Stroked, by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das

A great teacher meets his ultimate challenge

“Are you sick?” Jai asked. When I couldn’t articulate a response, Jai said to tap with the phone, once if I was okay, twice if I needed help.

I kept tapping. He immediately called my secretaries, Marlene Roeder and Jo Anne Baughan, who lived nearby. Before I knew it, Marlene was standing over me, calling 911. I was having a stroke. It was scrambling my words and my thoughts.

This was about five in the afternoon. Marlene had called earlier but the phone was busy. She had actually gotten in the car to drive over but didn’t want to disturb me and had turned around. I must have been lying on the floor for some hours.

When the paramedics arrived, I observed their actions from my witness place: lifting me onto the stretcher, loading me into the ambulance. Was this part of my old-man dream? It felt as if we were all actors in a movie. I watched with fascination. It was as if I wasn’t having the stroke, but the stroke was having me!

The paramedics took me to the Kaiser hospital in Marin. As I was being wheeled in on the gurney, I was looking up at the pipes on the ceiling. Entering the emergency room, I thought, “This is a critical moment, and my mind isn’t on God!” Here I was, Mr. Spiritual, having a life-and-death experience. I should’ve been merging with God, with Maharaj-ji, not watching the pipes on the ceiling.

If death is one of the great matters for spiritual work, I flunked the big test. I was disappointed with myself. But that’s my judging mind looking back. Why wasn’t I saying my mantra or concentrating on Maharaj-ji? If I was truly identified with my soul, that’s what I would do. Instead, my consciousness was captured by the hospital melodrama. I couldn’t walk my talk. In fact, I couldn’t walk at all. Or talk. My time sense of those events is skewed, and a lot of the memories are lost in the fog of the stroke.

The medical diagnosis was a massive brain hemorrhage. Though I was somewhat coherent when I got to the hospital, the doctor explained that the most life-threatening moments were yet to come, because of how the brain swells in the first days after a stroke. (Nowadays they give a lot of salt to reduce the fluids.)

I knew this was a big deal, but it didn’t really occur to me I might be dying, that this might be all she wrote for this body. As I looked from the paramedics to the doctors, I could see they all thought I was dying. But inside I wasn’t dying. My consciousness was alive. I wasn’t thinking straight because of my scrambled brain. Maybe I was in the witness place. But clearly I was still here.

When they realized I had had a serious stroke, they transported me to a special Kaiser stroke facility south of San Francisco. They gave me a 10 percent chance of survival. But survive I did. I was in the ICU for four or five days and then was moved to a rehab center. I don’t remember much of those first days.

Since I understand this reality as a projection of mind, my immediate reaction to the stroke was that I had created this medical disaster as an exercise to finish the book. Was this reality, or was it my projection? On some level both were true. But the arrival of the paramedics and my not being able to talk or move the right side of my body was a potent sales pitch for reality.

As I had trained myself to do with any bad trip, I settled into witness consciousness and watched it all go by.

The brain hemorrhage paralyzed the right side of my body and left me with complete aphasia, total inability to speak. Trying to make sense of my incapacity, I felt frustration and despair. The clinical psychologist in me noticed the growing emotional fallout and the effects on my thinking and mental process. Even so, the profound mental and physical nature of the stroke hadn’t fully registered.

The hospital scene was disorienting, not least my interactions with visitors. I remember my brother Bill came to see me from New York, but he wouldn’t talk to my partner, Peter. Larry Brilliant, our satsang doctor, sat at my bedside looking very serious, sadder than I felt. But I was in a lot of physical discomfort.

I was working on a book about aging—and now this wave of incapacity was my own next chapter, perhaps the final one. The physical shock of being stroked, the arrival of the paramedics, and the inability to move or speak or think clearly made the drama of sickness and old age very palpable. I was suddenly old and disabled. Wherever I was, it was not in a fantasy.

Truth be told, I’d ignored the signals that my body had been sending me for some time. I was too invested in my spiritual teaching—too busy traveling, writing, and serving—to pay attention. In the previous months I’d collapsed on a dance floor at a wedding reception, lost my hearing on one side while scuba diving in the Caribbean, and had dizziness and then a fainting spell—in retrospect, all stroke precursors.

I knew I had high blood pressure, and my doctor had prescribed medicine for it. But I shrugged it off and stopped taking the medicine, in part because blood-pressure meds suppress sexual activity. I started taking Chinese herbs instead, but I wasn’t taking them regularly. Now I don’t remember all the details. A lot of my memories from that time were erased by the stroke.

Lying in the hospital, I was frustrated on many levels. I can usually extricate myself from thoughts and emotional upheaval, but this time I was really stuck. I was angry at myself for being sucked into the melodrama and frustrated I couldn’t do anything to get out of it. I couldn’t formulate ideas. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak.

My satsang friends put up a picture of Maharaj-ji on the wall of my hospital room, but then I thought the stroke must have happened because of my lack of faith, and I became deeply depressed. Strong faith would have avoided this. Once again I told myself I’d failed the test.

