It was 1969. I was in my last year of college in the Midwest, and my best friend insisted I spend three hours listening to a three-record set of lectures by Baba Ram Dass, called “Here We All Are.” We were spiritual seekers, barely 20 years old, and Ellen had become transformed by the wisdom of this so-called hippie guru. I did sit and listen, and I too became transfixed. This former motivational psychologist-turned-spiritual-teacher was explaining, in gifted storytelling, his quest for inner peace. He was giving us signposts and goals for living fully in the world without getting caught in its sufferings. He was showing us the grace of the human predicament.

I came across that album recently; on its ragged cover is a rainbow-encircled globe set against a background of stars, with Eastern mandalas and other brightly colored artwork inside it. It may be a relic, but I am still transfixed by the teachings of Ram Dass; his messages have a quality of timelessness.

He calls himself an uncle to my baby boom generation, but Ram Dass has been much more than that. Along with the publication in 1971 of “Be Here Now,” which sold over 2 million copies, the man formerly known as Richard Alpert ushered in the psychedelic movement, helped bring Eastern religion to the West, and raised awareness of service as a spiritual path. With his unique, wildish brand of charisma and humor, he has guided millions through major life passages, proffering wisdom gleaned from both the light and the shadows of humanity. And now, in a fiercely age – and death -denying society, he has taken up the lessons of the second half of life and challenged us once again to awaken.

“Still Here” (Riverhead Books, 2000, $22.22, 209 pages) is the outgrowth of what Ram Dass calls being an “advance scout” for the experiences of aging. The book is remarkable as much for what it says as for how it came into being. In February of 1997, Ram Dass suffered a paralyzing stroke. Ironically, it occurred while he was contemplating how to finish his book on “conscious aging.” He was not expected to survive. All of the time spent at the feet of his guru Maharajji; all of the psychedelic experiments with Timothy Leary, for which he was thrown out of his professorship at Harvard University in 1963, at age 32; all of the years of sitting at the bedside of the dying; all of the service organizations created and books written – and still this. Grist for the mill.

This new book is rich with personal stories and advice, but its tone is far more subdued than his earlier works. So is Ram Dass the man. Though at 69 he is vigorous in mind and spirit, his physical nature has taken a huge hit. Although he speaks more fluidly and with fewer pauses than when he first returned to the lecture circuit, the proper word or understanding can still elude him. Although he once wrote a book called “How Can I Help,” he is now on the receiving end of care, in a wheelchair much of the time and without full use of his right side. He jokes that he should write a new book, “How Can You Help Me?”

Sitting in his wood-paneled office at home in Tiburon, Calif., Ram Dass gazes out onto the San Francisco Bay and marvels at the afternoon light filtering through the trees. He rents this ranch-style home and revels in the beauty before him. Flanked by pictures of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and by statuettes of Eastern icons, Ram Dass exudes a passion that life is clearly meant to be enjoyed, no matter what. He is more than his roles, his physical disabilities or his fame; he is a willingly humbled work-in-progress.

The subtitle of “Still Here” is “Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying.” Ram Dass’s message is a powerful one, based on observation that today’s culture values technology over community, knowledge over wisdom. Elders do not occupy an honored place here; they are reminders that our skin can wrinkle and our bodies can fail. They are threats to a materialistic society that fears loss and stillness, unfamiliarity and emptiness.

“We have a youth culture,” he says, “so therefore it is a culture afraid of change. The problem is a fear of lost power. Power is defined as fame, money, being taken notice of.” The very definition of aging, however, is “change.” The key to doing it consciously, he says, is understanding that aging provides the greatest opportunity to develop inner wisdom, compassion, spiritual insight, and balance

It has not been an easy three years; at first, Ram Dass says, he was angry at his guru for letting this kind of thing happen. “I have had a personal myth that I was being taken care of ‘ up there,'” he gestures, pointing to the invisible world where his long-deceased guru abides. “I’d say grace, grace, all grace, but then this thing [stroke] was so immense that it shook my whole world. You count on the grace of the guru in my spiritual practice; you play with the guru and take what comes.”

What came was immense physical and psychological pain. Ram Dass suddenly became “old”: full of fear, loss, uncertainty, stigma. His self-image of being young and powerful was shattered. He became “a collection of symptoms” as he sank into the belief that he was no longer whole – or spiritual. ” I pleaded with Maharajji [in my heart] [[PAUL – for Ram Dass Maharajii is not in the abstract, just not in bodily form]] ” I was feeling coldness instead of presence. And then the coldness made my heart shrivel up.” Ram Dass takes a long breath, pauses in silence, eyes closed in the memory. “And then I started to have this” – he motions from one side to the other to enhance his meaning – “this grace, and stroke, grace, stroke. I was bringing the two together in the now. They were apart because of my lack of faith.”

For Ram Dass, in this moment of recognition of truth, the cerebral hemorrhage became what he calls “heavy grace,” a shift to perceiving illness as a blessing rather than as misfortune. In fact, he thinks he brought on the stroke by neglecting to take his blood pressure medication and ignoring a one-sided hearing loss a month earlier. As a renunciate, he had given his body negative value. With practice, however, he finally experienced detachment – from the pain, from the high-profile roles, from his golf and surfing and cherished MG.

His healing has come from honoring his body rather than identifying with its pain. “Healing does not mean going back to the way things were, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God,” he writes. Ram Dass may or may not walk again; he may or may not have full use of his vocabulary again. But it is no longer about achievement. It’s about awareness rather than identity, being on two planes of consciousness at the same time: entering the body fully yet remaining grounded in Soul.

Liberation as opposed to loss; love rather than fear; acceptance rather than suffering. These are some of the hallmarks of aging consciously, which also requires breaking down stereotypes and biases about aging – – and about death itself. Ram Dass feels it is the older generations who are in the vanguard of illuminating what he calls a “social conspiracy” about aging – for example, that dependency is wrong and death is an outrage.

In his own journey of aging, Ram Dass has raised the bar on suffering. If one searches for wholeness and divine union – which is the Soul’s single purpose — then that quest must include everything; nothing can be pushed away, or grasped. He writes, “The stroke was unbearable to the Ego, and so it pushed me into the Soul level also ” and that’s grace. From the Soul’s perspective it’s been a great learning experience. Although I’m more in the spirit now, I’m also more human.”

Ram Dass says he has returned from this particular scouting party to announce that spirit is more powerful than the vicissitudes of aging. Faith and love are stronger than change – stronger even than death.

Faith, we must ask, in what? “That the universe is benevolent.”

Beth Witrogen McLeod


  • Beth Witrogen McLeod is an author, journalist, speaker and consultant on caregiving, end-of-life issues and renewal at midlife, especially for women. She is a double Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has won many national and regional awards for her work. She has written for Good Housekeeping, SELF, Family Circle, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Her latest book is Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal

    Her expertise grew out of personal experience caring for her parents who were simultaneously terminally ill 1,200 miles away. With a father dying of a rare form of cancer and a mother with Lou Gehrig's disease and dementia, McLeod learned firsthand about the traumas and blessings of this mid-life rite of passage. She turned her experiences into a passion for public service, first writing and producing an award-winning newspaper series, "The Caregivers," for The San Francisco Examiner in 1995. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She developed a weekly column for The Examiner that often appeared on the New York Times Syndicate Web site. Honors for the series included National Hospice Organization, Pew Charitable Trusts, American Legion Auxiliary, Society of Professional Journalists, and many regional and local social service organizations.

    Beth is an Empowering Caregivers featured expert: learn more about Beth