One of the things that’s helped me from not getting too trapped in our cultural models is that I do travel a great deal in other cultures. And in other cultures I’m always surprised at how different the feelings are that are generated around variables. Like in India when I went there last time, two years ago, one of my lovely old friends up in a village in the mountains, said to me ‘Ram Dass, you’re looking so old.’ He said ‘You’re so grey.’ Now, at first my reaction to that was my Western cultural reaction of ‘Oh god – that’s terrible’, but then when I quieted down, I heard the tone with which he was saying it. He was saying it with great respect and delight. Like I had now become one of the elders in the society and he was saying ‘Wow, you’ve done it, you’ve grown old, how great.’
And what I have found is that after I live in places like Guatemala, or Malaysia or Thailand or Burma or Italy or France or Spain or Polynesia, where there are extended families, where everybody has natural roles within the structure and where old people are part of the families and the old and the young are wise fools together and the whole thing is quite built in. Then you come back to this culture where you have quote ‘an aging problem’. And I realized we are gathered here because of our cultural pathology. That were it not for that we wouldn’t need this so much because in many cultures this was all built in, in a natural way and in our zeal to be independent, we have thrown away the baby with the bath a little bit. And we’ve ended up where we have alienated ourselves across generations instead of embracing ourselves across generations. Creating these kinds of supportive communities where the roles of elders are obvious and clear.
In our society of course, where technology moves so fast we get outdated, so that the question of what wisdom elders have that is useful. I mean I’m only at WordPerfect 5.0 (Laughter) and I realize now that I already cant talk the language of my friend’s twelve-year-old son and you know I moved from a typewriter to a computer and I kept saying to myself, old dogs can learn new tricks, old dogs can learn new tricks, old dogs can learn new tricks, and I’d put it over my computer, but I don’t know how many more old tricks I’m going to learn and I may just decide to be out-dated.
I think that we have to recognize that we are living in a system that has gotten out of balance in which the zeal for independence and individuality has left us alienated from the structures not only of family and community but from nature. In ways that Zalman talks about from recognizing our identity as part of biotic communities in parts all of which give an intuitive innate meaning to aging and they give you a feeling of the appropriateness of the place. Most of us live in urban areas where we are living almost totally surrounded by the projections of the human mind. And very rarely are we living so close to nature and earth that we are experiencing in our blood and our being the cycles of cold and warm, of leaves falling, of the feelings of nature, of death, of birth, of aging.
And it’s a harsh reality at one level and it’s the horrible beauty of the wisdom of nature that we often have shielded ourselves from and in that shielding we have lost something. Because we’ve been afraid to look at the nature of aging and death. Robert Kassebaum says ‘the limitations and distortions of our core vision of what it means to be a person in our culture, becomes starkly evident in old age. If to be an old person is to suffer abandonment, disappointment and humiliation, this is not a geriatric problem. It is the disproof of our whole shaky pudding, technology, science and all. If our old people are empty – our vision of life is empty.’
- Ram Dass, 1993
Cover image by Louis Dallara Photography