Of course, the truth is that we all keep failing tests until we don’t. That’s a definition of the spiritual path. Eventually, surrendering to my damaged body, I had to surrender my judging mind too—the attachments, the motivations, how I thought it should be or how I should be.

But at that point, I had fallen off the path. My faith was shaking like a leaf in a high wind. I would look at the picture of Maharaj-ji and say, “Where were you when I had this stroke? Were you out to lunch or something?” Depression barely begins to describe how I felt. My emotions were in a deep hole. I thought Maharaj-ji had abandoned me, that he had withdrawn his grace because of my lack of faith.

And now I had no more faith left. That was a terrible feeling—the very worst part of my illness—because life under his blanket had felt so graced until then. I experienced a mix of violent emotions, anger and despair. My reference points were all gone. The interface between my consciousness and the world was ripped out.
One day, some of the satsang members brought another picture of Maharaj-ji and one of Hanuman to the rehab center, thinking it would help. I lost my temper. I was emphatic they should take them out. Someone else brought some of Maharaj-ji’s ashes, but I didn’t want those either. I thought the pictures were inappropriate in the setting and that the doctors might think Hanuman too weird. I was angry because I couldn’t control anything. More than that, I was angry at myself for losing faith. In the end I let the pictures stay.

At the hospital and rehab, a lot of people came and went, doctors and nurses and friends and relatives. They all had long faces that said, “You poor guy, you’ve had a stroke!” The whole view of a stroke as a medical disaster was continually projected onto me. And by absorbing their mindsets, I started to think of myself as a “poor guy,” another stroke “victim.”

Only the cleaning woman didn’t project despair onto me. Whenever she came into my room, she was totally present, just … cleaning. She knew. She didn’t see me as a medical disaster. She saw me as a fellow soul.
I had to ask everyone to leave because their minds were so negative. I probably let them know I needed to rest. I started talking to Maharaj-ji’s picture again. It was hard because my mind was still scrambled. But I’m a bhakti yogi, and I was able to come into my heart. I quieted down, sitting up in my bed. I was talking to him in my mind. I said, once again, “Where were you when I had this stroke? Were you out to lunch?”

This time, I heard him laugh, the slightly high-pitched “He, he, he!” that was so typical. I didn’t know what he was laughing about. But inside I got the message: “I am with you. Just wait and see.”

Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji. Wikimedia Commons. Author: Prabhard

That was when I began to turn the corner. The connection to Maharaj-ji wasn’t completely restored—it would flicker for a while after that—but it was there. Maharaj-ji’s giggle laughed off my depression; I was done thinking about the stroke. Everyone around had been making me into a disaster victim. Now my faith came back, and I could speak to Maharaj-ji inside. I remembered he once said, “If you want to find God, go to the hospital.”

I found myself back in soul land, an instant but subtle shift in point of view from ego to soul. I went from not feeling his presence at all to again dwelling in the place in myself where he lives. It was like getting beamed up to another plane. The rehabilitation exercises and speech therapy were hard work, but I was making new neural connections, forging new ways of relating. I was starting to repair from the inside.

I started thinking about this seemingly catastrophic event in a different way. I thought, “Well, maybe I had this stroke so my soul will learn from it. What if this is a blessing in disguise?”

As I looked at the devastating effects of the stroke, there were few that couldn’t also be seen as positive. My aphasia, my newly hesitant speech and searching for words, made me quiet a lot more of the time. Meditators think it’s good to quiet the mind. Aha! The stroke had made my mind quiet. Good.

My physical limitations made me dependent on others. I’d been such a helper—that was my thing! I’d written about service with Paul Gorman in our book How Can I Help? Now I had to ask, “How can you help me?” I had enjoyed driving my car; now someone else would have to drive me. This also meant I could enjoy the trees and the sunset, and I didn’t have to look at the road. I was seeing the world anew.

As Maharaj-ji had told me to do, I waited. As the silence of my mind deepened, I saw how the intervals in my broken speech allowed others to become quiet too. Humiliation at my new dependency turned into humility in the face of the love coming frommy caregivers. Embarrassment at my helplessness became gratitude for their help.

As my needs for power—for independence, for the witty, eloquent speaker I’d once been—calmed, I began to merge more deeply with Maharaj-ji, shifting perspective from the mind to the soul. From that vantage, I could feel the service and love and compassion that is his real being, that is all of our true nature, and feel the joy, peace, wisdom, and bliss emanating from that core. K. K. Sah wrote to remind me that Maharaj-ji had said about me, “I will do something for him.” He was doing it.

Rehab was hard. I was relearning how to walk and how to feed myself, brush my teeth and hair, bathe myself—things I’d done habitually but couldn’t do anymore. The hardest part was being in the role of patient. To the rehab people I was my body. I wasn’t thinking that way, and I felt distant. I was straddling two planes of consciousness, one witnessing the other as an impatient patient.

I had to accept the karma, the fierce grace of my situation. And I had to work with my therapists. One part of me watching the lila, the dance of consciousness, and the other part of me working like hell to get my body functions back. My relationships with the physical therapists were warm, and they were wonderfully skilled. So I did as instructed, witnessing from the inside and doing the exercises outside.

