Monday, March 22, 1999

AGING AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT” WITH RAM DASS: SERVANT OF GOD

AGING AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT” WITH RAM DASS: SERVANT OF GOD
at the First Church of Religious Science, Oakland Hills, Spring Equinox, 1999




A Tibetan bowl rings in the silence of the day: pulsation of sound resonates midpoint between the ears, that primal space we call the mind/brain-ego, where Ram Dass’ blood betrayed him with genetics of age. A “stroke of genius” in February, ‘97, left him paralyzed, without language, just as he was rewriting a book: “Conscious Aging.” Roses and fire lilies on the proscenium, the altar.

They wheel him in up the ramp. What was I expecting? A shell of a man? Non-presence? A Stephen Hawkins style imprisonment? Stroke or no, this man, spiritual teacher of a generation, is fully present, shedding light. A pink camellia, heart-open, on his denim jacket. His right hand strapped down to the arm of the wheelchair.

This is the second lecture of the day for the former Harvard psychologist, the first gathering was also standing room only. Ram Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert, burst onto the national psyche in 1963 when he and Timothy Leary were fired from Harvard for taking LSD; he traveled extensively to India and beyond in search of a drug-free enlightenment, where he became a disciple of Indian guru, Neem Karoli Baba. In 1971, he penned his experiences and insight on meditation and East-West mysticism in the landmark book, “Be Here Now.”



Last time I saw the 68-year-old self-styled counter-culture guru, Baba Ram Dass, was presiding at a sold-out Timothy Leary benefit at College of Marin in the early ’70s; we literally sprawled at his feet on the gym floor and there he swayed creaked like a young redwood sapling in the storm, why do I merely recall the mundane proximity of his white sneakers? 

Memory dusts off and replays a tape unused a quarter of a century: Alan Ginsburg chants, his lover, Peter Orlofsky sings a dirty ditty; Alan’s sitar whining about altered states. 

A mantra gathers us in, like the hearth. Whether he was there or in prison or on the lam from a LSD-related event, former Harvard co-professor Timothy Leary was present. We chant: “God Bless Timothy Leary.” At the end of the talk, Ram Dass hugs us: an impromptu Be Here Now-in with Ken Kesey’s busload of Merry Pranksters illegally parked in the loaded zone, collecting cosmic fares in the galleries of the soul… But then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Marin was that kind of place: dharma bums and Diggers.

This time we’re better dressed (and heeled, from the look of it), prettily sitting in church pews. Aging Baby Boomers, we spontaneously rise: a standing wave of welcome surges through the church as they wheel him in. Richard Alpert is still ineffably Ram Dass, as I remember him. 

The Reverend Joan Steadman reads off his curriculum vita: Impatient, we watch her mouth slow words like “psychologist” and “sociologist.” She adds to the list: a Ph.D. in human motivation and development, from Weslyan; teacher at Harvard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley; expanded consciousness and LSD. The packed audience perks up. Ram Dass smiles, nods knowingly. (We’ve all been there.) The audience laughs knowingly. Speaking of Be Here Now; how many of us found this event via the grapevine? We overhear some blue-haired church patrons ask: “Who is this Ram Dass anyway?” Odd bedfellows, we.

The Reverend continues, “He was dismissed from Harvard—a blessing.” Utterly delighted (for there’s no other way to describe the radiance emanating from his face), Ram Dass slaps his good left hand to his knee; we crack up. 

She lists more stats: He went to India… mentions gurus. Ram Dass means “Servant of God… Mentions his lifelong seva, the Hanuman Foundation: the Dying Project, the Prison Ashram Project, the SEVA Foundation. She gets down to the wire: “in February of ’97 he was ‘stroked.’” Coining Ram Dass’ own etymology, she explains speech aphasia, and introduces the remains of the day (for we’ve crashed the gates of this church en masse): spiritual dimensions of suffering and aging. Service as a spiritual path.

