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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Ram Dass (Richard Alpert)

Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying by Ram Dass (Riverhead Books) More than thirty years ago, an entire generation sought a new way of life, looking for fulfillment and meaning in a way no one had before. Leaving his teaching job at Harvard, Ram Dass embodied the role of spiritual seeker, showing others how to find peace within themselves in one of the greatest spiritual classics of the twentieth century, Be Here Now. Now, as many of that generation enter the autumn of their years, the big questions of peace and of purpose have returned, demanding answers. And once again, Ram Dass blazes a new trail, inviting all to join him on the next stage of the journey.

Excerpt: Birthdays were never traumatic for me, largely because I tried to ignore them. They came and went, I aged and forgot, and went along my merry way until I arrived at 60. That year, for the first time, I began to take notice of how old I was. In India, where I've spent a great deal of time, entering one's seventh decade is a defining moment, the threshold to a stage of life when we're meant to turn away from worldly things and focus attention on God. This seemed like a momentous passage, and during that birthday week I surrendered to three different parties, in three different parts of the country, each celebrating my coming of age.

    For about six months, I tried "being" sixty, thinking of myself in that context. I wondered about how my life should change, who I should work toward becoming now that I was officially old. I thought about winding up my worldly affairs and, though most of my life had been devoted to spiritual matters, retreating even further from worldly temptations. But after a half-year, this notion began to seem like a bogus mind trip. Nothing had changed inside me; I didn't feel at all like sixty-or any age whatsoever-and as for giving up my outer activities, I was busier than ever. I decided to give up on being an old man and returned to the life I had before, forgetting that I was aging.

    Two years later, at sixty-two, I had another wake-up call. On a soft autumn evening in 1993, I was on a train between Connecticut and New York admiring the brilliant New England foliage after a day spent hiking with a dear friend in the woodlands surrounding her home. I was deeply contented there on the coach, reflecting on the colors of the day, when a conductor came down the aisle, collecting tickets.

    "I'll have to buy mine from you," I said.

    "What kind will it be?" he asked.

    "Do I have a choice?"

    "Regular or senior citizen?"

    Now, although I was bald, covered with age spots and battling high blood pressure and gout, it had never ever occurred to me-not once-that I could be called a senior citizen! I remembered the time when I was eighteen and tried to buy a beer legally in a bar, and was astounded that they'd sell one to me. But this conductor hadn't asked for ID; he'd taken one look and thought, "Discount." Offended, amused, confused, I said in a squeaky-sounding voice, "Senior citizen?"

    "That'll be four and a half dollars," he said.

    "How much would the regular ticket be?"

    "Seven dollars."

    Well, I was pleased with that, of course, but the satisfaction of saving the money quickly faded. What identity had I taken on with the discount of senior citizen? As the coach rattled on, I felt troubled and anxious, weighed down by the baggage of my new label. Was the saving worth the cost? The role itself seemed so constricting-senior citizen! Old fogey!-and reminded me of a story that my father used to tell about a village tailor known as Zumbach. As legend had it, a man in this village had succeeded in business and wanted to have a new suit made. He went to Zumbach, the most famous tailor in the land, and had himself measured. When he came back to Zumbach's shop the next week for the final fitting, put on his new suit and stood in front of the mirror, he saw that the right sleeve was two inches longer than the left.

    "Er, Zumbach," he said, "there seems to be something wrong here. This sleeve is at least two inches too long."

    The tailor, who didn't like backtalk from his customers, puffed himself up and said, "There is nothing wrong with the suit, my good man. Clearly, it's the way you're standing." With that, Zumbach pushed on the man's shoulder until the sleeves were even. But when the customer looked in the mirror, he saw that the fabric at the back of the suit was bunched up behind his neck. "Please, Zumbach," the poor man said, "my wife hates a suit that bulges in back. Would you mind just taking that out?"

    Zumbach snorted indignantly, "I tell you there's nothing wrong with this suit! It must be the way you're standing." Zumbach shoved the man's head forward until the suit seemed to fit him to perfection. After paying the tailor's high price, the man left Zumbach's store in confusion.

