The following is an excerpt from the Foreword to Ram Dass’ book Be Love Now.
In February 1997 I had a call from D. Larry Brilliant, a satsang brother in California, who said Ram Dass had suffered a devastating hemorrhagic stroke, a bleed in his brain, and might not survive. It had probably happened during the night, and he had not been able to summon help until his manager Jai Lakshman, called from New Mexico. Ram Dass managed to knock the phone off the hook. Jai, hearing no coherent response, said, “Are you in trouble? Tap once for yes, twice for no.” After a single tap he called Ram Dass secretary, Marlene, who lived nearby. She found him on the floor and called 911. Ram Dass’s survival and recovery were in doubt. People were praying for him on both sides of the world.
The next years were a Sisyphean struggle to adapt to disability and to regain first his speech and then as much body function as he could. His storytelling gift had disappeared into aphasia, and his right side was paralyzed. Fortunately, he is left-handed. His mind, his consciousness, remained completely intact, if not expanded. His heart, his sense of compassion, became a glowing jewel of pure presence.
Before the stroke Ram Dass had been working on a book about aging. Needless to say, his understanding and approach changed. Laboriously, and with assistance from another writer, Mark Matousek, Ram Dass completed Still Here, which was published in 2000. Few readers were aware of the magnitude of accomplishment required just to complete the manuscript. Mickey Lemle, a documentary filmmaker, made an amazing film about Ram Dass during this period called Fierce Grace. It chronicles Ram Dass’s passage to a deeper place in himself–an evolution that continues as he uses his own suffering as grist for the mill.
Ram Dass began traveling intermittently, lecturing and speaking at retreats, though on a much curtailed schedule. The aphasia punctuated his talks in new ways, so they ran slower and deeper. His old friend Wavy Gravy, of the Hog Farm commune, said, “He used to be the master of the one-liner. Now he’s the master of the ocean liner.”
In October 2004 Ram Dass once more undertook a journey to India, to revisit the temple in the hills where he had first immersed himself in yoga and Hinduism and learned to search within without chemical enhancement. Kate and I and our by now two children, ages five and seven, made the journey independently, and we all met there for the harvest festival of the goddess, Durga Puja. It was an emotional and deeply moving pilgrimage for Ram Dass, one that he had thought he might never be able to make again. The simplicity, silence, and maternal affection of the surroundings were a source of great renewal and, even with the relatively inaccessible steps and doorways of the ashram and its bare-bones comforts, he thrived.
He stayed for about ten days, and our family remained for the rest of a three-month sojourn while he journeyed back to California via Singapore. It was a lengthy trip with stopovers, some thirty-six hours. When he got back to California he was home for a day, then flew to Hawaii to conduct a long scheduled retreat on Maui. At the end of the retreat he developed a high fever and the emergency room on Maui diagnosed with an acute urinary infection that had migrated to his kidneys and into his bloodstream. Pope John had died from a similar infection.
We corresponded by worried e-mails from Rishikesh in India with Ram Dass’s caregivers. He was in the hospital for nearly a month. Once again he almost bought the farm. The bug he had was resistant to most antibiotics and made urinating exquisitely painful. By the time he got out of the hospital, he was weak and further travel was out of the question. Sridhar Silberfein, an old friend who had organized the Maui retreat, found him a house and helped set up a household so he could recover. It was slow going. Since then, with the exception of one trip to the mainland to visit the Hanuman temple in Taos, Ram Dass has stayed on Maui. The tranquil atmosphere and tropical climate are conducive to health and profound healing, as is a supportive community.
When he wound up in Maui in November 2004, his finances, long dependent on lecturing and touring, were depleted. Maharaj-ji had told him not to accept his inheritance from his father, and Ram Dass had always raised funds for others’ causes. Friends, students, and supporters, notably author and teacher Wayne Dyer, a fellow Maui resident, rallied to raise money so Ram Dass could live there without traveling.
Having returned to New York, I went to visit Ram Dass in early spring of 2005. He was slowly regaining strength, eating better and working with an acupuncturist and Chinese herbal doctor, who thirty years before had been a student when Ram Dass taught the first summer at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He was doing serious physical therapy again for the first time since he’d stopped a year after the stroke. Annual retreats began to be held in Hawaii. Another of Ram Dass’s first students, Krishna Das, now the chant master of the yoga circuit, joined him leading retreats that brought students from the mainland. A new website was set up at www.ramdass.org.
When we met again the following fall, we recalled the long dormant manuscript sitting in my basement. We decided it was time to bring it to light and see what was there. As we tried to make sense of what we said in the 1970s, reworked it, and brought it into the present moment, a kind of joy suffused the process. The 1960s and 1970s are long gone, yet the sense of unconditional love that was awakened then – the ocean tide of the guru’s compassion, the journey set in motion within us – is still the beacon of our shared universe.
Over the years something has crystallized in Ram Dass. Elements from the rainbow of his experiences in academia, psychology, psychedelics, India, and the stroke have coalesced into a clear white light of wisdom. Working with him, I have new appreciations for the nuance of his perception about the layers of consciousness. When I wax pedantic, he brings it back to the heart. When I am mired in ego, he subtly changes the point of view to the soul.
Our karmic calamities, the grace notes of circumstance, the twists and turns of this path, are an unfathomable mystery. Exploring its dimensions with Ram Dass, chuckling over the illusions, missteps, and potholes along the way, is a delight. Change is the only constant; the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s only love. There is nothing more. May we all be loved, and be love, now.
Excerpted from BE LOVE NOW by Ram Dass. Copyright © 2010 by Love Serve Remember Foundation. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Watch a special three-hour interview of Ram Dass and his film Fierce Grace on Oprah’s all new Super Soul Sunday, April 22 at 11am/10c. Hear his life story – from his time in Harvard with Timothy Leary to his journey to India, where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, all the way to the present time. To find out what channel OWN is on in your area, visit here.
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 had continued his psychedelic research until that fateful Eastern trip in 1967, when he traveled to India. In India, he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately known as Maharajji, who gave Ram Dass his name, which means “servant of God.” Everything changed then – his intense dharmic life started, and he became a pivotal influence on a culture that has reverberated with the words “Be Here Now” ever since. Ram Dass’s spirit has been a guiding light for three generations, carrying along millions on the journey, helping free them from their bonds as he has worked his way through his own. Ram Dass now resides on Maui, where he shares satsang, kirtan, and where he can amplify the healing process in the air and waters of Hawaii. His work continues to be a path of teaching and inspiration to so many. To learn more, visit: www.ramdass.org.
The Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation is also giving away a spot for two to Ram Dass’ Open Your Heart in Paradise Retreat on Maui in December 2012 to one lucky new subscriber. To enter, visit here and register before May 9, 2012.
Editor: Tanya L. Markul