Ram Dass has so much to teach us about life, disability and death. His passing leaves a hole in the world

This week one of the world’s most profound spiritual teachers passed away at 88. I was late to the Ram Dass party. I had heard of his 1971 book Be Here Now, a hit among the hippie generation the way The Power of Now was for today’s new agers. 

But it wasn’t until I stumbled on a short film on Netflix, “Ram Dass: Going Home” that I discovered what a profound and beautiful teacher he was.

I’ve watched that film perhaps 15 times now, and each time I learn something new. 

In 1997, Ram Dass had a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and with aphasia that made it hard for him to speak. For someone who had been a fluid and compelling speaker this must’ve been frustrating to say the least.

The film was made two years ago. By then he’d settled in Maui as he was no longer able to travel. But he continued to teach and write, and if anything his popularity had grown.

No more flying around the world for speaking engagements. Instead, staying in one place. A beautiful one, drenched in sunlight and filled with birdsong and flowers.

He talks about his disability in a plain, unflinching way. He needs help, he says, and he has people who help him. Yet society doesn’t acknowledge dependency.

Ram Dass was once Richard Alpert, Harvard psychology professor. In the 1960s, he experimented with psychedelics with his cohort Timothy Leary—getting himself fired in the process. 

Eventually he tired of the temporary nature of these mind expanding drugs and traveled to India, where he encountered his guru for life, Majaraji. Majaraji renamed him Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.” 

He returned to the states and began a lifelong journey of discovery, which touched millions of people and helped spawn the spiritual movement in the West.

The film shows him speaking to large crowds during those days. In one shot, he’s walking around as a group of hippies form a circle behind him. He turns and sees the camera. His face breaks into a smile so wide and sincere it takes your breath away.

Most of the film centers on the Ram Dass of 2017, in his mid-eighties, disabled and dependent on caregivers.

As a result of being unable to do things, he says, he spends more time “in here.” He points to his heart.

This is the place we don’t think to go in the rush of our daily lives. When you’re forced “in here,” a world opens up.

I don’t wish you the stroke, but I wish you the grace of the stroke.

Holding his prayer beads, he says, “And then you mantra, ‘I am loving awareness, I am loving awareness, I am loving awareness.”

I’ve never mantraed before, but I tried it after seeing the film and it had an almost instant effect. My heart opened. Much of my stress and frustration dissolved.

Even though he had difficulty speaking — or maybe because of his difficulties — he had a way of disbursing tiny bursts of wisdom.

He tells the interviewer “I don’t wish you the stroke, but I wish you the grace of the stroke.”

In my best moments I feel something similar. I’d never wish my accident on anyone. But I do see how much it has changed me.

As Ram Dass says in a recorded interview played in the background of the film, he wishes he could relieve the pain he sees in those who are dying. But suffering is “the sandpaper of our incarnation.” 

This sandpaper can hurt. But if you let it, suffering can give your life a new shape.

Even if you’ve never suffered physically, you no doubt have suffered in some way during the course of your life. It may be something big and tragic such as the death of a child. Or it may be the creeping loneliness that comes from feeling unloved or unappreciated. 

Whatever it is, Ram Dass is telling you that all of this is meant to be and can teach you what you’re here in this life to learn.

“Make friends with change,” he says, as we see him sitting in a wheelchair outside the office of a massage therapist, waiting his turn. “Changes in body. Death, that’s just another one.”

Now he’s sitting at home, his radiant smile beaming out from the screen. As he says the word “death,” he snaps his fingers. It’s just another one.

In another recorded clip from before his stroke, he talks about how facing death means letting go of resistance. It gives you more energy to live your life.

“Death isn’t an enemy. It is not an error, it is not a failure. It is taking off a tight shoe,” he says.

Death isn’t an enemy. It is not an error, it is not a failure. It is taking off a tight shoe.

The “tight shoe” is the discomfort we all know. We’re bound up in these bodies. We have an identity that takes effort to maintain.

We’re not our work, our social position, our intelligence. We’re someone huge and beyond description, stuck in our tight shoes, yearning to be seen for so much more.

At the end of the film, he goes to the beach. A group of people follows him. A woman approaches, holding a flower out to him. He accepts it. His companions wheel him in a special chair along the sand until they reach the water. As the group swims out, the camera shows the scene from above.

He’s surrounded by people. Dozens of flowers float in the water around him.

“We’re all just walking each other home,” he says.

We’ve lost someone who showed us how to be our best selves, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Yet he did it, moving from one phase of life to another, embracing everything life threw at him.

Wherever he is now, whatever home he’s been walked to, I wish we could hear from him, freed from his tight shoe and swimming in the ocean of infinity.

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