I had never read any of Ram Das work before I picked up Still Here,
his latest effort that describes his/our adaption and accommodation to
the aging process. I approached the book with high expectations,
mostly due to several recommendations from friends who follow Ram Dass
word. I must admit that I came away from the book with mixed feelings.
The focus of Dass latest work revolves around a near-life-ending stroke
that he suffered several years ago. The incident, understandably,
seems to have brought him face to face with his own mortality and perhaps
a fear of death that he has had to work through. Alas, this book
seems to revolve around his reflections surrounding our existence and specifically,
how to grow old. The description of his stroke and recovery is
fascinating, and as I was reading I found myself wondering how someone
with partial aphasia (language disturbance) could express his ideas through
such eloquent and fluid prose. It is, quite frankly, awe-inspiring.
An important idea that runs throughout the book is that there is something
about Western culture and thought that makes us fear death. Our
negative bias against the elderly, our glorification of science and marginalization
of nature has the long-term effect of isolating us, as many of us dont
see growing old/death as a normal progression of life.
While I like most all of the ideas that Dass presents and I can understand
why he has become a spiritual icon, I found some of what he was saying
to be regurgitation of things that I have heard others say, and while there
is nothing wrong with this, it bothers me a bit that he presents the ideas
as his own enlightenment. For example, he talks a bit about a practice
called of ego decentralization and that can be brought about by mindfulness/meditation.
He states that fear comes from self-conscious and that mindfulness can
lead to spiritual awareness. These are very interesting concepts,
but concepts that I believe became popularized by the psychologist/spiritual
guru Carl Jung decades ago. I cannot begrudge Dass for espousing
these views, I share them myself -- I guess I was just disappointed and
expected something very different than I had read before.
In short, Dass has many pearls of wisdom in this book that will stir
your conscious or unconscious existential angst. We all age and die,
and we all need to do it in a way that we can accept. If you are familiar
with the work of Carl Jung, Morris Berman or contemporary Buddhist-psychotherapist
Mark Epstein, you may be disappointed at some of the conceptual similarities
in their teachings. However, I found that I gained less from what
Dass was saying, and more how he said was able to say it (for instance,
the fact that he was able to say it at all). He must truly be a remarkable
person and we surely can all learn from his example.
© 2001 Michael Sakuma
is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Dowling
College, Long Island, New York.