what joriki does, that the more joriki one has, the more one is able to bring a meditative perspective and intention to whatever life throws at you.
RD: You are talking about karma yoga. This illness makes me a karma yogi.
RW: Right. And maybe one of the most important functions of the meditation practice is to prepare us to be better karma yogis. And except for those people in caves, we are all going to be karma yogis at some time or other.
RD: Even the cave will make you into one. You’ve got to sweep up occasionally. (Laughter) So even though we may not always be able to do formal meditation practice, we can always do karma yoga.
Even though it was unintentional and therefore probably doesn’t count as karma yoga, my stroke has had a positive effect on other people. Many have vicariously lived my life—through my talks, books and tapes—and a number of people say that my stroke has opened their hearts. They felt my vulnerability.
RW: And by karma yoga you don’t mean just running around the world trying to feed the hungry and so forth. It’s a much bigger concept than that. Karma yoga encompasses any role in which we find ourselves. For instance, I remember coming to visit you and seeing you sitting out here on the porch. You said that before, you never really allowed yourself the time just to sit around and feel the wind on your face and how exquisite that is. That’s a wonderful use of adversity.
RD: Ah, the grace of suffering.