When is a life-threatening stroke a form of “grace”-with Ram Dass

Ram Dass is an old friend of Sounds True. In fact, one of the first recordings we ever published was Ram Dass' Cultivating the Heart of Compassion—a recording that is as helpful and meaningful today as it was fourteen years ago. Most people know Ram Dass as the ex-Harvard professor who traveled to India on a search for truth and reported his findings in the classic bestseller Be Here Now! What you may not know is that in February of 1997, Ram Dass suffered a debilitating stroke, and at one point was given only a 10% chance of recovering. Through extensive physical therapy and, as Ram Dass recounts, “the power of grace,” Ram Dass is “still here”— which is the title of his new book on conscious aging. He has been traveling and speaking to audiences across North America, and although his speech is sometimes a bit slow and deliberate, his teaching is as clear and powerful as ever.

Sounds True: Ram Dass, let's begin with the experience of your stroke. What are the most important lessons you've learned from the experience?

Ram Dass: I think I've learned that my body is not just a “vehicle” it is part of God. I've learned that my faith is strong. I've learned how to be dependent—and that's quite a feat in this culture, which faults dependency. I think I'm learning that there aren't really caregivers and those who are cared for, there's just the shared experience of soul.

And I've learned that the fear of something like stroke is often worse than the thing itself. The stroke is a terrible grace, but I've learned that it is a grace that the soul can use. One other thing the stroke taught me: it taught me how clinging to the past leads to suffering.

Sounds True: That's big.

Ram Dass: Yeah. Gandhi once ordered his lieutenants to stop in the middle of a march. They said, “You can't stop it now. People have come from hundreds of miles to join this march.” Gandhi said, “I can't do anything else. I am wedded to truth, not to consistency.” So at one time I was a golfer and I was a cellist—I was all this stuff in the past. But now I am not an “ex-golfer” or an “ex-cellist”—I'm somebody new. I am a quiet, looking-out-the-window person. The stroke helped me understand aging as a stage in life where we go from ego to soul.

Sounds True: It seems like a new age platitude to say, “Well everything that happens—the good and the bad—is for some good reason.” What do you think now about bad things that happen to good people?

Ram Dass: I'll give you a theoretical hook. We are egos, we are souls, and we are the One. And the ego is what suffers here. The soul just observes—it wants the experiences that it gets through the ego. These experiences are what I call the “grist for its mill,” which it needs to go toward God. The soul's only motive is to meld with God. I remember a time with my guru, Maharajji. A girl, a very pretty girl, said to him in a most poignant way, “My life has been so much suffering.” Maharajji looked up at her and said, “You know, suffering brings me closest to God.”

So when I took the stroke and made it into grace, I was saying, “The stroke is a mechanism for bringing me closer to God.” Now that isn't new age crap, that's a perspective shift. Before the stroke, I'd find a parking space, and I 'd say, “Wow, grace.” Heh. But I wouldn't dare think then that a stroke could be grace.

Being able to turn the stroke into grace comes out of faith in my guru, because I feel protected. All of us—our egos—will suffer from these arrows along the way, but grace helps make our job as souls easier.

Sounds True: Please talk more about faith. For you, it wears the face of Maharajji, but does it wear other faces, too?

Ram Dass: Yes. It's my faith in the benign nature of the universe: faith that we aren't played with. Faith that we aren't here alone. Faith in the mystical philosophy—what you see is not what you get.

Sounds True: What do you mean by that?

Ram Dass: In dualism the things in life are not all one. You know what I mean?

Sounds True: When I listen to you, Ram Dass, you are speaking very clearly and very slowly, and it seems to me that the concepts are really clear in your mind, but that it 's harder for you to articulate since your stroke.

Ram Dass: Yeah.

Sounds True: How do you work with that frustration without getting impatient and angry?

Ram Dass: Frustration is attachment to a goal. Since I'm here in the now, there's no reason to get frustrated. I mean, it's giving me space between words, which is silence, which is where you hear God. So when I try to speak and nothing happens, and I get tired of looking for a word, I just start to enjoy the silence.

Sounds True: Over the years, you've often taught about the nature of identity, and the path from being “somebody to nobody.” What kind of insight into identity did the stroke give you?

Ram Dass: After the stroke I was in the hospital, and the doctors were referring to me as a “stroke victim.” They were thinking of me as a brain. I said to them, “I'm sorry, but what I am is not a material thing.” They all looked at me as if I was crazy.

In order to bear the stroke, I really had to shift my identity from my ego to my soul, to another plane of consciousness. This is a funny thing, because I also get to honor my body now, but not by identifying with it. The soul watches and honors the body. And the soul doesn't get strokes.

Ram Dass

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Ram Dass first went to India in 1967. He was still Dr. Richard Alpert, an already eminent Harvard psychologist and psychedelic pioneer with Dr.Timothy Leary. He continued his psychedelic research unti...

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