Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wisdom on Confronting Aging and Dying

After his dismissal from Harvard for researching LSD with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert left the U.S. for India in 1967. He devoted himself to the teachings of Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba and returned to the States a permanently changed man, with a new name and a message he first spread via the collaboratively-edited and illustrated 1971 classic Be Here Now.

In the “philosophically misty, stubbornly resonant Buddhist-Hindu-Christian mash-up,” writes David Marchese at The New York Times, Ram Dass “extolled the now-commonplace, then-novel (to Western hippies, at least) idea that paying deep attention to the present moment—that is, mindfulness—is the best path to a meaningful life.” We’ve grown so used to hearing this by now that we’ve likely become a little numb to it, even if we’ve bought into the premise and the practice of meditation.

Ram Dass discovered that mindful awareness was not part of any self-improvement project but a way of being ordinary and abandoning excess self-concern. “The more your awareness is expanded, the more it becomes just a natural part of your life, like eating or sleeping or going to the toilet” he says in the excerpt above from a talk he gave on “Conscious Aging” in 1992. “If you’re full of ego, if you’re full of yourself, you’re doing it out of righteousness to prove you’re a good person.”

To really open ourselves up to reality, we must be willing to put desire aside and become “irrelevant.” That’s a tough ask in a culture that values few things more highly than fame, youth, and beauty and fears nothing more than aging, loss, and death. Our culture “denigrates non-youth,” Ram Dass wrote in 2017, and thus stigmatizes and ignores a natural process everyone must all endure if they live long enough.

[W]hat I realized many years ago was I went into training to be a kind of elder, or social philosopher, or find a role that would be comfortable as I became irrelevant in the youth market. Now I’ve seen in interviewing old people that the minute you cling to something that was a moment ago, you suffer. You suffer when you have your face lifted to be who you wish you were then, for a little longer, because you know it’s temporary.

The minute you pit yourself against nature, the minute you pit yourself with your mind against change, you are asking for suffering.

Older adults are projected to outnumber children in the next decade or so, with a healthcare system designed to extract maximum profit for the minimal amount of care. The denial of aging and death creates “a very cruel culture,” Ram Dass writes, “and the bizarre situation is that as the demographic changes, and the baby boomers come along and get old, what you have is an aging society and a youth mythology”—a recipe for mass suffering if there ever was one.

We can and should, Ram Dass believed, advocate for better social policy. But to change our collective approach to aging and death, we must also, individually, confront our own fears of mortality, no matter how old we are at the moment. The spiritual teacher and writer, who passed away yesterday at age 88, confronted death for decades and helped students do the same with books like 2001’s Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying and his series of talks on “Conscious Aging,” which you can hear in full further up.

“Recorded at the Conscious Aging conference sponsored by the Omega Institute in 1992,” notes the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, the conference “was the first of its kind on aging. Ram Dass had just turned sixty.” He begins his first talk with a joke about purchasing his first senior citizen ticket and says he felt like a teenager until he hit fifty. But joking aside, he learned early that really living in the present means facing aging and death in all its forms.

Ram Dass met aging with wisdom, humor, and compassion, as you can see in the recent video above. As we remember his life, we can also turn to decades of his teaching to learn how to become kinder to ourselves and others (a distinction without a real difference, he argued), as we all face the inevitable together.

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Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Malcolm Gladwell Rebuts the Terrible Advice Given to Students: Don’t Go to “the Best College You Can,” Go to Where You Can Have “Deeply Interesting Conversations with People” at Night

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer of many contrarian opinions. His readers love the way he illustrates his ideas with rhetorical ease, in story after interesting story. Maybe he has too many opinions, say his critics, “who’d prefer it if Gladwell made smaller, more cautious, less dazzling claims,” Oliver Burkeman writes at The Guardian.

But we should take some of his arguments, like his defense of Lance Armstrong and doping in sports, less seriously than others, he says himself. “When you write about sports,” Gladwell tells Burkeman, “you’re allowed to engage in mischief! Nothing is at stake. It’s a bicycle race!” This in itself is a highly contrarian claim for fans, athletes, and their vested sponsors.

But the mischief in hyper-competitive, high dollar pressure of professional cycling is far removed from the cheating, bribing, and fraud scandals in U.S. college admissions, it may seem. The stakes are so much higher, after all. Gladwell offers his take on the situation in the audio interview above on the Tim Ferriss show. (He starts this discussion around the 57:25 mark.)

It’s true, he says, there is a gamesmanship that drives the college admissions process. But here is a case where winning isn’t worth the cost. He doesn't say this is because the game is rigged, but because it’s oriented in the wrong direction. Students should be taught to find “interestingness” by interacting with “flawed" and "interesting people.”