We were enjoying one another’s company. They were gentle and helpful. When therapists are souls, there’s a kind of intimacy. Other times, when someone had to move me around and position my body, I felt like a sack of potatoes. At those times I felt like an old man, because of the mind of the helper. We go in and out of being able to share our souls together. When we’re in the soul, we just hang out.

The self-critical me kept creeping in with the extreme effort required to make any progress in rehab. My paralyzed leg was heavy and unresponsive. My ego saw that as laziness, even though I was overcoming physical obstacles daily just to exist. The subtle transition from witnessing to judging was a slippery slope, happening constantly. Accepting the karma of the stroke and witnessing it from the soul was one plane of consciousness. But for the exertion of will and hard work, my ego needed to take over. Maintaining the inner perspective was, in its way, as challenging as the grueling physical therapy.

When I could return to my witness place, I was not in the stroke. The therapists were insistent I do the exercises, even when I couldn’t control my body, and kept pushing me to try harder. From the witness perspective, I could love the therapists giving me such a hard time. I was a soul in a body—but I wasn’t the body or the stroke. The witness didn’t fit into the medical system, but it rescued me from always thinking, “I have a stroke” and alleviated some of the mental suffering. It was still hard work.

Witnessing is movie-like, and because the witness is from the soul, it takes me into love. That loving awareness is the connection to Maharaj-ji, to the One. There were times when it merged into a flow of oneness and love that was more seamless, with less back and forth. Then I could play the game better, because the witness perspective is Maharaj-ji playing the game with us while saying, “Ram” all the time.

At times I could even find a degree of contentment. I remembered contentment was part of the yama/niyama practice of yoga, called santosha, one of the mindsets you use to direct your consciousness toward oneness. Contentment is a practice. It’s not a feeling of accomplishment from doing something. Contentment is just being complete in the moment. In the moment, there is just presence, no future or past, just happy to be here in the moment. Contentment is an attitude of the soul.

By the time I got out of rehab, I could manage a halting walk with a cane. Aphasia was still the hardest aftereffect to deal with. I depended on my verbal facility—lecturing, storytelling, and being a spiritual raconteur. A speech therapist came to the house in San Anselmo to help me relearn how to speak from scratch. I struggled to express ideas again. It was weird, I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the words. It was as if words were clothes hanging in my closet and I was searching through the closet, trying to find the right outfit for the occasion. It was slow going. As Wavy Gravy, my old friend, quipped one time, “Ram Dass used to be the master of the one-liner. Now he’s a master of the ocean liner.”

I went to LA for experimental therapy in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. My old friend Laura Huxley, Aldous’s widow, helped arrange it. The course of treatment lasted several weeks. I would lie in the chamber for half an hour at a time. It was warm, like a mild pressure cooker. I couldn’t tell whether it improved my cognitive facility, but I had nice meditations.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the stroke was just a stroke. My reaction to the stroke was something else: that was my work on myself. The saving grace was being able to see it from the soul perspective. Instead of saying, “Oh, no, I’ve had a stroke!” and going through the whole cascade of medical disaster and despair, I came around to, “Well, let’s see what’s graceful in this stroke.” I began to treat it as just what was happening in the present moment.

When Marlene called my book editor, Amy, with the grim news of the stroke, the first thing Amy asked was, “What about the book?” The due date for my new draft had originally been set for a few weeks after my stroke. We all agreed the book was even more important to finish. So I continued writing, this time with the help of Mark Matousek, a gifted writer and teacher who was both workmanlike and wonderfully patient with my aphasia. He listened deeply and helped me express what I needed in order to complete the book.

By the time Still Here came out in 2000, it joined a chorus of other books on aging. My friend Rabbi Zalman had come out with a book on the topic, From Age-ing to Sage-ing. I felt I had something important to add now, because now I was coming from an intense life crisis. Before, I had been thinking about aging and death; now I was reporting on it. I had to revisit my words from before the stroke. What I most wanted to explore was the dependency the stroke had created, because independence is so prized in our society.

The cosmic irony of working on a book about aging and then having to finish it as a disabled old person is stunning. Of course, if I had to describe Maharaj-ji’s humor, cosmic irony would be central. Like a Greek tragedy, it was a matter of hubris. I had the chutzpah to write a book about using aging as a spiritual practice when I hadn’t experienced it.

I still wonder to what extent I imagined myself into becoming disabled with a stroke. That is magical thinking; nevertheless, how our mind creates our reality is powerful. Wherever it came from, the stroke—and the crisis of faith that it precipitated—was a deep teaching. Faith seems fragile and intangible when it disappears. Yet it has been the most powerful wellspring in my life and a source of strength since it returned. Maharaj-ji said, “You may forget me, but I never forget you. Once I take hold of a devotee’s hand, I never let go.”

The stroke stripped me of many things on the outside: physical strength, the ability to drive, play my cello, fly my plane, have sex. I’m dependent on others, and I feel vulnerable. My mind and speech are slow; it’s hard to find words. But since the stroke, I’ve been more with Maharaj-ji than ever. ◆

Excerpted from Being Ram Dass by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das. Copyright © 2021 Love Serve Remember Foundation. Published by Sounds True in January 2021.