By David Feinstein
If you travel the same social media circles as do we, you have probably seen a dozen tributes to Ram Dass upon his passing last Sunday at the age of 88. I won’t try to recap them but will recount some of our personal experiences.
A career high for me was when Ram Dass endorsed my book Rituals for Living and Dying: “The provocative exercises and thoughtful text can help you approach death, and thus life, with enhanced integrity.” While I admired Ram Dass in many areas, I found his work in supporting caregivers, healthcare professionals, and individuals dealing with terminal illness through “the Living-Dying Project” to be particularly inspirational.
Donna and I got an up-close look at these services in relation to a client we both treated. I’ll call him Bob.
Bob was a highly successful attorney – gratifying job, beautiful home, wonderful wife – who was diagnosed with ALS, the generally unstoppable disease of the nervous system that progresses from muscle weakness to death when the nerves that control breathing no longer work. Faced with this grim picture of how his life was going to end, Bob came to me for supportive counseling.
Donna got involved with no illusions that this was an illness that anyone is likely to overcome, but with many tools to make the physical journey more comfortable. We both grew to love this man, and we shared in his anguish about leaving the wonderful life he had created for himself.
In one of our sessions, Bob mentioned to me that he had heard that Ram Dass will speak with people who are dying, and he was trying to arrange such a session. While my work with him had gone far in helping him accept the inevitable and begin to understand his remaining life from more of a spiritual standpoint, the two-hour phone meeting with Ram Dass resulted in a quantum leap in these areas.
A few months after Bob died, I saw Ram Dass at a conference. I’d met with him several times before, and after a few niceties about my appreciation for his endorsement of my book, I told him how much the call had meant to Bob.
He remembered Bob well, and the entire atmosphere changed in our conversation, as if he went into the space he goes into while talking with those who are dying. He told me that he has about three long calls like that every week, and in this state of grace, he talked about how deeply meaningful they are to him.
It was a beautiful moment for me. He didn’t charge for these sessions or boast about them, but he was letting me into a precious part of his life.
It was not the first time, however, that Donna and I had encountered this man’s deep compassion and wisdom. When Donna and I first moved to Ashland (Oregon), the town was in grief over the torture and brutal murder of two sixth-grade girls by a total stranger.
Particularly in throbbing pain, of course, were their parents. Learning of this tragedy, Ram Dass wrote a beautiful unsolicited letter to the parents which they shared widely. It became an important part of the community’s healing.
One more story. I was at a conference where Ram Dass spoke about the spiritual practice of letting go of one’s possessions. He talked about everything from favorite books signed by their authors to prestigious awards to copies of major media stories about him. It was both hilarious and instructive.
Following his talk, I had a spot which I used to do a spoof about Ram Dass’ life. Everyone there admired him, so I could take considerable license. I don’t remember all I said, but it included things like referring to the creative steps he had to take to become “the first professor ever to be fired by Harvard [due to his early work with LSD before he turned to non-drug ways of entering spiritual realms] in that fine institution’s 5000-year-or-so history.”
I crossed some lines, but he was in the front row and – to my relief – laughing with me all the way. Afterwards I asked him if he would like a copy of my little speech. It is hard to describe exactly the expression on his face in response, but it conveyed with twinkling eyes, “Are you really asking me that after my talk on letting go of possessions!”
Ram Dass, your journey here was a light for millions – all blessings as you move into “being here now” in whatever is next.