by Mirabai Bush
After breakfast, [Ram Dass and I] go upstairs, where [he] has his bed, a bathroom, his office — a wall of books, photos of friends, an altar with Maharaj-ji’s picture, 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?”
“I 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. I’d talk about it with Stephen Levine and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, with Frank Ostaseski, Dale Borglum, Bodhi Be, Joan Halifax, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and I’d read the words of great masters and others about 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. My death…my death…”
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 out loud changes things.
“For hours I look at the ocean, and I see it as a symbol. It’s the ocean of love, and I can just float. It’s infinite. I’m getting used to infinite. Time . . . time is just moving, and I am withdrawing out of time. I find myself asking what day, what month, what year this is. But I never ask what moment this is. Ah, this moment. Ah . . . I’ve been shedding roles, like the role of ‘strokee.’ I’m doing the work of sadhana: bringing up the past and loving it.”
“Loving it?” I ask.
“Loving it as a thought. Letting go of regrets and loving the past for what it was and is. There’s a difference between clinging to memories and reexperiencing them from present consciousness. They’re all just thoughts. The key is to stay in your heart. Just keep loving.”
Later that morning, after a break, we begin our next session in Ram Dass’s room, exploring what David Whyte calls “the conversational nature of reality.” I am tired but so happy to be with Ram Dass that I barely notice. He gets settled in his recliner, with his blanket warming his legs on this overcast and breezy Maui day. Lucian, another of his caretakers, brings us chai that tastes like cinnamon.
The day before, Ram Dass had been sitting with a Brazilian woman who is on a self-retreat in a cabin on the property. She told him about being on a plane that almost crashed and how she had thought she would die but didn’t. “It shook her,” he says. After the experience she felt more comfortable with death, having been so close to it. Ram Dass says, “That was fierce grace.”
Ram Dass has always seen life as a journey of growth and everything that happens to us as an opportunity to learn, awaken, and grow. Learning from a frightening experience is therefore a great gift. He and I begin to talk about how you can get beyond the fear of death if you don’t have the good fortune of being in the near crash of a plane.
Ram Dass says, “Well, we are all dying, but nobody admits it. People want a long life. It makes sense; they only know life, not death.”
“Remember what Wavy says: ‘Death was Patrick Henry’s second choice.’”
Ram Dass laughs and shakes his head. Sixties icon and activist Wavy Gravy always makes us laugh, even at the most difficult times.
Then Ram Dass says, “Death is a painful truth. But death is also only a thought. Ramana Maharshi said, ‘Don’t believe your thoughts. I am the body is a thought. I am the mind is a thought.
I am the doer is a thought. Worry is only a thought. Fear is only a thought. Death is only a thought.’”
We talk about how we all have fears. Fear begins early in our lives and has helped us survive as a species, originally from being eaten by tigers and now from being hurt in a car crash if we don’t buckle up. We fear the unknown: What will happen to us if a terrorist decides to bomb the airport? Specific fears can be helpful — we buckle up. But when we fear death itself — what happens when the heart stops beating — it often becomes a more generalized anxiety, and it can be debilitating. With an anxious and unclear mind, we don’t see things as they are, and we can make bad choices.
I tell Ram Dass about my sister’s fears as she was dying. “I wondered what fear remained since the dementia had affected her memory so much, so I asked her, ‘Are you afraid of dying? Of leaving behind the children you love?’
She said simply, ‘I’m afraid.’ She showed me her tumor, which was swelling the skin over her liver. She didn’t know what it was. Mostly she thought that the swelling made her look pregnant — ‘at this time in my life!’ But she didn’t say why she was afraid, didn’t mention death. She skipped away from it to make it seem unimportant: ‘Well, everybody has fears.’ Then she moved to saying there’s nothing really to be afraid of: ‘If anything happened to me, there are many people here in the nursing home who would come running.’”
But by denying death, my sister didn’t change what was happening. She died. We all die, and those people who would come running can’t stop death, which Gelek Rimpoche describes as retreating, retreating, retreating, until finally we retreat even from the seed we collected from the seed we collected from our parents, into our deepest point.
Mirabai Bush teaches, practices, and develops programs through the application of contemplative principles and values to organizational life. She is a cofounder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, founding board member of the Seva Foundation, and coauthor (with Ram Dass) of Compassion in Action. She co-created Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program.