On my way to Maui from Western Massachusetts to meet my spiritual teacher Ram Dass, I am sitting in the cramped space of a Delta flight eating cookies and reading a book by the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, a friend who had died a few years before. He wrote that paying attention to death reminds us of the incredible miracle of being here, where “we are all wildly, dangerously free.”
As I embark on my own journey to explore and write about death, I think that it will be challenging. Death relates to all of life, so when exploring it, which paths should we take? Which stories should we tell? Which questions should we pursue? We want to ask questions that will lead to a process of opening and deepening, and to an appreciation of how facing death can alter life in helpful and maybe even amazing ways.
Right now I am asking, What do we really know about death, in the midst of this wildly, dangerously free life that we are living? I am not sure, but I know I’ll learn a lot from sitting with Ram Dass.
I arrive in Maui late at night. Ram Dass lives in a sprawling house on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His caregivers live there, too, and usually old friends are staying as well. Its open floor plan and staircase elevator make it easy for Ram Dass to move around in his wheelchair. There are always fresh flowers—hibiscus, ginger, protea, and birds-of-paradise—and napping cats. Everyone is asleep, and I go right to bed. As I doze off, I can hear the quiet whooshing of the ceiling fan and feel the trade winds blowing through the window, ruffling the batiks depicting Hanuman and Ganesh.
To see Ram Dass the next morning after some months away is a return to the home of my heart. As he arrives at the breakfast table, he looks at me from his wheelchair with eyes I have known for so long and through so much. I fall into them and immediately feel happy throughout my body. We hug and then hug more deeply. Beaming. Yes, yes, yes.
Over eggs and toast, he asks about my husband, E.J., and his godson, my son Owen, and my granddaughter, Dahlia, whom he blessed soon after she entered the world. “They are all well. My hip has been bothering me.” And I tell him what Dahlia told me: “Ama, you’re not old. Old is when you get broken and you can’t get fixed.”
Ram Dass laughs. As he downs his vitamins and medications, he says, “I guess we’re not old. We’re still getting fixed.”
After breakfast, we go upstairs, where Ram Dass has his bed, a bathroom, his office—a wall of books; photos of friends; an altar with a picture of his guru, whom we call Maharaj-ji; a phone; an intercom. Lakshman, who helps care for Ram Dass, moves him from his wheelchair to a big, comfy reclining chair and covers him with a blanket. The scent of sandalwood from incense burned at the morning chant downstairs floats up into the room.
I jump right in and ask, “You’ve written and spoken so much about death before this. Do you have a new understanding about death now that you’re getting closer?”
Ram Dass closes his eyes and is silent for a long time. I have no idea what he will say. “I snuggle up to Maharaj-ji. I distance myself from the body, my body.”
“How do you do that?”
“Identify with the witness, with awareness, with the soul. The body is ending, but the soul will go on and on and on. I keep going inward to the soul.”
“Is that different from before?”
“My body is dying now, but I don’t feel like I’m dying. I’m fascinated with how my body is … doing it.”
We both laugh.
Then he says: “For many years, I’d been thinking about the phenomenon of death, but not my own death .… Now, when I piece it together with my heart, not with my intellect, I find nothing to fear if I identify with loving awareness. Death becomes simply the final stage of my sadhana … ”
Ram Dass is quiet for a long time, looking out at the sea. We’ve talked about death before, but not so directly and so personally. Saying it aloud changes things.
Swimming in love
Another day begins, and we are sitting at the breakfast table, although we have finished the oatmeal and mangoes and cleared away the dishes. Kirtan artist Krishna Das is visiting, and we are having a conversation that started 40 years ago in India. Krishna Das has recently read a letter written by Vivekananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna—an Indian mystic and yogi who spoke at the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and introduced Hinduism and Vedanta to the West. This letter was written when Vivekananda was near the end of his life. Krishna Das says he was moved by Vivekananda’s wondering whether he was teaching and speaking as a way of supporting his ego, whether he was attached to his fame and his students’ appreciation, and whether that was actually keeping him from coming “face to face with God.”
Ram Dass says he also worries about this. And Krishna Das has struggled with it for years. Then Krishna Das says what we know but keep forgetting:
“I saw that people who were attracted to me weren’t really attracted to me at all. They wanted connection to that place of love that I also wanted to be connected to.” The place we had discovered through Maharaj-ji. So what to do? If there is a relationship between what we do in the world, our dharma, and what we need to learn before we die, what should we be doing now?
“It’s all about love,” Ram Dass says. “It’s about becoming love. You start out with ego and become a soul.
Maharaj-ji was a soul lost in love. That’s what he was telling us. Sadhana … spiritual practice. Your work is your practice. If it’s not taking you into love, it’s not right for you.
“Fear is the problem, and the root of fear is separateness. We transform separateness through compassion and love. So fear is an invitation to engage in practice and to be more loving.”
There it was again. So simple.
The answer to what we should be doing and how to avoid attachment to it before we die—or as we are dying: sadhana and love. We had gone from oatmeal and mangoes to love and death in a very short time.
We all drop into silence.
About the Author
Ram Dass is an American spiritual teacher, former Harvard academic and clinical psychologist, and the author of the seminal 1971 book Be Here Now and the subsequent Be Love Now. Mirabai Bush is senior fellow at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She has led mindfulness training for lawyers, judges, educators, environmental leaders, activists, students, and the army, and was a key developer of Search Inside Yourself at Google.