How to age and die with grace: Ram Dass

Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, by Ram Dass, Riverhead Books, 2001.

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What happens after death is a central theme of all the world’s religions,” writes the guru of psychedelic experience and Soul awareness, Ram Dass, in Still Here, his elegant swan song, written from the perspective of an old man confined to a wheel chair, having endured a stroke, now looking back upon his life and evaluating the prospects for death – and the Soul’s existence after death. He quotes Goethe, who once avowed that “I am just as certain as you see me here that I have existed a thousand times before, and I hope to return a thousand times more.”

He observes: “Every attempt to describe what happens after we die – the bardos in the Tibetan texts, the mansions in the Kabbala, the heaven and hell of Christianity, the ground of being in Buddhism – point to the same source: that is, a realm that the Soul enters after death in some form of continuing evolution.”

He quotes a Japanese Zen Master who, on approaching death, picked up his pen and scribbled:

“Birth is thus. Death is thus. Verse or no verse, what’s the fuss?”

The fuss is all in our minds, Dass assures us in this profoundly wise and elegant book. It’s the Ego at work, that force within us that shouts out so loudly we forget to listen to the Soul, making us forget that all the things the Ego works toward are transitory and ultimately burdensome, while all the Soul wants is to be liberated, to become fully Aware, to exist peacefully for all eternity. Ego time is immediate, short-term; Soul time beats with the pulse of infinity. The Soul, unlike the Ego, carries no baggage, and acts quietly. It is thus easily overlooked in the din of our chaotic lives, with our minds so overwhelmed with distractions. Those who approach the end of their mortal lives without having calmed their Egos and gained Awareness, warns Dass, will meet death badly.

But death need not be so feared. Dass offers a prescription for aging and dying with grace: “We each bring to the moment of our passing the summation of all that we’ve lived and done, which is why we must begin as soon as possible to prepare ourselves for this occasion by waking up, completing our business, and becoming the sort of wise elders who can close their eyes for the last time without regrets.”

Everything else in Still Here leads up to this conclusion. Dass laments that the real value of elders of our society – who more and more are treated (and come to view themselves) as “obsolete, like yesterday’s computers” – is sadly being overlooked.

“Wisdom is one of the few things in human life that does not diminish with age,” writes Dass, whose body has failed him but whose mind is not only lucid, but aware of larger truths: “While everything else falls away, wisdom alone increases until death if we live examined lives.”

In Dass’s worldview, ultimate wisdom equates with “Awareness,” otherwise known as “God, Brahma, Paramatman, the Nameless, the Formless, The Unmanifest, the Nondual, the Absolute. Ego and Soul are inextricable parts of Awareness, just as Awareness is the very essence of who we are.”

The reason wisdom has ceased to retain its once-exalted stature in human society, according to Dass, is because “at root we are a secular society whose deepest leanings are toward the school of thought known as philosophical materialism . . . the idea that reality is limited to what we perceive through our senses.”

Our Egos prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves. “The Ego is what ages and dies,” Dass asserts. “It doesn’t continue. It is nearly impossible for the Ego to imagine this. When the Ego thinks it’s dying, it mistakes itself for the whole – body, Soul and Awareness – and often people who are beginning to go through the long process of ripening into God run around to different doctors (and maybe even shrinks) because they develop an even more intense dread of death.”

Throughout the book, Dass serves up examples from his own life. Yet, thankfully, his anecdotes are kept to a minimum, his own Ego kept in check. Primarily he takes stock of his own situation to launch into reflections on universal issues: learning to face and conquer our fears as we age, expanding our consciousness, coping with depression, accepting the changes in our bodies, working with pain, adjusting to dependency, enjoying our eccentricities.

Dass’s core advice, though, centers on letting go of the past, lest memories intrude and discolor the present, and ceasing to worry overmuch about what the future holds.

“Prolong not the past./Invite not the future,” quotes Dass from a Tibetan Buddhist verse. But how is one to achieve these goals? Dass’s advice contains the beauty of wisdom: “Getting the Ego to release its grip can be as simple as being able to experience what’s present at any given time. It sounds simple, but volumes have been written about just how to do this, some of them thousands of years old. It’s called meditation.”