Instead "we terrify high school students about their college choices," making achievement and prestige the highest aims.

To my mind, you could not have conceived of a worse system. So any advice that has to do with you need to work hard and get into  I’m sorry, it’s just bullshit. It’s just terrible. You should not try to go to the best college you can, particularly if best is defined by US News and World Report. The sole test of what a good college is is it a place where I find myself late at night having deeply interesting conversations with people that I like and find interesting? You go where you can do that. That’s all that matters.

With his tendency to speak in an oracular “we,” Gladwell defines another problem: an elitist disdain for the "interesting" people.

There are interesting kids everywhere. And it’s only in our snobbery that we have decided that interestingness is defined by your test scores. This is just such an outrageous lie.

Test scores, sure they matter in some way, but I’m talking about college now. What makes for a powerful college experience is can I find someone interesting to have an interesting discussion with? And you can do that if you’re curious and you’re interesting. That’s it. Not that you’re interesting, you’re interested. That’s all that matters.

There are, of course, still those who seek out places and people of interest over the highest-ranked schools, which are inaccessible to a majority of students in any case. Gladwell may tend to generalize from his own experience, although college, he has said, "was not a particularly fruitful time for me." (Maybe ask your doctor before you take his advice about breakfast at the very beginning of the show.)

Different students have different experiences and expectations of college, but overall pressures are high, tuitions are rising, politics are inflamed, and student debt becomes more burdensome by the year.... Gladwell might have used another metaphor, but he'll likely find wide agreement that in some sense or another, at least figuratively, “the American college system needs to be blown up and they need to start over.” Now that is a subject on which nearly everyone might have an opinion.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Zen of Bill Murray: I Want to Be “Really Here, Really in It, Really Alive in the Moment”

We all know, on the deepest level, what we have the potential to achieve; once in a great while, we even catch glimpses of just what we could do if only we put our minds to it. But what, if anything, does it mean to "put our minds to it"? In breaking down that cliché, we might look to the example of Bill Murray, an actor for whom breaking down clichés has become a method of not just working but living. In the 2015 Charlie Rose clip above, Murray tells of receiving a late-night phone call from a friend's drunken sister. "You have no idea how much you could do, Bill, if you could just — you can do so much," the woman kept insisting. But to the still more or less asleep Murray, her voice sounded like that of "a visionary speaking to you in the night and coming to you in your dream."

Through her inebriation, this woman spoke directly to a persistent desire of Murray's, one he describes when Rose asks him "what it is that you want that you don't have." Murray replies that he'd "like to be more consistently here," that he'd like to "see how long I can last as being really here — you know, really in it, really alive in the moment." He'd like to see what he could do if he could stay off human auto-pilot, if he "were able to not get distracted, to not change channels in my mind and body, so I would just, you know, be my own channel." He grounds this potentially spiritual-sounding idea in physical terms: "It is all contained in your body, everything you've got: your mind, your spirit, your soul, your emotions, it is all contained in your body. All the prospects, all the chances you ever have."

Murray had spoken in even more detail of the body's importance at the previous year's Toronto International Film Festival. "How much do you weigh?" he asked his audience there, leading them into an impromptu guided meditation. "Try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now." If you can "feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now." The idea is to be here now, to borrow the words with which countercultural icon Ram Dass titled his most popular book. But Murray approached it by reading something quite different: the writings of Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose contribution to Murray's comedic persona we've previously featured here on Open Culture.

Gurdjieff believed that most of us live out our lives in a hypnosis-like state of "waking sleep," never touching the state of higher consciousness that might allow us to more clearly perceive reality and more fully realize our potential. In recent years, Murray has taken on something like this role himself, having "long bypassed mere celebrity status to become something close to a spiritual symbol, a guru of zen, and his frequent appearances among the masses (in a karaoke bar! In a couple’s engagement photo!) are reported on the internet with the excitement of sightings of the messiah." So writes the Guardian's Hadley Freeman in a Murray profile from 2019, which quotes the actor-comedian-trickster-Ghostbuster-bodhisattva returning to his wish to attain an ever-greater state of presence. "If there’s life happening and you run from it, you’re not doing the world a favor," he says. "You have to engage." And if you do, you may discover possibilities you'd never even suspected before.

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Blues Musician Plays a Soul-Stirring Version of “Amazing Grace” at His Mother’s Funeral

The Dust to Digital Facebook page sets the scene: "Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram, play[s] an amazing and touching version of "Amazing Grace" at the funeral of his mother, Princess Pride, today. She was a great supporter of her son, and would have turned 50 tomorrow." Amazing and touching indeed. Make sure you play it all of the way through. And when you start the video, manually move up the volume icon at the bottom right of the video.