From his chrome-wheeled chariot-throne, he surveys us: his loyal subjects. Sets the tone with a moment of silence: we lean toward him, not knowing what to expect. The roots of cognizance? or Babel-speak… 

Eloquent Ram Dass, once one of the most sought after speakers on the New Age circuit, observes us to see if we’re up to snuff. The internet becomes the day’s topical metaphor by which to surf this event that ranges from the physics of the stroke and doctor-gods, and being caught between incarnations, to the metaphysics of the sanctum of the inner journey…

“The ground rules of speech…” He haltingly searches for a bridge in the neuron pathways so that his words may migrate to our nascent ears. “Because of the aphasia (a silence follows)… That’s it! The sickness… Every time I search for the word… because it’s… The damage is close to the dressing room for me. I dress them in words. Inside (he points to his head),… Inside I know what to say, but… 

(A series of false starts; we begin our job as active listeners by filling in the connective tissue of language. He is patiently waiting for us, his errant spiritual children to get it! I make good use of parentheses and ellipses because translation of synapses into synopses is less interesting than the unexpurgated poetics of aphasia, and resist the temptation to polish his speech; this writing documents how he must struggle to convey an idea with a minimum of words.)

“Now that… those silences… I make use of them… The first part of the silence, say… five minutes or so (he exaggerates and shrugs as if apologetically, then instructs us on how to listen, really listen), I look for the word… And you can look for the word too! I’m looking for an interaction. People. Their word is as good as mine…I start to surf the silences on the outside, it gets me high because I’m surfing the silence. It surfs in and in and in. I get to the crux of me, and I get to the silent self. (He is extraordinarily present, razor-honed. I can hear the structure and craft the paragraph and punctuation in his slow speech; I’m able to enscribe what he says, almost verbatim.)

“We are each so many selves. In ‘I,’ what does ‘I’ mean? I-ego? I-soul? I-God? So, when you look at somebody… I can look at all of you… it’s a redundancy as far as God: god god god god (he repeats, pointing to each of us: mirror-images). It’s interesting looking out at another person. You look at me, I’m in a wheelchair, I’m a wheelchair-er! (We giggle at the verbing.) And you have reactions to that. That’s my role. 

Then, there is Ram Dass. Yech! Ooooh! (we snortle with laughter) Ahhhhh,” he says, looking up beseechingly. His good left hand is laden with puns, it orchestrates a subtext of linguistic imagery from God-like inspiration to stick shifts. In the ensuing silence that follows, I surf the idea of dexter-sinister: how the church fathers delegated the left hand to be the Devil’s own domain. It seems God too, is a Merry Prankster.

(As if on cue, a man goes behind the piano to turn a light on for Ram Dass, who, in a sudden rush of language, synchronously fits the task into his talk, smiles and points upward). “The light comes up in me, And then, there’s ‘soul’ here, and there is ultimate wisdom, there is God. (He repeats this, enthroned against a bejeweled field of stained glass, for, as if on cue, the sun blazons from behind a cloud.). 

But when you say to somebody, ‘You are you,’ you’re not recognizing God, because you’re recognizing their ego. Although… imagine what would be if somebody says: you are God… talking to God (laughs)… I’m in the position where I’m talking to God about the spirit. Isn’t that silly? (We join in on the cosmic joke.) Because the essence of what we are, you can say it as well as I, because we are all that essence (he laughs again, pauses a moment to shift gears).

“My brother is…is…mentally… no, that’s not the word… is an essence being. He keeps saying, ‘I’m Christ’ about himself. We met in his hospital room. There was his psychiatrist, wearing white, with a clipboard (at the risk of sounding redundant, we giggle at the slightest pretext. Ram Dass is a consummate “sit-down” comedian, inherently funny as he expressively pontificates with his eyebrows and good dexter hand… ).

