Changing, and Dying
In February, 1997, Ram Dass --- of Be Here Now fame --- had a stroke. He survived, and he's now in a wheelchair. He also has aphasia: his speech, he tells us, is "severely impaired."This is the same Ram Dass who was so important to us in that time, thirty years ago --- remember? --- when meditation and Eastern philosophy were rare and exotic, but for many of us offered a new and exciting path away from the homilies of Christianity.Along with Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, Ram Dass made mysticism comprehensible. In his books and his lectures, he offered clear and often funny insights into his vision of the principles of meditation and Eastern thought.
Now, with Still Here, there is something new. We have a master deeply involved in the interface between spirituality and disability. He still gives us the rare opportunity to eavesdrop on his personal quest --- that has always been his technique. He still speaks to spirituality -- how we can find it, what to avoid --- but he speaks with a new perspective. With his stroke, Ram Dass has the chance, for the first time, to be here now with some of the rest of us disabled:
One of the hardest psychological hurdles I had to deal with after the stroke was the loss of independence. Getting into and out of bed. Going to the bathroom. Going someplace in the car. Preparing my meals. I need help with every one of those things.
Instead of "being the helper," he tells us, has become "the helpee."
There are some parts of this book which will disturb his disabled peers. Without reflecting on the implied irony, he reports that one of his friends tell him that he is "more human since the stroke than you were before." He then tells us that his guru once said, "I love suffering. It brings me so close to God." "Having accepted my predicament," he writes, "I'm much happier than I was before:"
Though I can now stand and move around with a walker, I've grown to love my wheelchair (I call it my swan boat) and being wheeled about by people who care.
These are remarks that may irritate many of us in wheelchairs, or on gurneys. People are always telling us, "You are a much better person for what you have gone through." Well, yes and no. It might be true if we were professional saints, professional martyrs, or even if we had the intense spiritual training that Ram Dass has had. After all, he's been studying under some of the great Indian masters, sometimes at great sacrifice to his personal comfort (he once spent two months in a tiny hut in Burma, with scarcely any food, alone, meditating eighteen hours a day).
Because of his background, his new disability may well be ennobling. It is something he has apparently prepared for, consciously or not, all these years. In his spiritual pursuits, he seems to have actively sought pain. It is even possible that he has already learned to go beyond it.
However, for those of us who are less trained in the meditative arts, it might be difficult for us to say that we are "much happier" with the cards the gods have dealt us. We could say that we are more insightful, maybe. We can say we're more conscious of our humanness. But "I love suffering?" Probably not.
In addition, many of us have seen our disabled friends fall apart under the opprobrium of a new body that seems to offer only new dimensions of agony. As Hugh Gallagher wrote, "Being disabled is no piece of cake." When someone tells us, "You're a much better person for it," there's always a part of us that responds, "Sez who?"
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The embarrassment I felt over getting older has nearly disappeared with my physical disability. Back then, I was worried about not looking fit. Since the stroke I have been wheelchair-bound, and unable to do simple things like roll over at night while in bed. This was much harder to take at the beginning. It gets easier as the Ego lets go of its concerns.
Note the phrase here that most of the disabled loathe ("wheelchair-bound"). It tells us that Ram Dass has yet to learn what the old disabled know. I think of it as an innocence --- an innocence of experience, the same kind of innocence we hear in the words of Christopher Reeve. It isn't stupidity, nor is it obtuseness. It's that they are trying desperately to tell the world about something they are just beginning to understand. Will either of them say these same things after ten years in their new bodies?
Furthermore, what does Ram Dass' "joy" mean to a new stroke victim in Houston, who worked in construction, who suddenly is faced with thousands of dollars in medical bills, who can no longer support his family? Will a disabling arthritis "get easier" for a Chicana in East Los Angeles who has been bringing money home for her family for forty years, and now suddenly cannot get out of the house, much less go to work? How about a black from Southeast Chicago shot and paralyzed (police? gang war?) --- what possible feeling of being "better" derives from his new condition?
These people have none of the assets --- financial and philosophical --- that Dass can command. Their wheelchairs do not become, and perhaps never will be, "swan boats." Ram Dass doesn't --- and he should thank his lucky stars for this --- have to subsist on SSI, to fight with some obnoxious state-
owned social worker for an extra $20 a month for catheters, or to beg a replacement for a wheelchair that's falling apart, or try to find a little extra money to pay for a new Personal Care Attendant --- one who will not leave him moldering in his piss for five or six hours "because my grandmother was sick." § § §
There is no way that we can deny the basic compassion of Ram Dass. There are passages in Still Here that are inspiring: the chapters on the loneliness, embarrassment, loss of role, and depression of the aged are excellent. But most American disabled live in the eternal Show Me State. They figure that most of the "temporarily-
abled" don't have a clue to what it's like to wake up every morning not being able to move, to feed one's self, even to turn over in bed.
There is little to prepare the newly disabled for the astonishing mental trauma --- one that matches or beats the physical trauma --- awaiting them. Most of all, they go into shock when they learn how little our country is prepared to give in order that they may survive with dignity and hope.
Ram Dass has written a book that will be helpful to some. There are tools, he is telling us, to protect ourselves from the terrors of loneliness, old age, disability and dying. Let us hope that his next work will open the door for those who are not lucky enough to be at his particular portal of metaphysical joy --- the one that protects him from some of the terror that comes to those who are poor and forgotten by an indifferent society.--- L. W. Milam