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

    Jun 2001, 208 pages


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In a culture where information is prized over wisdom, however, old people become obsolete, like yesterday's computers. But the real treasure is being ignored: wisdom is one of the few things in human life that does not diminish with age. While everything else falls away, wisdom alone increases until death if we live examined lives, opening ourselves out to life's many lessons, rather than shrinking into Zumbach's coat. In traditional cultures that go unchanged for generation after generation, the value of wise elders is easy to spot; but in a culture such as ours, wisdom is nowhere near as exciting-or necessary-as surfing the Net. We feel we have to keep running to stay up-to-date, to learn the latest version of Windows or try out that Stairmaster at the gym. I used to have a sign over my computer that read OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I sometimes ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn. How many more of those damned manuals do I want to read in this lifetime? Wouldn't it be easier just to be outdated?

Of course, it's not easy to be outdated-to move into the aging stage with grace and a sense of appropriateness-in a culture that does not value that metamorphosis or provide a respected role for its elders. Through the Omega Institute in New York, I have taken part with other colleagues in facilitating "Elder Circles." The oldest people in the group sit in a large circle, and the younger people sit just behind them. We use a talking stick, a custom adopted from a Native American tradition, and as they are ready, members of the inner circle can walk to the center, take the talking stick, return to their seats, and share their wisdom with the rest of the group. By custom, they begin their remarks with "And..." and end them with "I have spoken." This is an opportunity for people to share their own wisdom and to contribute it to the collective group wisdom. Many people flower in the richness of this process, as the group becomes aware of how each person holds some part of the complex mosaic that is elder wisdom. At the close of a circle, people have often said, "This is a role I'm totally unfamiliar with, because nobody's ever asked me to be wise before." It's impossible not to be moved by the poignancy of such a remark, as regards both the aging person and the culture deprived of such a precious resource.

If the situation is going to change, of course, it will be because we, the aging, work to change it. We cannot expect the young to beat down our doors, begging for our wisdom, reminding us of our responsibility to society. As older people, we will have to initiate the change by freeing ourselves of this culture's bias, and remember the unique things we bring to the table. As wise elders, we are capable of cultivating the very resources that our endangered world needs if it is to survive healthy and whole: qualities of sustainability, patience, reflection, appreciation for justice, and the humor born of long experience. These qualities are in short supply in our society.

Since the first baby boomers turned fifty in 1996, the opportunity has existed to right this imbalance and infuse our culture with elder wisdom. The American Association of Retired Persons (which one can join at age fifty) is already one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. Numbers are power in a democracy, and the question we must ask ourselves now is, How do we want to use the power? Now that aging is coming out of the closet, how can we work toward increasing our culture's wisdom without hampering its devotion to progress? How can we work to reverse the "aging onus" that traps so many elderly people in the badly tailored suit of an outdated identity, blocking what they have to offer?

This is our predicament, then: to regain our roles as wise elders in a culture that has traditionally denied the need for wisdom, or the ability of the old to provide it; to envision a curriculum for aging with wisdom as its highest calling, and to use it as a means of enlightenment-our own, and that of the people around us. But it is futile to try to change the outside world without beginning with ourselves-as futile, said an Indian master, as trying to straighten out a dog's tail. It is futile as well to look for our "selves" without understanding how the self is defined by our culture, and by what we consider reality to be.

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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