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
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 hadn’t 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 man—I still don’t 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 wasn’t really sick at all.
David: How has your stroke changed your body physically and mentally?
Ram Dass: It damaged my brain in such a way that I’m 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 concepts—where I dress them in words—has 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. It’s the guru’s grace, and his blessing is the stroke. Before the stroke I enjoyed playing golf, driving my MG sports car, playing my cello. Now I can’t do any of those things. I can’t 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 incarnations—if 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.
I’ve learned that silence is good. I knew that before but I’ve learned it thoroughly now. I’ve learned about helping. In my life before I was a “helper,” 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. That’s powerlessness. But I’ve 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 outlook?
Ram Dass: It’s gotten me deeper into karma yoga. This is my karma, and it is also my yoga. I think that it’s 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 people—through my books, tapes, or lectures. I was an identification figure for them, an the stroke shook them. They couldn’t 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. It’s also given me a perspective toward the stroke that’s spiritual. I haven’t 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 it’s good for brain function. I’ve had to fight my way against doctors to use medical marijuana.
David: Have you had any psychedelic experiences since your stroke?
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 me—the 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 you’d like to add?
Ram Dass: I think that it’s increased my humanness. It’s 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 I’m not pushing away these things. I’m 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 they’ve found me human, and that I was never human before. They mean I’m inhabiting my ego. Now they can find me as an individual, whereas before they could only find me as a soul.