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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Wis­dom of Ram Dass Is Now Online: Stream 150 of His Enlight­ened Spir­i­tu­al Talks as Free Pod­casts

You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Har­vard Psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Langer Shows How Men­tal Atti­tude Can Poten­tial­ly Reverse the Effects of Aging

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

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