Ram Dass on Changing Our Metaphor for Dying
I sit with a lot of people who are dying these days because I am very interested in seeing whether we can develop a metaphor for dying that isn’t quite as horrendous as the one we have going in the West. Because our metaphor for dying comes out of philosophical materialism where a person that is dying is surrounded by people who are saying “you got to be up and around tomorrow. Don’t talk nonsense about death.” Then they walk out into the corridor and say “she won’t last the night.” I mean, just total hypocrisy.
While you can’t kill anybody you can’t prolong life. You only know whether or not life is to go on or not when you are yourself not afraid of death. Otherwise your fear totally distorts your perception all the time and you just panic when somebody is near death. Recently Wavy Gravy called me up, he is a very beautiful guy. Wavy said there was a boy who was dying here in San Francisco, and asked if I would visit him. And I said sure, so I went over and visited with him. He was about 23 years old and he was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. It was last August. We met at Tom Wolf’s house, and I went over to the kid and I said to him “I hear your going to die soon.” He says “yeah.” I said “you want to talk about it?” He says “ok.” So we started to talk about dying. After a while he went to light a cigarette and I noticed that his hand was shaking, he was very thin and weak. And I suddenly got totally paranoid and I felt like, “gee what right have I got to be coming onto to him? After all, he’s the one that’s dying.” So I said “hey if I am coming onto you, you know, just tell me to go away. I don’t have to do this.” And he says “well, being with you is getting me nervous, but the reason is because as death is approaching I’ve been looking for the strength to die and you are the first person I’ve met who doesn’t seem to be afraid of dying. And that’s just what I am looking for.”
And I feel like a child in this scene, and I’m just so excited by it that I am shaking. He was giving me the license – he was giving me the license to be with him. And we went on being together for quite a while and then he died later on. And what I recognize now – there’s a woman that just died in New York last year, her name was Debbie Matheson – she’s a beautiful woman. She was in her forties, she had two children and she was married to an author by the name of Peter Matheson. She was connected with the Zen Center in New York City, and when she was dying she was put in Mount Sinai Hospital to die. So the Zen students all came to her room every night and meditated and they turned the room into a Zen temple. And what happened was the first night they did this the doctors, the three young residents came to visit her room making their rounds, which usually consists of pushing open the door with that kind of hearty hail good fellow well-met type, you know, “how we doing today? Did we eat well today? Let’s look at that chart.” You know, that type of thing. They walked in and they faced all these beings sitting like this with candles and incense and the room was darkened and it freaked them out completely. And the second night they came in a little more gently, and by the third they would open the door very quietly and come in and stand in awe for a little while and then go away.
There, right in the middle of Mount Sinai they redefined a whole new metaphor, a metaphor that can be created through the strength of mind because you can create your universe anywhere you are. Once you recognize that, a hospital is merely a collectivity of minds who share a certain model about what it is all about. And the problem is that this society is one where the medicine men are knowledgeable, but not wise. And with the recognition of that, we are now seeking wisdom–not just knowledge–in our healers. And wisdom has in it compassion. And compassion understands about life and death.
A doctor is committed by the Hippocratic Oath to save life, but she or he does not have to be attached to that. They merely do that in the same way a bus driver drives a bus. It is the emotional attachment that they have to it that comes out of their own fear of death that is the problem in medicine at this moment in the West. And hopefully within a few years we will have an 800 number telephone number like you do for getting a motel reservation where if you are going to die in the next few months you can call that number and somebody will come and hang out with you and provide help for you in defining a new metaphor for how you’re going to die. And we’ll have some cassette tapes that you can play when you are in pain that will help you figure out what the pain is about, and how to use it to become more conscious. Because it’s obvious that the way to die is to learn how to live, and the answer to dying is to be present at the moment.
Berkley Community Theater, March 7th, 1973