“My guru told me ‘Be like Gandhi,’” Ram Dass told me during an interview that took place about a decade ago. “Gandhi said, ‘My life is my message.’” The words came haltingly, short phrases followed by long pauses. The former Dr. Richard Alpert, the once eloquent spiritual seeker and psychedelic rebel, sat in a wheelchair, hunting for words, often coming up with nothing except a soft “yea.” “Before the stroke it was words, words, words,” he told me. “After the stroke it was silence, silence, silence.”
My encounter with Ram Dass proved to be one of those quiet, tiny, yet inwardly momentous events that lead to real wisdom—to opening to reality. He spoke of before the stroke and after, and I received a lesson in the difference between having a concept (and a projection) about a person and what it is actually like to be in their presence, to meet in silence. There is the thought and the reality, there is being alone and being together, in which there is a meeting and exchange of presence and awareness, of worlds of experience.
Ram Dass and I sat together near a window of a room in a hotel that was then called “the New York Marriott Financial Center,” a grand edifice of glass and steel that was a short and impressive stroll from the World Trade Center. The hotel itself turned out to be a lesson in before and after. About a year and a half after our meeting, much of that glass would be shattered, and when the hotel finally re-opened years later it was renamed the “New York Marriot Downtown.” Those were different times. The day I visited Ram Dass, there was a big bustling conference going on. There were signs in the lobby saying something about “Asset-backed Commercial Paper.”
“Acid-backed paper?” said Ram Dass, when I described the scene. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!” He laughed, banging his hand on the arm of his wheelchair. Just for a moment, if I squinted my eyes, he looked a little bit like the psychedelic crusader who had ingested at least three hundred bits of acid-backed paper over the years, before he went off to India to find a guru and learn to meditate. He and the classic story of his journey Be Here Now had been iconic to me when I was young—proof that there was another way. The formerly ambitious young assistant professor of psychology at Harvard took psilocybin mushrooms with Timothy Leary and glimpsed an abiding awareness, a witnessing “I.” And from that time he sought not just know things but to “Know.” And now here we were.
The formerly irrepressible, unstoppably eloquent Ram Dass sat and waited patiently for words to float up to the surface (or not) and this inspired patience in me. There was nothing else to be done but just hang out and be. We sat together and watched ferries and tugboats criss-cross New York Harbor. The famous seeker was there to attend a conference on dying organized by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, and I was there to interview him about his latest book. But I couldn’t do my job the way it is usually done. I couldn’t press on, trying to pry something new and original out of him. I had to let go of my questions and just sit back and wait. I remember relishing the way the tugboats rode low in the choppy grey water. And I realized that being him felt like being with any old person.
Concepts hide as much as they help reveal. Once I thought of Ram Dass as a glamorous psychedelic outlaw (and I tried ridiculously to come across as an outlaw myself. It was a protective stance, quills to protect the tender belly of my being). But what I was really seeking was an outlier, a figure less or more than the usual sum. But that day I realized that we all contain outlier particles or numbers and life activates them. I realized that we don’t have to go to great extremes because life will bring us extremes, and the awareness that “Knows” may find us anywhere because it is already in us, waiting patiently.
Ram Dass told me a little about the stroke that hit one evening in 1997, as he lay in bed wondering how to improve a book he was writing about the wisdom potential of aging. Over the months and years of his rehabilitation, wisdom came: “We think life is like one of these buildings, big and solid,” said, gesturing at the hotel around us and out the window towards the towers. “But age is like an earthquake. Everything goes.”
Twelve years later, those mighty skyscrapers are gone or vastly altered, and Ram Dass himself is still here. But the real irony was this. I shared with this famous seeker, this disciple of the Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba, some wisdom from my mother who suffered a stroke and recovered her vocabulary and other faculties, well beyond predictions: “You tell Ram Dass not to listen to anybody tell him what he can’t do. Tell him to just keep going because nobody knows what can happen.”
Ram Dass listened as if he knew she knew something real. My mother never tripped (except over her own feet, often) or went to India. She never lost her Nebraska accent, just added a layer of Northern New York, so that his name came out Ram as in Dodge Ram and Dass as in Ass. But she understood the impermanent nature of life because she had lived through it. She knew that forces like love and compassion are stronger and more enduring than buildings. She had lived through enough to be an outlier–she had faced death and the loss that comes with age. Without ever putting it into words, she understood that reality is always different our thoughts and words about it, and that nobody can nail it down. She probably would have agreed with Ram Dass that about the best we can do is accompany each other in this mystery, give each other the gift of our presence and attention. I think she would have agreed with Ram Dass who said: “We’re all just walking each other home.”
This post was originally written to resonate with Parabola’s “Alone and Together” issue, Summer 2012. www.parabola.org.