My brother, in a blue suit and necktie… I was just back from India in a ‘malfi’ (sic), a potato sack, a… a dress, long hair, beard, beads. And my brother and I were reflecting if the psychiatrist would ever think he was God! (General laughter.) My brother said, ‘I don’t understand. Look at how conservatively I dress, and you… they let YOU out of here! They won’t let me out!’ I’ll tell you what the reason is, you have an attitude: you think you’re Christ. He said, ‘I AM Christ!’ No, you don’t understand. That’s why they put you away… Everybody, yeah, yeah. (Silence…

He ticks off his fingers, as if mentally counting the elapsing silence.) When you come in contact with nurses and doctors about my condition: they ARE God, who’s coming down to heal me; their minds are… They see me as a stroke victim… Their minds are a tough terrain to live with. I was at the hospital and one… and all around me was this thick quality of me being my body. I was a stroke victim. And I was a soul. And I was dealing with souls. Now, it isn’t… It’s much easier to… This institution, there are souls here, but it’s your business, your hospital: souls don’t go there. They treated me, they wondered why I was happy with a stroke. And I was happy because I’m a soul, a soul looking at my ego, my body—all the things that keep me functioning on this plane. So I say…

“The way I sense it, I think you all sense it this way, is that I was a soul and I have taken this incarnation with appearance with intellect, with my body… This body is like my MG; ahh, that’s a car! (We chortle. Earlier, he developed a driving metaphor with his stick-shift hand, now imprisoned in a black brace.) I don’t identify with the, this vehicle and I don’t identify with the software that runs this vehicle, which is the ego (he uncrosses his gangly left leg, the right is but a post, or pillar). And that keeps me happy. Happy. (I surf a while on Meher Baba: Don’t worry, be Happy!) They (the doctors) were wondering why I was happy. The soul looks at the incarnation and there are lessons in the incarnation, lessons which bring the soul to God. You have an incarnation, I have an incarnation, you are a soul experiencing an incarnation; what lesson does your incarnation give you? Mine are giving me fantastic lessons. Getting stroked.

“Basic lesson, a lesson from after the stroke. I had my guru in there. He’s dead, I guess… (strokes his forehead) but he’s a confident of me, so he was there. And so I said: ‘Majaraj-ji, you’ve only given me grace.’ Life is grace-full. Then I was given the stroke. SO I said, ‘What about the stroke?’ (Ticks off his fingers, one by one.) He says, ‘Don’t you see that that’s grace?’ And I took a look at, um… a perceptual shift. Stroke/Grace. Stroke/grace-stroke/grace. He gave a clue. He was a…hmmmff…he was visually… There was a girl, a woman who was very, very sorry for herself. She said, ‘Oh Majaraj-ji, I’ve so much suffering!’ with that (whining) tone in her voice. He said, ‘I see suffering as a way to God…’ Suffering is… sh…hmm…you suffer because of your attachments. Tsk, tsk, tsk. (Muffled sniggers.)

“So it’s good to see your attachments, it’s good to see your attachments. So I had an attachment to my golf, my cello, my MG, and all those things which don’t work now. Had an attachment to a healthy body…and I let that go…Aaach! What’s this… (he rev’s up the engine) when I, when I, when I, was… Ah? Hm! The stroke was to demark between the last incarnation and this incarnation…

“In the last incarnation I’d written a book, ‘How Can I Help?’ So I was getting my kick for being a ‘helper.’ ‘I’ll Help you!’ Yea-ah! I’m sure you’ve all been there. That’s a power role in this society. It’s funny, now that I’m stroked, now, it’s ‘How can you help me?’ (Prolonged laughter.) And I notice how many helpers help their attitudes:… ‘I want to be a compassionate being, so I’m helping you’ or ‘I’m in “helping” role.’ That’s a good one. But I see now that this help goes both ways… Because I have a caseload of therapists… I’m telling you, they need work! (Belly laughter and thunderous applause.) 

I’ve written a book on consciousness and aging for the Baby Boomers (we titter), because, well, I wrote that when I was 50-55 and I was hoping… I was giving MY opinion about aging, but that manuscript had fear in it because there is fear when you’re thinking of facing death, and facing old age. There was fear in it… I had to list all the things I was afraid of and one of them was ‘stroke,’ and I can tell you how the fear of the stroke was much more damaging than the stroke (sparse applause). Just like the fear of death is…is… hmm? (Laughter, he breathes deep, unconsciously, we follow suit; conspiracy literally means: to breathe together.)

