The Dass Effect

After a near-fatal stroke, the spiritual leader Ram Dass is back—this time guiding baby boomers to the enlightenment of age.

  1. A full moon was rising on a windy winter night three years ago when Ram Dass was lying in bed in San Anselmo, Calif., trying to fix a book he was writing on aging and dying. He was 65, his hair had turned white and he had spent hundreds of hours working with people who were severely ill. He had completed a draft of the book, “Still Here” (to be published by Riverhead this month), but on that same day in 1997, his editor, Amy Hertz, had sent the draft back to him. She said it was “too glib—funny and interesting but not really getting to the heart of the matter.”

    As he lay in bed, Ram Dass wrestled with how he might reach deeper and make growing old seem visceral and immediate rather than distant and speculative. He asked himself what people fear most about aging: being sick, mentally impaired, totally dependent, nodding in a wheelchair. He closed his eyes and tried to feel how it would be to have a body that was failing—legs that wouldn’t move when cued—and a mind that couldn’t recall simple facts, when the phone rang. He stood up to answer it and his legs gave out from under him. Hours later, he awoke in intensive care and found himself paralyzed from a stroke—an event that might be viewed as one of the more extreme examples of receiving what you need to complete your book.

    The doctors said the cerebral hemorrhage had been so massive that he probably wouldn’t survive. The news was passed from friend to friend. “Ram Dass had a stroke. He can’t move or speak and may not liv...

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