01 Mar 2010
March 1, 2010

Dying is Absolutely Safe


There is a tombstone in Ashby, Massachusetts that reads, “Remember friend, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare yourself to follow me.”

Something has happened to me as a result of meandering through many realms of consciousness over the past fifty years that has changed my attitude toward death. A lot of the fear about death has gone from me. I am someone who actually delights in being with people as they are dying. It is such incredible grace for me. In the morning, if I know I am going to be with such a person, I get absolutely thrilled because I know I am going to have an opportunity to be in the presence of Truth.

It is now becoming acceptable in our culture for people to die. For many decades, death was kept behind closed doors. But now we are allowing it to come out into the open. Having grown up in this culture, the first few months I spent in India in the 1960’s were quite an experience. There, when someone dies, the body is placed on a pallet, wrapped in a sheet, and carried through the streets to the burning grounds while a mantra is chanted. Death is out in the open for everyone to see. The body is right there. It isn’t in a box. It isn’t hidden. And because India is a culture of extended families, most people are dying at home. So most people, as they grow up, have been in the presence of someone dying. They haven’t walked away from it and hidden from it as we have in the West.

I was certainly one of the people in this culture who hid from death. But over the past few decades I have changed dramatically. The initial change came as a result of my experiences with psychedelic chemicals. I came into contact with a part of my being that I had not identified with in my adult life. I was a Western psychologist, a professor at Harvard, and a philosophical materialist. What I experienced through psycheldelics was extremely confusing, because there was nothing in my background that prepared me to deal with another component of my being. Once I started to experience myself as a “Being of Consciousness” – rather than as a psychologist, or as a conglomerate of social roles, the experience profoundly changed the nature of my life. It changed who I thought I was.

Prior to my first experience with psychedelics, I had identified with that which dies – the ego. The ego is who I think I am. Now, I identify much more with who I really am – the Soul. As long as you identify with that which dies, there is always fear of death. What our ego fears is the cessation of its own existence. Although I didn’t know what form it would take after death – I realized that the essence of my Being – and the essence of my awareness – is beyond death.

The interesting thing to me at the time was that my first experience with psychedelics was absolutely indescribable. I had no concepts to apply to what I was finding in my own being. Aldous Huxley gave me a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. As I read it, I was amazed to find myself reading lucid, clearly articulated descriptions of the very experiences I was having with psychedelics. It was immensely confusing to me because The Tibetan Book of the Dead is 2500 years old. I had thought, in 1961,that I was at the leading edge of of the unknown. But here was an ancient text which revealed that Tibetan Buddhists already knew – 2500 years ago – everything I had just learned.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead was used by Tibetan Buddhist lamas to read to fellow lamas as they were dying, and for forty-nine days after their death. Tim Leary, Ralph Metzner, and I began to see the Book in metaphorical terms as the story of psychological death and rebirth, even though it was originally intended as a guide through the process of physical death and rebirth. I now think that the idea of dying and being born into truth, or wisdom, or spirit is really what our business is when we talk about death. When you extricate yourself from the solid identification with your body, you begin to have the spaciousness to allow for the possibility that death is a part of the process of life – rather than the end of life. I feel this very deeply.

People ask, “Do you believe that there is continuity after death?” And I say, “I don’t believe it. It just is.” That offends my scientific friends no end. But belief is something you hold on to with your intellect. My faith in the continuity of life has gone way beyond the intellect. Belief is a problem because it is rooted in the mind, and in the process of death, the mind crumbles. Faith, consciousness, and awareness all exist beyond the thinking mind.

I have a friend named, Emmanuel. Some of you have met him through his books. He is a spook, a being of Light that has dropped his body. Emmanuel shares a lot of great wisdom. He is like an uncle to me. I once said to him, “Emmanuel, I often deal with the fear of death in this culture. What should I tell people about dying?”And Emmanuel said, “Tell them it’s absolutely SAFE!” He said, “It’s like taking off a tight shoe.”

In the past, what I endeavored to do in partnership with Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Dale Borglum, and Bodhi Be (Sufi friend of mine) is to create spaciousness around death. We had different programs like the Dying Hot Line on which people could call and have a kind of pillow talk with people who would help them stay conscious through the process of dying. We also – back in the early Eighties – had a Dying Center in New Mexico. My model was that I knew being with people who were dying would help me deal with my own fear of death in this lifetime.