“Aging is a no-no in this culture. It’s surprising, this culture… the ultimate in culture… this culture focuses on youth. I was in India, my other home, and I was with a friend of mine, an Indian friend and he said, ‘Ram Dass, you look so old!’ In this culture, that is a red flag in front of a bull, a red flag, a red flag! He was complimenting me, he was of a different culture. He was saying, ‘You’ve made it!’ And I came back and got off the plane in New York, and in New York, the, um, the old folks are frightened, they are frightened because the culture goes so fast. And I was standing at a crosswalk, and a woman in the 80’s, she was looking to cross the street, and she was so bewildered, and the cars, and the people behind her were getting… (he sucks his breath in) um. It wasn’t her culture, her own culture. She wasn’t owning it… like ah… computers! We old folks, tsk, tsk, tsk. Interesting phenomenon.

“There’s a woman that I know, she’s in Connecticut and she’s computer literate. And she’s older than I am, and she holds class for her neighbors who are shut-ins, around her age. I keep a sign over my computer: ‘You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.’ But there is a fastness in our culture, there is a ‘thing-ness,’ because our culture is… um, a material culture. It’s things we are, our senses: eye, ear, and ‘things.’ We get them and then they are… (He strokes the red tablecloth in studied silence.)

“See? Now there’s an opportunity to surf! But here’s a way of surfing: silence. The silence outside takes you into the silence inside, and you are silent. (He touches his head, godlike.) You’re… The final ‘I’ is silent awareness. Like when you say, I listened. This silent awareness goes over to your ear, but silent awareness is the essence of what we are. So silence, external silence, surf. (Smacks his lips.)

“You can get into silence when you want it. Like, I was… ah-um… coming from Los Angeles yesterday in a car (where he gave another talk; ‘another is scheduled for the east coast, and that’s it for the year,’ a spokesman said). And the driver wants to listen to his tapes. In front of me was a picture of Ramana Maharshi (who advocated silence). He was silent. He lived in southern India. He would speak to more than this number of people (indicating us)… On the stage he was silent… and he was… And after, each person said their heart’s questions were answered (Ram Dass’ hand raised in beatific pose.) And so I sat in the car. Ramana Maharshi has magnificent eyes. I looked into his eyes and we were together in silence. And all of the car was tapes, tapes, tapes. There was a… There was some of them. They were…hmmm. I didn’t make believe they weren’t there. I stayed open to them. Boy, they were… well, rhythm, I guess… I was responding to the tapes but Ramana Maharshi and I were silent. And I can go to, huh, noisy places and still enjoy the silence by thinking that all the sounds come out of the silence.

“Now this speech (he makes his lips trill: bwerm, bwerm) is coming out of the silence. we meet in the silence. We’re fascinated with the (bwerm, bwerm), we’re absolutely fascinated by it (holds his palms up). Hmmm. (Orchestrated silence within the silence: his hands speak volumes as we surf.)

“So I was working on this book, which is a funny thing, partly because of this silence, I can’t read, I can’t spell, I can’t write… great to work on a book! It’s funny, this book, in this books of the past, I’ve written and read them, the manuscripts, that’s the craft of writing and this one is read to me. Their attitudes determine my outlook towards the book. ‘This is strange.’ One of my speech therapists… this book (points to the tabletop) I went into the dying issue for… (draws a circle on it) twelve years, hanging around people who were dying. If you have a chance, do that, work with the dying, the most spiritual practice you can have. Singing and dut da dah! And when I finished with ‘dying,’ my next topic was aging. OOH! (Guffaws. He crosses his leg, faded jeans bespoke another, more active lifetime.)

“In aging, you never find aging people in ads…unless (titters)…there’s going to Hawaii, hearing aids (ticking off his fingers). In our society, age, there’s a sex difference: the women don’t have a very good deal in our society (he claps hand to thigh); men can look powerful… You got that message, right? Real loud.