    Later that day, he was waiting at the bus stop with his shoulders lopsided and his head straining forward, when another fellow took hold of his lapel and said, "What a beautiful suit! I'll bet Zumbach the tailor made that suit for you."

    "Why, yes," the man said, "but how did you know?"

    "Because only a tailor as brilliant as Zumbach could outfit a body as crippled as yours."

    The mantle of senior citizenship felt exactly like Zumbach's coat, and that very evening, on a train from Hartford to New York City, I began to seriously question where my ideas about aging had come from, why being old felt like such a stigma, and whether or not I could transform this process, with all the fears, losses, and uncertainties that came with it, from a necessary evil into an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth. Was it possible to create a sort of curriculum for conscious aging? I'd spent a lot of time during the past thirty-five years working on issues of consciousness, after all; on developing a Soul perspective, rooted in spiritual wisdom. Now I wanted to take those decades of inner work and apply them to this new phase of life. But before I could discover an approach to aging unlike the one being offered by this culture (one that I'd absorbed without realizing it), I had to take a long, hard look at these cultural messages. I already knew from my work in sociology and psychology that the first step toward not being unconsciously influenced by something was to become conscious of it. Only by understanding the predicament could I begin to slip out of Zumbach's coat.

The Predicament

Issues of sexuality, gender, and spirituality have come out of the closet since the Sixties. Because of midwives and hospices, even birth and death are out as well. Aging remains one of our culture's last taboos. Judging from how the old are represented (or rather, not represented) by the media, it's fair to say we live in a society that would like to pretend that old people don't exist. Since people typically spend less as they age, advertisers focus their attention on the young, unless they're selling denture adhesives or incontinence pads. A recent study showed that only three percent of the images seen in a day of television contains images of older people, and when you notice how these elders are depicted-as silly, stubborn, vindictive, or worst of all, cute-you begin to appreciate the not-so-subtle antipathy of a market-driven culture toward the elderly.

    We cannot underestimate the media's influence on how we view ourselves as aging individuals. Men get trouble enough from the current obsession with staying young and beautiful, but women suffer even more from this craze. This is because men have traditionally had access to something almost as good as youth: power. Women have been deprived of this access until very recently. A man could be wrinkled and gray, but if he held high social or financial status, his physical losses were offset. Not so for women. Where an older man can be euphemized as "distinguished," a woman is more often called "faded" or "over the hill," and suffers enormous pressure to hide her age, often with painful results. Women now live a full third of their lives after menopause, and yet if you believe our popular culture, a woman who isn't young, shapely, and still capable of bearing children is all but invisible. I have women friends who've gone to great lengths to keep up a youthful front with the help of plastic surgery, and while the results may be superficially satisfying, the impulse to re-carve what nature has created often masks a profound despair. It is as if we are urged to fight, over and over again, a losing battle against time, pitting ourselves against natural law. How ghastly this is, and how inhumane, toward both ourselves and the cycle of life. It reminds me of someone rushing around the fields in the autumn painting the marvelous gold and red leaves with green paint. It's a lot of wasted time and energy.

    Take the spots I have on my hands. Though I haven't been harmed by them at all, I am harmed by the message I see on TV. "They call these aging spots," an older woman says in a Porcelana ad, "but I call them ugly!" When I see that ad, I become uneasy about a natural process my body is going through. But when I flip that message around in my mind-"They call these ugly, I call them aging spots!"-the illusion is dispelled, and suddenly it's just autumn leaves.

    I experienced this first-hand a few years back when I was invited to give a couple of talks for a company called La Prairie. It's a Swiss firm that makes a very fancy line of "age management" cosmetics. They heard that I'd been lecturing about aging, and thought that my presence might lend a transcendental touch to their products. Now ordinarily, I wouldn't be inclined to take on an assignment like that, since some might say that it compromised my role as a spiritual teacher to be concerned with such material things as keeping your body young and beautiful. But La Prairie had offered to pay me $6,000, which, in the service work our foundation supported doing cataract operations for the blind, represented a lot of eyeballs. So I said, "Why not?"