In the Theravadan Buddhist traditions, they send monks out to spend the night in the cemetery, where the bodies are thrown out uncovered for the birds to eat. So the monks sit with the bloated, fly-infested corpses, and the skeletons, and they get an opportunity to be fully aware of all of the processes of nature. They have the opportunity to watch their own digust and loathing, and their fear. They have a chance to see the horrible Truth of what “as I am now so you must be” really means. Seeing the way the body decays, and meditating on the decay opens you to the awareness that there is a place in you that has nothing to do with the body – or the decay.

That combination led me, as early as 1963, to start to work with dying people and to be available to them. I am not a medical doctor. I’m not a nurse. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an ordained priest. But what I can offer to another human being is the presence of a sacred, spacious environment. And I can offer them love. In that loving spaciousness they have the opportunity to die as they need to die. I have no moral right to define how another person should die. Each individual has his or her own karma – their own stuff to work out. It is not my job to say, “You should die beautifully,” or “you should die this way or that way.” I have no idea how another person should die.

When my biological mother was dying back in a hospital in Boston back in 1966, I would watch all the people come into her room. All of the doctors and relatives would say, “You are looking better, you are doing well.” And then they would go out of the room and say, “She won’t last a week.” I thought how bizarre it was that a human being could be going through one of the most profound transitions in their life, and have everyone they know, and love, and trust lying to them.

Can you hear the pain of that? No one could be straight with my mother because everyone was too frightened. Even the rabbi. Everyone. She and I talked about it and she said, “What do you think death is?” And I said, “I don’t know, Mother. But I look at you and you are my friend, and it looks like you are in a building that is burning down, but you are still here. I suspect when the building burns entirely, it will be gone, but you will still be here.” So my mother and I just met in that space.

With Phyllis, my stepmother, I was more open, and she could ask whatever she wanted to ask. I didn’t say, “Now let me instruct you about dying,” because she would not have accepted that. But then came the moment when she gave up, and she surrendered, and it was like watching an egg breaking and seeing a radiantly beautiful being emerge, and she was clear, and present, and joyful. It was a Beingness that she always at some level had known herself to be. But she had been too busy all her adult life to recognize it. Now she opened to this beautiful Being in the core of who she was, and she just basked in its radiance.

At that moment, she went into another plane of consciousness, where she and I were completely together, just Being. The whole process of dying was just moments of phenomena that were occurring. But when she surrendered, she was no longer busy dying, she was just being . . . and dying was happening.

Right at the last moment, she said, “Richard, sit me up.” So I sat her up and put her legs over the edge of the bed. Her body was falling forward, so I put my hand on her chest and her body fell back. So I put my other hand on her back. Her head was lolling around, so I put my head against her head. We were just sitting there together. She took three breaths, three really deep breaths, and she left. Now, if you read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, you will see that the way conscious lamas leave their bodies is to sit up, take three deep breaths, and then leave.

So who was my step-mother? How did she know how to do that?

Ramana Maharshi was a great Indian saint. When he was dying of cancer, his devotees said, “Let’s treat it.” And Ramana Maharshi said, “No, it is time to drop this body.” His devotees started to cry. They begged him, “Bhagwan, don’t leave us, don’t leave us!” And he looked and them with confusion and said, “Don’t be silly. Where could I possibly go?” You know, it’s almost like he was saying, “Don’t make such a fuss. I’m just selling the old family car.”

These bodies we live in, and the ego that identifies with it, are just like the old family car. They are functional entities in which our Soul travels through our incarnation. But when they are used up, they die. The most graceful thing to do is to just allow them to die peacefully and naturally – to “let go lightly.” Through it all, who we are is Soul . . . and when the body and the ego are gone, the Soul will live on, because the Soul is eternal. Eventually, in some incarnation, when we’ve finished our work, our Soul can merge back into the One . . . back into God . . . back into the Infinite. In the meantime, our Soul is using bodies, egos, and personalities to work through the karma of each incarnation.

In order for us to be able to make these teachings available to everyone, we need your support. As Ram Dass says, “When you see the Beloved all around you, everyone is family and everywhere is love.” We are all affecting the world every moment – our actions and states of mind matter, because we are so deeply interconnected with one another. So please do lend your support to help us make this vast offering from Ram Dass and friends accessible to all.

