I reached for my phone, on the table near my bed.
"R. D.? Are you there?"
I heard the voice of an old friend in Santa Fe. When I didn't respond coherently, he asked, "Are you sick?" I suppose I still didn't answer, so he said, "If you can't speak, tap on the phone. Tap once for yes and twice for no." When he asked whether I wanted help, I tapped "no" over and over again.
Nonetheless, he contacted my secretaries, who live close by, and the next thing I knew they rushed into the house and found me on the floor. There I was flat on my back, still caught in my "dream" of the very old man, who had now fallen down because his leg wouldn't work. My assistants seemed very frightened; they called 911. My next recollection is of a group of young firemen, straight out of central casting, staring into the old man's face while I observed the whole thing as if from a doorway to the side. I'm told I was immediately rushed to a hospital nearby, but all I remember is being rolled down the hospital corridors, looking up at the ceiling pipes and the concerned faces of nurses and friends. I was fascinated by what was happening.
Only afterward did I learn that I had a stroke and realize how close to death I had actually been. The doctors told my friends I had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and only a ten percent chance of survival. I noticed the looks of deep concern on the faces of the doctors and my friends, but the thought of dying was nowhere in my mind, so I was perplexed by their grave expressions.
Three hospitals and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation later, I gradually eased into my new post-stroke life as someone in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed, requiring round-the-clock care and a degree of personal attention that made me uncomfortable. All my life I had been a "helper"; I had even collaborated on a book called How Can I Help? I now found myself forced to accept the help of others, and to admit that my body needed attention. Because I'd spent my adult life concentrating on the realms of the spirit, I'd always been able to rationalize the distance I maintained from my body by saying that my detachment was a spiritual witnessing of the physical form. But that had been only partly true. The truth is that I distanced myself from my body. I saw my body as merely a vehicle for the soul. I ignored it as much as possible and tried to spiritualize it away.
From a physical perspective, the lack of love I'd shown toward my body contributed to my stroke. I was negligent about taking my blood pressure medicine and, a month before the stroke, ignored an unusual one-side hearing loss while scuba diving in the Caribbean. Before the stroke, although I was in my 60's, I saw myself as young and powerful, with my MG, golf clubs, surfing, and speaking gigs. Illness had shattered my self-image, and opened the door to a new chapter in my life.
After any major physical "insult," as they call it, it's all too easy to see yourself as a collection of symptoms rather than as a total human being, including your spirit - and thus to become your illness. Fear is powerful and contagious, and at first I allowed myself to catch it, worried that if I didn't do what the doctors ordered, I'd be sorry. But now I'm learning to take my healing into my own hands. Healing is not the same as curing, after all; healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God.
For example, since my speech was severely impaired by this stroke, I considered not speaking publicly anymore, since the words came so slowly, but people insisted that my halting new voice enabled them to concentrate on the silence between the words. Now that I speak more slowly, people tend to finish my sentences for me, and thus to answer questions for themselves. Though I once used silence as a teaching method, it now arises without my control and allows for a sense of emptiness, an emptiness that listeners can use as a doorway to their inner quiet.
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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