In case it's not already clear, Kingfish is a professional blues musician. You can catch his videos on Youtube, including this sweet version of “I Put A Spell On You.” Very sorry for your loss, Kingfish...

Traditional Inuit Thoat Singing and the Modern World Collide in This Astonishing Video

Let’s just get this out of the way…

Musically speaking, Inuit throat singing—or katajjaqis not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

For all those who find this traditional form mesmerizing, there are others who get antsy with no lyrics or easily discernible melody on which to hang their hat, or who experience the bleak sound of the Arctic wind coupled with the singers’ preliminary breathing as a horror movie soundtrack.

If, as a member of one of the latter camps, you feel inclined to bail after a minute or so of Wapikoni Mobile’s Sundance-endorsed video above—you get it, it’s something akin to Mongolian or Tuvan throat-singing, it’s circular breathing, there’s a lot of picturesque snow up therewe beg you to reconsider, on two counts.

1) In an era of autotuned "everyone’s-a-star" perfection, Katajjaq is a hearty hold-out, a community-spirited singing game whose competitors seek neither stardom nor riches, but rather, to challenge themselves and amuse each other without screens throughout the long winter nights.

Practitioner Evie Mark breaks it down thusly:

One very typical example is when the husbands would go on hunting trips.  The women would gather together when they have nothing to do, no more sewing to do, no more cleaning to do, they would just have fun, and one of the ways of entertaining themselves is throat-singing.

It goes like this. Two women face each other very closely, and they would throat sing like this:

If I would be with my partner right now, I would say A, she would say A, I would say A, she would say A, I say C, she says C.  So she repeats after me.  It would be a sort of rolling of sounds.  And, once that happens, you create a rhythm.  And the only way the rhythm would be broken is when one of the two women starts laughing or if one of them stops because she is tired.  It's a kind of game.  We always say the first person to laugh or the first person to stop is the one to lose.  It's nothing serious.  Throat singing is way of having fun.  That's the general idea, it's to have fun during gatherings.  It is also a way to prove to your friends around you or your family that if you are a good throat-singer, you're gonna win the game.

Throat-singing is a very accurate technique in a sense that when you are singing fast, the person who is following the leader has to go in every little gap the leader leaves for her to fill in.  For instance, if I was to say 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, the ones being what I sing and the pluses the gaps, she would go in-between the ones, singing on the pluses.  Then, if I change my rhythm, this woman has to follow that change of rhythm and fill in the gaps of that new rhythm.  She has to be very accurate.  She has to have a very good ear and she has to follow visually what I am doing.

Throat singing is not exactly easy on your diaphragm.  You are using a lot of your muscles in your diaphragm for breathing in and breathing out.  I have to find a space between sounds to breath in in order for me to throat-sing for 20 minutes or more.  20 minutes has been my maximum length of time to throat-sing.  You have to focus on your lungs or your diaphragm.  If you throat-sing using mainly breathing, you are gonna hyperventilate, you're gonna get dizzy and damage your throat.

2) The video, starring Eva Kaukai and Manon Chamberland from Kangirsuk in northern Québec (population: 394), deflates conventional notions of traditional practices as the provenance of somewhere quaint, exotic, taxidermied…

Beginning around the 90-second mark, the singers are joined by a drone that surveys the surrounding area. Viewers get a glimpse of what their Arctic homeland looks like in the warm season, as well as some hunters flaying their kill prior to loading it into a late model pick up, presumably bound for a building in a wholly suburban seeming neighborhood, complete with telephone poles, satellite dishes, andgaspelectric light.

Via Aeon

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC for the new season of her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday


“Don’t Try”: The Philosophy of the Hardworking Charles Bukowski

If Charles Bukowski were alive today, what would you ask him? Best to avoid the standard questions put to writers about how or why they chose to become writers — not just because Bukowski would surely respond with a few colorfully choice words of dismissal, but because he embodied the lack of choice that characterizes the life of every serious creator. According to the Pursuit of Wonder video essay above, Bukowski dropped out of college halfway through in order to write. After a period spent "bouncing around the United States, doing short-term blue-collar jobs while writing hundred of short stories," none of which broke him into the literary big time, came a highly unproductive period of blue-collar jobs without the accompanying writing.

At the end of a writing-free decade, Bukowski "nearly died from a serious bleeding ulcer." This got him back on track, as brushes with mortality tend to do: he subsequently quit his job at the post office and returned to writing full-time. It was only a few years before he went back to work at the post office, but this time he kept writing, putting in the real work at the typewriter before each shift at the day job. He did so without the prospect of success anywhere in the offing, at least not before he reached middle age. "It took Bukowski years and years of writing and toiling and trying to finally have circumstances work out in his favor so he could gain traction and find success as a writer," says the video's narrator. And yet, as we've previously noted here at Open Culture, into Bukowski's gravestone are chiseled these words: "Don't try."