    The plan was for me to speak at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills to two hundred of the store's wealthiest clients. I was seated with the other speakers at a little table, where a skin nutritionist was going to tell us how to keep our skin lovely and supple. "We're going to do this little test," she said. "Let's all put our hands on the table in front of us, take a little pinch of skin and hold it for five seconds. Then we'll see how quickly it goes back into place. If it goes back down, you're in good shape. Otherwise, we have a problem!" With some trepidation, I put my hand out and pinched, but when I released, the skin just stayed there; in fact, if I hadn't pulled it back myself, it would be like that to this day. They all looked at me, appalled. How could I possibly be living that way? Afterward, they sent me huge jars of ointments and creams to help me recover my suppleness.

    The images our culture generates are designed to make you feel that aging is a kind of failure; that somehow God made a big mistake. If God were as smart as the commercials, people would be young forever, but since God isn't, only the wonders of science and commerce can save us. Can you see how bizarre this assumption is, and how much pain it creates? Pitting ourselves more and more desperately against an inexorable process revealed in crow's feet, stretch marks and puffiness, we are given two equally doomed choices: to suck in, thrust out, tuck and nip, and build our muscles, all to hold onto a semblance of youth; or resign ourselves in sad defeat, feeling like failures, outsiders, victims, or fools.

    The so-called problem of aging is trumpeted everywhere we turn. With the great wave of baby boomers moving into their 50s and 60s, the very economic stability of the United States is being called into question. There's the fear that Social Security will go bankrupt as more old people require support. In the eyes of the economists, the aged aren't merely a problem-we're a disaster. And we didn't do a thing!

    If we listen to the rhetoric of the economists, politicians, social planners, advertisers, statisticians, and health-care providers, the overwhelming message we're sent is that aging is a great social ill, a necessary evil, a drain on society, and an affront to esthetics. When avoidance finally fails, old age should be coped with as one would cope with a chronic condition-leprosy, say, or an unwanted visitor who unpacks his bags and won't go away. We, the aging, are viewed as a burden instead of a resource. As Betty Friedan wrote in her own book on aging, "The old people begin to look like greedy geezers to the young, because (we're) costing the young so much, in so many ways."

    This is a distorted view, of course, and not only a great disservice to the old but also one that inevitably returns to haunt the young. A Chinese story I love points this out beautifully. It tells of an old man who's too weak to work in the garden or help with household chores. He just sits on the porch, gazing out across the fields, while his son tills the soil and pulls up weeds. One day, the son looks up at the old man and thinks, "What good is he now that he's so old? All he does is eat up the food! I have a wife and children to think about. It's time for him to be done with life!" So he makes a large wooden box, places it on a wheelbarrow, rolls it up to the porch, and says to the old man, "Father, get in." The father lies down in the box and the son puts the cover on, then wheels it toward the cliff. At the edge of the cliff, the son hears a knock from inside the box. "Yes, father?" the son asks. The father replies, "Why don't you just throw me off the cliff and save the box? Your children are going to need it one day."

    Unless we see ourselves as part of life's continuity, whether we're currently young or old, we will continue to view aging as something apart from the mainstream of culture, and the old as somehow other. In a non-traditional culture such as ours, dominated by technology, we value information far more than we do wisdom. But there is a difference between the two. Information involves the acquisition, organization, and dissemination of facts; a storing-up of physical data. But wisdom involves another equally crucial function: the emptying and quieting of the mind, the application of the heart, and the alchemy of reason and feeling. In the wisdom mode, we're not processing information, analytically or sequentially. We're standing back and viewing the whole, discerning what matters and what does not, weighing the meaning and depth of things. This quality of wisdom is rare in our culture. More often, we have knowledgeable people who pretend to be wise, but who, unfortunately, have not, cultivated the quality of mind from which wisdom truly arises.

