Ram Dass, which means “Servant of God,” received his name from his Guru Neem Karoli Baba. Also known as Richard Alpert, Ram Dass is a leading voice on the integration of Western culture with Eastern philosophies. He began his studies in consciousness research with Timothy Leary at Harvard University in the 1960s. He is the author of the landmark books Be Here Now and Grist For the Mill, and co-author of How Can I Help? He is also one of the founding members of the Seva Foundation (“Seva” is a Sanskrit word meaning “service”), a nonprofit organization devoted to compassionate action.
Sounds True: Over the years, much of your work has been devoted to investigating why people live in fear. Do you think it's true that the root of all fears is the fear of death? Through your experiences, even on a personal level, is that what you've found to be true?
Ram Dass: In a classic sense, the root of all fear is a kind of ignorance. It leads a person to thinking that he or she is separate from everything else. When one is separate, one dies. So this identification with separateness and the fear of death are inextricably interwoven. I believe that the fear of death is a concomitant of feeling separate. But I'm not sure that we should focus on it as an ultimate thing.
Sounds True: Do you no longer have a fear of death yourself?
Ram Dass: That would probably be asking for a fall. I would say that I experience an equanimity in the presence of death, in my work with the dying, and I notice that, when I experience a situation where I might indeed die, I find myself quite calm. However, I have no idea what I will be like when I approach my own death. But I notice that I've changed dramatically in the past 20 years in the way I feel about it.
Sounds True: When I think about my own death, what I fear most is not being in contact with the people that I hold most dear. How does one get over the fear of physical loss?
Ram Dass: If you focus on what is the essence of your connection with another human being—the love you have—you will find that it is a quality of shared presence that transcends time and space, and the physical, and the psychological. It just is.
In working with people who are grieving, I know that if I say, “After you quiet down a little bit, if you just sit with the being who has died, you will begin to feel that the essence of the love you shared is still present.” Because the moment people enter into a shared moment of love, they transcend the boundaries of death. But people don't trust this experience, and focus instead on the things they can see, smell, taste, touch. That connection beyond time and space is a very real essence. When we say, “We are in love,” or, “We are together in love,” this is what it means.
Sounds True: Do you feel a sense of certainty that there will be some sort of continuation of consciousness after you die?
Ram Dass: I think awareness is the nature of the universe, and we are part of that awareness. The term “consciousness” is a technical term, which has to do with certain mental states, and I don't want to use that word, exactly. But I would say that whatever is the root of our awareness transcends death. So there is continuity of awareness beyond death. The nature of our identification with our personality, or even the way we usually experience things—that all may change. But the awareness will continue. I have certainty about that.
Sounds True: When you use the term, “root of awareness,” what are you talking about?
Ram Dass: Imagine that there is a flashlight, and the flashlight beams its light on all things, including your thoughts. At the time of your death, everything will change. Even your thoughts about who you think you are—that you are something—all that will change. But the flashlight itself, which represents an awareness that is just seeing or noticing, that has continuity. It's like the sky in which the clouds exist. The sky is awareness, and the clouds are the thoughts passing by. So, in a way, the space in which all things exist is the root. Even though the things in it change, it continues.
Sounds True: You have worked with and been present with many people as they've passed through the stages of dying, meditating with them as part of the process. What do you think dying is like when it's happening?
Ram Dass: Well, first of all, there's an incredible range of responses to the (dying) process. For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes dying this way: you experience the earth element leaving, and you will feel light; you experience the water element leaving, and you will feel dry or thirsty. You experience the fire element leaving, and you will feel cold; you experience the air element leaving, and you will feel a longer out-breath than in-breath. That's one level of it.
I think that many people focus on the pain and the loss and the leaving. Their consciousness has turned back toward life. The art form is in getting the consciousness to neither grab at the future, nor hold on to the past. Just be in the moment of “this moment.” And then the moment of death is just another “this moment.”
At this point, the familiar structures of “who I am” and “how it is” start to dissolve. If there is lack of preparation, there is fear and grabbing hold. And because of the immensity of the energy in that process, unconsciousness follows, an unaware state. When you are prepared—and that's why the Eastern religions put so much focus on it—you can stay aware, and your self-identification dissolves.
This is when you start to pass through different planes of reality. There are a lot of words for those things—“mansions” in Judaism, or the “bardos” in Tibetan Buddhism. They are also called “islands.” You will meet different forms that are reflections of your own karma, or the inertia in your psychic system. You'll meet demons or beauties or things like that. The game is to acknowledge them without pushing them away or grabbing at them. You will meet very familiar beings that have died before. You might meet a being of light who welcomes you. All of that is lovely stuff.
You may stop at any of these points, but if you are trained and clear, then more images arise, and you keep acknowledging them. You allow yourself to dissolve and merge into the larger and larger space of awareness, until ultimately you are one with God or the universe—however you want to say it.
Sounds True: You use this term “preparing” to die, and also describe dying as an “art form.” How does one prepare to die?
Ram Dass: I think you prepare to die by learning how to be fully conscious in each moment of your life. All of your life—how you live your life—is the preparation for how you die. And so, all the spiritual practices which bring you more and more into what I call the “just this” mentality are the optimum way to prepare.
Sounds True: In our society we're so afraid of death that we'll do practically anything to keep people alive. Sixty percent of the money that's devoted to health care in the United States is spent during the last nine months of people's lives. What do you think about this? How can we change this idea that we should try to keep people alive at all costs?
Ram Dass: I think we are facing a real philosophical, moral, and ethical crisis because of the advances in medical technology. Our fear of death is bankrupting the health care system. On a practical level, living wills, changing the way doctors deal with patients who are ready to die, the creation of hospices and “conscious” spaces for dying—it's a necessity now. It's also necessary to support people who wish to die at home, and encourage their loved ones to experience the death. They can grow through being with the person who is dying, rather than sending them away. That's all the practical stuff.
On the philosophical level, what's needed is a renewed spiritual identity in people that is not based on their separateness, but on their interconnectedness.
I think the predicament that we're facing (in our health care systems) about dying is going to force a change in consciousness. The dialog has already started.