"How could a man who became successful in fulfilling his idea of himself — a man who, although it took a while, found immense respect and recognition for his craft, all because of his relentless trying — how could this man leave the words don't try as his final offering?" We might interpret them in light of a letter from Bukowski to a friend, the writer and publisher William Packard. "Too many writers write for the wrong reasons," declared Bukowski. "They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with the bluebells in their hair... When everything goes best, it's not because you chose writing, but because writing chose you." Bukowski didn't decide to be a writer; nobody actually dedicated to a pursuit ever had to decide which pursuit it would be.

"We work too hard. We try too hard," Bukowski writes to Packard. "Don't try. Don't work. It's there. Looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb." He may have meant, as the video's narrator puts it, that "if you have to try to try, if you have to try to care about something or have to try to want something, perhaps you don't care about it, and perhaps you don't want it." And "if the thought of not doing the thing hurts more than the thought of potentially suffering through the process, if the thought of a life without it or never having tried it at all terrifies you, if it comes to you, through you, out of you, almost as if you're not trying, perhaps Bukowski might say here, try, and 'if you're going to try, go all the way.'" That quote comes from Bukowski's novel Factotum — the story of a writer in search of blue-collar work that won't get in the way of his one true craft — and we might do well to take it one sentence further: "Otherwise, don’t even start."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Radical Tea Towels Offer a Graphic Crash Course in Progressive American History

Those of us who are deeply disappointed to learn we won’t be seeing Harriet Tubman’s face on a redesigned $20 bill any time soon can dry our eyes on a Tubman tea towel… or could if the revered abolitionist and activist wasn’t one of the family-owned Radical Tea Towel’s hottest selling items.

The popular design, based on one of Charles Ross’ murals in Cambridge, Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden is currently out of stock.

Fortunately, the company has immortalized plenty of other inspirational feminists, activists, civil rights leaders, authors, and thinkers on cotton rectangles, suitable for all your dish drying and gift giving needs.

Or wave them at a demonstration, on the creators’ suggestion.

The need for radical tea towels was hatched as one of the company’s Welsh co-founder’s was searching in vain for a practical birthday present that would reflect her 92-year-old father’s progressive values.

Five years later, bombarded with distressing post-election messages from the States, they decided to expand across the pond, to highlight the achievements of “amazing Americans who've fought the cause of freedom and equality over the years.”

The description of each towel's subject speaks to the passion for history, education  and justice the founders—a mother, father, and adult son—bring to the project. Here, for example, is their write up on Muhammad Ali, above:

He was born Cassius Clay and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, but the name the world knew him by was simply, 'The Greatest.’ Through his remarkable boxing career, Ali is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century and was an inspiring, controversial and polarising figure both inside and outside the ring. 

Ali started boxing as a 12-year-old because he wanted to take revenge on the boy who stole his bike, and at 25, he lost his boxing licence for refusing to fight in Vietnam. (‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam when so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’ He demanded.) It was perhaps the only time he surrendered: millions of dollars, the love of his nation, his career… but it was for what he believed in. And although his views on race were often confused, this was just example of his Civil Rights activism.

Ali became a lightning rod for dissent, setting an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the Civil Rights Movement. And he took no punch lying down – neither inside the boxing ring nor in the fight for equality: after being refused service in a whites-only restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, he reportedly threw the Olympic gold medal he had just won in Rome into the Ohio River. So, here’s an empowering gift celebrating the man who never threw in the (tea) towel.

The Radical Tea Towel blog is such stuff as will bring a grateful tear to an AP US History teacher’s eye. The Forebears We Share: Learning from Radical History is a good place to start. Other topics include Abigail Adam’s American Revolution advocacy, the bridge designs of revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine, and Bruce Springsteen’s love of protest songs.

(The Radical Tea Towel design team has yet to pay tribute to The Boss, but until they do, we can rest easy knowing author John Steinbeck’s towel embodies Springsteen’s sentiment. )

Lest our educational dishcloths lull us into thinking we know more about our country than we actually do, the company’s website has a radical history quiz, modeled on the US history and government naturalization test which would-be Americans must pass with a score of at least 60%. This one is, unsurprisingly, geared toward progressive history. Test your knowledge to earn a tea towel discount code.

Begin your Radical Tea Towel explorations here, and don't neglect to take in all the rad designs celebrating the upcoming centennial of women's suffrage.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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