    When we spend time in traditional societies, where the young seek out the wisdom of their elders, we become aware of how upside-down such non-traditional values are. A few years ago I visited a village in India where I had spent a great deal of time. I visited the house of a dear friend, who said to me, "Oh, Ram Dass, you're looking so much older!" Because I live in the United States, my first reaction was defensive; inwardly, I thought to myself, "Gee, I thought I was looking pretty good." But when I paused to take in the tone of my friend's voice, this reaction melted instantly. I heard the respect with which he'd addressed me, as if to say, "You've done it, my friend! You've grown old! You've earned the respect due an elder now, someone we can rely on and to whom we can listen."

    In a culture where information is prized over wisdom, however, old people become obsolete, like yesterday's computers. But the real treasure is being ignored: wisdom is one of the few things in human life that does not diminish with age. While everything else falls away, wisdom alone increases until death if we live examined lives, opening ourselves out to life's many lessons, rather than shrinking into Zumbach's coat. In traditional cultures that go unchanged for generation after generation, the value of wise elders is easy to spot; but in a culture such as ours, wisdom is nowhere near as exciting-or necessary-as surfing the Net. We feel we have to keep running to stay up-to-date, to learn the latest version of Windows or try out that Stairmaster at the gym. I used to have a sign over my computer that read OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I sometimes ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn. How many more of those damned manuals do I want to read in this lifetime? Wouldn't it be easier just to be outdated?

    Of course, it's not easy to be outdated-to move into the aging stage with grace and a sense of appropriateness-in a culture that does not value that metamorphosis or provide a respected role for its elders. Through the Omega Institute in New York, I have taken part with other colleagues in facilitating "Elder Circles." The oldest people in the group sit in a large circle, and the younger people sit just behind them. We use a talking stick, a custom adopted from a Native American tradition, and as they are ready, members of the inner circle can walk to the center, take the talking stick, return to their seats, and share their wisdom with the rest of the group. By custom, they begin their remarks with "And ..." and end them with "I have spoken." This is an opportunity for people to share their own wisdom and to contribute it to the collective group wisdom. Many people flower in the richness of this process, as the group becomes aware of how each person holds some part of the complex mosaic that is elder wisdom. At the close of a circle, people have often said, "This is a role I'm totally unfamiliar with, because nobody's ever asked me to be wise before." It's impossible not to be moved by the poignancy of such a remark, as regards both the aging person and the culture deprived of such a precious resource.

    If the situation is going to change, of course, it will be because we, the aging, work to change it. We cannot expect the young to beat down our doors, begging for our wisdom, reminding us of our responsibility to society. As older people, we will have to initiate the change by freeing ourselves of this culture's bias, and remember the unique things we bring to the table. As wise elders, we are capable of cultivating the very resources that our endangered world needs if it is to survive healthy and whole: qualities of sustainability, patience, reflection, appreciation for justice, and the humor born of long experience. These qualities are in short supply in our society.

    Since the first baby boomers turned fifty in 1996, the opportunity has existed to right this imbalance and infuse our culture with elder wisdom. The American Association of Retired Persons (which one can join at age fifty) is already one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. Numbers are power in a democracy, and the question we must ask ourselves now is, How do we want to use the power? Now that aging is coming out of the closet, how can we work toward increasing our culture's wisdom without hampering its devotion to progress? How can we work to reverse the "aging onus" that traps so many elderly people in the badly tailored suit of an outdated identity, blocking what they have to offer?

    This is our predicament, then: to regain our roles as wise elders in a culture that has traditionally denied the need for wisdom, or the ability of the old to provide it; to envision a curriculum for aging with wisdom as its highest calling, and to use it as a means of enlightenment-our own, and that of the people around us. But it is futile to try to change the outside world without beginning with ourselves-as futile, said an Indian master, as trying to straighten out a dog's tail. It is futile as well to look for our "selves" without understanding how the self is defined by our culture, and by what we consider reality to be.

Copyright © 2000 Ram Dass. All rights reserved.


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