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  • http://www.positivemagazine.com Sam Wilder

    As my father lay dying… these words comfort me.
    I know them to be true and I will lift my father up as he becomes one with infinite. The One is gaining another beautiful soul.

  • georgia keen

    thank you so much for this. i have feared death my whole life.. it brings me so much fear. this has finally allowed me some peace within. thank you.

  • http://www.LightintheCenter.com Maria

    Thank you for the reminder Ram Dass Ji. As I re-read many of your words and I know them to be true, but I was feeling the poignancy of loss and wondering why it hurts? Everything changes – and Death is perfectly Safe, so why do we feel sad ?When we can no longer hold our child (even if it is just because they are grown older), we miss that former sweetness. Is this a product of not being in the Now now? Why does having a sweet loving memory include suffering that it is in the past? All Love, Maria

  • http://www.HowISaveMyLife.com Amy

    The most important things I ever did in my life were being with my mother-in-law and then father at the times of their death. Just being a presence in the process or even a simple whisper of “just go, just go” can be the biggest most beautiful blessing of life.

  • http://Website Josefina

    When my baby boy was born still… I knew he was still very much alive even though the body wasnt. I was still very sad..I allowed myself to feel the pain and I cryed for a long time. Some days I felt so heavy with sadness. I was scared of the pain. I was scared that I wasnt going to beable to recover from it. But as I allowed myself to grieve and also having faith that my baby’s soul was more than alive in heaven it helped me not be so sad, or angry. I understood that my baby boy’s soul had its own reasons for not living here on earth with me. In fact I believe that perhaps this was his purpose..to grow in my womb and to teach me some lessons..He is by far the greatest teacher I have..He is teaching me so much about attachment, fear, anger…what I value and how I want to live my life. I am a different person. Yet still the same…And let me tell you…these lessons are not easy.

  • http://www.openchannelresources.com Darryl Schoenstadt

    Wonderful sharing. I love the idea that dying is ‘perfectly safe’. Brings out almost a belly laugh of letting go. Also, the story of Ram Dass’ Step-Mom intuitively dying as the lamas understand to do it, and his questioning, “Who was my step-mother?” Just wonderful. Blessings Ram Dass. You’ve been one of my great inspirations for over 40 years.

  • Synthia Jones

    beautiful essay. Its not ‘death’ but transition. I have witnessed much of this over the years, and come to understand a necessary part of this journey. I live in Santa Fe, and have been with the work of assistance for many years. I used to attend Stephen Levine’s talks in the early 80s with nurses at our local hospital, and many of these and people associated with the work are some of the most enlightened in this country. RIP is not ‘morbid’, its heartfelt.

  • Pingback: DYING IS ABSOLUTELY SAFE | Love Grace Light: Ascending with Planet Earth

  • Antonio Calabria

    I am glad to see that you and many of the people who have left comments here share in faith or knowledge of death. I am a non believer, an atheist, and think that the death of our bodies is the end of all. There is then nothing, non being, as far as I can understand. Nothing. Period. Nada y pues nada.

  • Keith Becker

    … how bizarre it was that a human being could be going through one of the most profound transitions in their life, and have everyone they know, and love, and trust lying to them.
    Yes, bizarre and so dreadful.
    She’d lost Her appetite When She’d eat, because She knew She had to, It came up any way. This had gone on for a couple weeks, and some days.
    We sat at the little table in the kitchen, as was so common to do. Holding hands across the table. I picked myself up a bit; meet Her eyes and said, “About the mauve and chartreuse elephant that’s been schlepping around the place lately”, Her attention picked up a tick. I saw; What’s He getting on about now? I continued, “You’re dying”.
    So we sat. We knew I’d spoken truly, and She was relieved of the trouble of sorting, how to bring the matter up and air it out.
    So we sat. Nothing to say. There’s no language.
    So we sat together for a little longer, in Love.

  • Jane Jones

    Death is a great adventure…wasn’t it Aldous Huxley who left this world on a “trip”. I wonder if we have to align with something (heart) or if this happens automatically…Saying Ram Dass with heart..we will all hearts will meet on the other side of FULL BEINGNESS OF SPIRIT AS LOVE~ i am certain of this~ the Great Just “Is” of “BE”….as all of everything and nothing at once…how to describe this place…when it is so much of everything more? BEAUTY BEYOND anything known here…is this LOVE~ ((( <3 )))

  • Nancy Uszcienski

    So sad, your loss. So wonderful, your blessing of understanding. I lost a baby and felt her presence with me for close to twenty years. Call me crazy but I felt her so strongly that I spoke to her daily. Then I just no longer felt her presence. I believe she was finally able to move on. I believe that time you had with your child can continue. I believe the children who pass grow on the other side and some form attachments that are allowed to continue. I hope that you continue to feel your son’s life around you. God Bless.

