Stroked by the Guru
"What is your relationship to
the mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you making love to
it? Are you living in it?."
An interview with
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, 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 Jay Brown
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 find a way in myself to experience that fantasy
because I was writing a book about conscious aging, and since I was only
sixty-five, I thought I was too young to write the book. A friend of mine
called from New York and said I sounded sick. While I fantasized about
being old, I hadnít 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 had 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 that they were looking at me as an old manóI still
donít remember anything more that happened except for 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 that I was enjoying this fantasy of being an old man and
wasnít really sick at all.
David: How has your stroke changed your body physically
Ram Dass: It damaged my brain in such a way that Iím
unable to move my right arm and leg. The whole right side of my body is
pretty much numb at the skin, but there is plenty of pain. The stroke has
also affected my ability to speak. I have difficulty expressing concepts.
The dressing room for conceptsówhere I dress them in wordsóhas been harmed
by the stroke. I have the concepts but no 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. Itís the
guruís grace, and his blessing is the stroke. Before the stroke I enjoyed
playing golf, driving my MG sports car, playing my cello. Now I canít do
any of those things. I canít do, do, do all the time.
The way I approach what happened is that with the stroke began 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 when I compare incarnationsóif 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.
Iíve learned that silence is good. I knew that before but Iíve learned
it thoroughly now. Iíve learned about helping. In my life before I was a
ďhelper,Ē and serving was power. Now I am helpless. Instead of my book How
Can I Help? now I can have a book called How Can you Help Me? From the
point 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.
Thatís powerlessness. But Iíve 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
Ram Dass: Itís gotten me deeper into karma yoga. This is
my karma, and it is also my yoga. I think that itís 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
peopleóthrough my books, tapes, or lectures. I was an identification
figure for them, an the stroke shook them. They couldnít figure out why a
person with such spiritual naches could suffer a stroke. 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 and much more than my books,
tapes or anything else.
David: How has medical marijuana been helpful to you?
Ram Dass: It has helped me quiet down the spasticity and
the pain. Itís also given me a perspective toward the stroke thatís
spiritual. I havenít found many doctors who understand that medical
marijuana is good for people who have had strokes, although there are data
that show it has been good for stroke victims, because itís good for brain
function. Iíve had to fight my way against doctors to use medical
David: Have you had any psychedelic experiences since
Ram Dass: Sure.
David: Have they been any different from the experiences
you had prior to the stroke?
Ram Dass: No, they were not particularly different. But I
think that psychedelic experiences helped me gain perspective. They helped
me escape from the perspective of minds around meóthe healers who are
focused on the body. I needed to use a psychedelic to focus on the spirit.
David: What do you think happens to conscienceless 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 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 youíd like to add?
Ram Dass: I think that itís increased my humanness. Itís
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 Iím not pushing
away these things. Iím making friends with my body. The stroke taught me
honor those planes of consciousness which include the physical. Since my
stroke, some of my friends say theyíve found me human, and that I was
never human before. They mean Iím inhabiting my ego. Now they can find me
as an individual, whereas before they could only find me as a soul.