‘A funny thing: I was giving a speech at Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Beverly Hills, my audience was the patrons of Sak’s, er, wealthy patrons. They were the … um (twitches his fingers impatiently) whatsit? The Laprareé (sp?) set. The skin thing, that makes you look young… so I guess what they had me in for was… I was … (snickering) atoned to the choice. I talked on aging. I was at a table with other speakers: a skin nutritionist said, ‘Why don’t we all put our hands out in front of us and pinch the skin.’ It shows how aged your skin is; if the pinch would still be there, bad. I did it and so they were all so pitying. They were wondering how I got to the… Next week, I got a big box of skin things, a care box. (Weakened with laughter, we giggle and snort.) What’s that ad? Porcelana? ‘They call these aging spots, but I call them ugly.’ I say: They call these ugly spots but I call them aging. (Fascinated, we’re all watching the self-inflicted pinches on our hands slowly disappear.

“The television presents older people as… ‘cute.’ Is that a ‘thing?’ We have the wisdom holding us in the culture and they’re ‘cute.’ We ran at the Omega Institute, elder circles… we sat on the outside and the elders sat around the inner circle; the elders were between 60 and 90; and they would each get up and go to the center of the circle and get the feather-thing, the talking stick—from American Indians. And all their talk would be on elder wisdom… Each was carrying their wisdom and so they said ‘AND…’ (between each bit of wisdom) And at the end of the statement: ‘I have spoken.’ Our elders found it strange to be in the place to be asked for their wisdom. And especially: ‘I have spoken.’ WOW! If you analyze what is the elder experience, it must be readying for death, because silence… you don’t have to be in the world as much. It’s getting ready to plunge. That is the spiritual understanding of an epoch? For a cultural point of view, you don’t run… You’re All the aging (draws on his knee)… Pontificating… (He holds his hand open, mimes speech as we laugh at the surfing pun. He’s beginning to flag, after an hour of public speaking, who wouldn’t?).

“I’m in the role of speaker, you’re in the role of audience. Those are our roles. You can’t get lost in them. They can’t go wrong. This speech resonates in us. This speech goes in deep. Shared perceptions that we all have. This is a culture which places value on individuality, which is all right. But it places it at the expense of the way we are, the collective, the collective (pinches his fingers together). Yeah (a beseeching hand, then the OK sign, as if to pick up the lost threads of speech some 3,000 words later). I would say psychologists and sociologists… I studied individuals and made them want to become members of this society. Now, I’m a spiritual person, and now I see that we are all the same. Figure ground reversal. Figure ground reversal with individual differences. Figure ground reversal: turn it the same, we are the same, we are individuals, the individual is ego. Now when I’m talking, I hear my voice, a depre… ah um… Five minutes? Um…(thrusts his hand up). Soul? It’s me I hear, and there (points downward). Ego. Hmmm! And that’s not good. That’s like God, if you’re going to get individual differences, forget it!

“A friend of mine said to me: ‘Your stroke humanized you.” It humanized you, I felt that was the spiritual comment, spiritual comment because I was, yeah, knowing… Before the stroke I was oh-so-holy (his hand sweeps the air grand-eloquently). ‘There, there, Humans!’ I was, I was a… witness, a soul-witness; I was on the way to holiness. That was not wise, not wise. And then I saw (draws circles in the air with his index finger)… I go in through my ego (thrusts index finger up) ’til I have to have the respect for my psychology (circles his head). If you’re going to profit (prophet?) by delving into your incarnation, you’re going to get your incarnation. When you put into it: I am a Jew, a man, an American…while…dumda dum-dum! That’s my incarnation, my incarnation has parents and genes, my incarnation… I got canned from Harvard! (He laughs.) I took drugs, and you know… (draws a “T” with his hand) and you know… Stroke I’m delving into, if I’m delving in, I will take the learning that the stroke, that the incarnation ‘IS.’ So I am a ram dass. That’s all!

(To a standing ovation as someone sings him out with “To Dream the Impossible Dream” …to be willing to march into hell for this glorious quest… …to run where the brave dare not go… “ Truly he has marched and been a forerunner, of our generation, at least. I cannot speak for the next. He is wheeled out into the courtyard to greet old friends and instill blessings upon those gathered before him.

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