  • ReneeJah

    Thank you. My soul understands every word youve shared here. Thank you for helping me to know what I know. Much gratitude.

  • Brandon Iversen

    Great article! Ram Dass, I’d love to know how this article relates to you personally. In 1997 when you had a stroke, did you consider letting nature take its course, or did you instinctively seek medical help?

    • Bernie Wolfe

      I would also like to know his reaction to his Stroke.

      • [email protected]

        The wikipedia article said the stroke left him with expressive aphasia (characterized by the loss of the ability to produce language, spoken or written), which he interprets as an act of grace. He also doesn’t travel but does offer retreats in Hawaii.

    • nickjaa

      Ah, he’s dead.

  • http://jerryvest.pages.web.com jerryvest

    I visited my mother the day before she passed into the Light….as I pushed her wheel chair outside her care center, she said, son I am joining your Father soon and can hardly wait. Mom was such a great poet and mom that she died that evening with a smile.

  • http://facebook.com/redwoodhippie Robert Redwoodhippie Palmer

    Das I met you at a class you gave through the Midpeninsula Free
    University. I was the MFU printer. I also briefly met both Timothy
    Leary and Ken Kesey. In line with what Timothy Leary recommended I
    supported the idea of securing a quality substance to ingest and
    being mentally at ease and having a good safe setting when taking
    acid. I read parts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. However
    being on the periphery of the Ken Kesey circle in practice I more
    often than not let go of the positive setting and just sought to
    “pass the acid test”, taking it in some complex situations.
    Once I walked out of a San Francisco concert into the city and had no
    way to go back inside. I had an incredible adventure getting into a
    car of weirdos only after I thought and then remembered I was just as
    weird as they. I was with them for three days before getting home. My
    hippie friends at home were upset that I had not called them.
    Another time a friend who was riding with me to my place of work so
    she could borrow my car popped some acid in my mouth as we arrived at
    my place of work. What a day I had running the printing press. In
    your class I asked you what you would attribute to one just getting
    buzzed sometimes instead of getting really high. You answered that
    you thought perhaps the inner being needed to recharge before being
    able to make full use of getting high. I do not know if my subsequent
    trips changed due to me being recharged, however I always remembered
    the suggestion and believed it might have merit. In 1969 I was in a
    car accident coming east down Woodside Road and subsequently was in
    great discomfort and pain lying on the gurney at Stanford Hospital.
    Then I realized I was either going to die or live and either way I
    would get there. Immediately I felt at ease and was not in near the
    same pain. Before we met I was able to avoid going into the service
    during the draft era of the Vietnam War. I have always sought to be
    a peaceful person. In recent years I have been a peace and social
    justice activist. Recently I was inspired to write an overview
    relating to the Vietnam era and the pressure of the draft and leading
    up to the now. I include here the link to my note that is pasted on
    facebook. Thank you for sharing your insights about dying and how
    your experiences related to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.


    • janet kvasank

      I read your article. It has clarified a lot of things I already know…. when my search of death dying was out of fear. I believe I have a excellent viewpoint about the subject now. I now longer fear death. your reading took my breath away. my eight year old now understands. I going to send my therapist a copy.I am still sad I didn’t say goodbye to grandmother.. yet I was the last person to see her alive. your readings are incredible, I will go on utube, keep up the passages they are giving me lots of growth and insights.

  • Stephen Bost ‘Nivritti’

    I too have become separated from my body on four different occasions and in-a-way have died. I no longer fear death.

  • Stephen Nivritti Bost

    As someone who has experienced several Mystical experiences I could not agree with you more. Death has no hold on me anymore. Leaving one;s body while fully conscious eliminates that dreaded fear of Death!

  • Synthia Jones

    back in the early 80′s, Stephen Levine gave talks at our local hospital. Seeds were planted in those days, and our community is still at the forefront of what I call ‘transition ed.’