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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Often, the advent of aging and illness serves as a wake-up call for many, an alert that our bodies are declining and the inevitable is approaching. Such was the case for Ram Dass, once a spiritual adventurer and icon during the '60s and '70s and always a seeker of the secrets of the soul. His wake-up call came at the age of 65 when he experienced a debilitating stroke that left him speech-impaired and partially paralyzed. He explores this awakening process as well as the cultural taboos surrounding aging and death in his new book, Still Here, an honest and sometimes painful exploration of our fears, our biases, and our limitations. And although the voice and persona of Ram Dass may be subtly different, his ultimate goal is still the same as it was 30 years ago: to find meaning, contentment, and joy in life -- and this time, also in death.
This is a simpler, gentler, and more introspective Ram Dass, a man humbled by his own frailties and strengthened by his hard-earned wisdom. He admits that prior to his stroke, he gave little thought to his own mortality, behaving as if he were invincible and ignoring the normal signs of aging. But after the stroke, death -- and his fear of it -- shadowed him like a bodyguard. To try to deal with this fear, Ram Dass confronted it. He spent time with others who were dying. He explored the various philosophical, spiritual, and metaphysical aspects of death. And he tried to take control of his life, to let go of his ego's fear-inducing grip and embrace an awareness and awakening of his soul instead.
Ram Dass shares the details of this very personal journey, including all the potholes and speed bumps he encountered along the way. He also shares bits and pieces of others' journeys, highlighting their successes and failures and taking a hard look at the societal and cultural influences that affect us. He begins by examining the way we cling to the objects of our youth and our past, engaging in a form of philosophical and spiritual materialism. He shows how we search for self-worth and meaning in nonspiritual arenas, such as our jobs, our possessions, and our physical appearance and condition. All too often, spirituality is ignored or minimized, limited in both scope and practice. Ram Dass's objective is to help others give their spiritual side the attention it needs and deserves.
Part of his focus in Still Here is on reshaping the way we think, to get us more in touch with our souls rather than our egos. He believes we all have the power to age in whatever way we choose and to view it as a process of loss or gain. But in order to achieve the latter, we must first deal with the fears and sources of suffering that are attached to aging, such as the loss of mental acuity, physical ability, energy, control, and stamina, as well as the specters of depression, loneliness, and powerlessness. Our body image and our roles in life are altered, sometimes drastically. And society often treats older people with disdain or, even worse, dismissal.
In coming to terms with these issues of aging, Ram Dass offers exercises, advice, and contemplation. The key, he suggests, is to not grieve over what we have lost but rather to marvel at and celebrate what we are becoming. It's not a simple process, and Ram Dass, who has arguably devoted more time to the process than most people, is still working on it himself. But progress can be made, and Ram Dass shares the ideas and meditations that have helped him achieve a greater level of awareness and contentment.
On the issue of death, Ram Dass has fewer answers and a notably humbler approach. He identifies three root questions that he believes we all have regarding death, and he offers a spirited and convincing argument in support of reincarnation. He brings his Buddhist and existentialist experiences to bear, offers some great bits of wisdom, and discusses the many ways other cultures deal with death. And he suggests that by trying to ignore death, we hide our mortality from our everyday awareness, which in turn prevents us from fully embracing life.
Ram Dass doesn't have all the answers, and he doesn't claim to. What he does have is spiritual courage and curiosity, a bracing sense of honesty, and the same human fears and frailties the rest of us have. Both humor and solemn sobriety can be found in these pages, and no doubt many will find some comfort and wisdom as they embark on their own spiritual journeys. More than anything, Still Here serves as a spiritual guide to all who are, or ever will be, "old."