Excerpt from Still Here by Ram Dass, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Still Here

Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying

by Ram Dass

Still Here by Ram Dass X
Still Here by Ram Dass
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  • First Published:
    May 2000, 208 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2001, 208 pages

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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."

Reprinted from Still Here by Ram Dass by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Ram Dass. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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