Jun 19, 2010
The Ram Dass Brain Hemorrhage Incident: An Opportunity to Explore Fundamental Questions of Spiritual Life
by Charles Carreon
Science has likely been advanced more through the ages by giving thoughtful attention to chance occurrences than by conducting planned experiments. Physicians have learned a great deal about physiology by treating the victims of accident and illness. In this comment I argue that the opportunity presented by the occurrence of Ram Dass’s stroke was wasted, present some of the reasons why this occurred, and venture some obvious inferences to be drawn by comparing his pre-stroke doctrine and his post-stroke experience.
THE INVOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTION OF PHINEAS GAGE TO KNOWLEDGE OF BRAIN PHYSIOLOGY
Every year another class of high school students learns one of the marvelous stories of psychology – the case of Phineas Gage, who on September 13, 1848, survived a dynamite accident in which a steel rod three feet, eight inches long with a 1¼ inch diameter was blasted through his left cheekbone and out the top of his head, leaving a gaping hole that amazingly, healed up. The rod’s trajectory was described by his physician, Dr. Harlow, as follows: The rod “entered through the anterior left lobe of the cerebrum, and made its exit in the medial line, at the junction of the coronal and sagittal sutures, lacerating the longitudinal sinus, fracturing the parietal and frontal bones extensively, breaking up considerable portions of the brain.” Dr. Harlow described the post-injury Gage as “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.”
Phineas Gage had suffered a crude, accidental, frontal lobe lobotomy that altered his personality for the worse. His case history fed interest in how the structure of the brain related to an individual’s personality, a topic now so widely studied that it seems strange that a tragedy was required to provoke inquiry into the subject. Yet so it was.
RAM DASS'S PHILOSOPHY OF THE SPIRITUAL SELF
Not long after he and Timothy Leary were fired from the Harvard University psychology faculty, Richard Alpert, Ph.D., traveled to India and, as he told the story in his popular spiritual how-to book, “Be Here Now,” met a charming, raffish, trickster guru named Neem Karoli Baba. After NKB passed Alpert’s toughest test – downing three tabs of Owlsley’s 305 microgram tablets of LSD, the famed “White Lightning,” without raising an eyebrow, Alpert was a convert. He ditched his trousers, donned a robe, swapped mantras and prayer beads for psychological jargon and hallucinogens, took on the name Ram Dass, and returned to the States where according to “Be Here Now,” he floated about on an ocean of love.
Ram Dass’s persona went through quite a few iterations, and he produced a string of books comprised mostly of edited extemporaneous lectures that he gave everywhere. His spiritual philosophy was, however, consistent over the years. Simply put, he taught that we each have a Divine Self separate and apart from the physical body. Perhaps, in his Buddhist moments, he might call it a Non-Self. But the important thing was that this awareness is not based on the operation of the physical brain or body.
RAM DASS'S ENDORSEMENT OF THE SPIRITUAL TECHNOLOGY OF SOUL-TRANSFERENCE
Ram Dass was also a sincere promoter of spiritual technology based on the philosophy of the deathless, non-physical Divine Self. Through spiritual practices like reciting mantras, controlling the breath, and developing awareness of the subtle energy field that pervades and surrounds the physical body, he taught that spiritual practicioners could retain consciousness even while dying, and would be able to smoothly transition into deathless, non-physical awareness.
The Tibetan Buddhist version of this practice is called “Phowa,” the Yoga of Consciousness Transference, and it comes in three flavors. The highest level of Phowa is accomplished by those who realize the deathless, non-physical awareness during life, and when those people die, they shuck off the body like a dried husk.
Nothing happens. The second tier of candidates prepare for death by becoming skilled in unifying their awareness with a single-syllable Tibetan letter composed of diaphanous light about the fineness of a single hair, called the “seed syllable,” that resides in a tiny lotus of light in the center of their chest. During meditation, they practice raising the seed syllable, which is visualized as kind of springy with vital force, up to the crown of the head repeatedly, in what is essentially a fire drill for death. When death is imminent, they go all the way, using a special mantra that sounds like a hiccup to eject the seed syllable out the crown of the head and into the heart of the Buddha of Limitless Light, Amitabha, and obtain complete release from further transmigration. Legend has it that many Tibetan lamas and even ordinary people have made this process work. Of course, verifiable proof that the method works would be impossible to obtain, but at worst, it seems like a decent, dignified way to spend one’s final hours.
The third method of Phowa is for ordinary people who didn’t spend much time meditating, and this is to have holy people read from special inspirational holy guidebooks to the person who is dying, and even to their corpse after they are dead. These books provide a map of the “Bardo” state between death and the next rebirth, and since the Tibetans believe that the dead stick around near their body after it dies, reading to the corpse is an efficacious way of helping the disembodied person to make good choices in the Bardo, like “avoid the smoky red light – it leads to HELL!” Ram Dass was very familiar with this type of psychic guidebook. In fact, he and Timothy Leary took one of the Tibetan holy books on the subject, popularly titled “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and recast it as a manual for psychedelic voyagers interested in sparking and transcending the vaunted “ego death” that Ram Dass had identified as the psychedelic discovery that led him to study Eastern mysticism.
Over the years, Ram Dass had moved towards less dramatic forms of spiritual technology, becoming a proponent of a gentle brew of eclectic practices that he would dispense like, dare we say it, a soothing, vegetarian soup for the soul. Ram Dass was not dogmatic, but he was devoted, and in his own heart, a thoroughgoing convert to his own ideas. No doubt he was hoping that he had done enough spiritual practice and learned enough of the nature of the deathless awareness that he might have a shot at a top-tier, “nothing’s happening, I’m already there” type of Phowa. At least, he figured, he’d be able to take shelter in his heart chakra, unite his awareness with that of his guru, who would lead him to liberation, or at least, a better rebirth.
RAM DASS'S RUDE AWAKENING AND MODEST RECOVERY
In February 1997, Ram Dass, the best-known American-born promoter of Eastern wisdom, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that he barely survived. Afterwards, he lost a lot of functioning – he could barely form words, or perform ordinary life activities. But much worse than that, he was a spiritually shaken man. Why? Because he thought God should have protected him from popping a vein? No. His philosophy was not so crude. He didn’t expect fate to exempt him from physical illness. He expected his own knowledge of spiritual technology to provide him with an escape vehicle, a psychic lifeboat, and instead, he got nothin’, bupkus, zilch, a flinkin’ nihilistic nowhere. He could remember his mental state while he was dying, and it was devoid of sacred, inspirational content. He was just looking at the pipes on the hospital ceiling as the paramedics rolled him down the hall on the gurney. A lifetime of spiritual expectation crashed, and death, the great equalizer, had paid an early visit to reduce him to the level of every other living being, so that next time, he would die without delusions of imminent salvation.
Since Ram Dass’s brain hemorrhage, he has become a regular smoker of medical marijuana. He says it relieves pain, frees him from “spasticity,” and “gives me the soul perspective – it makes the stroke livable.” He says he doesn’t smoke around other spiritual teachers, though, “because it isn’t spiritually correct.” Asked whether Deepak Chopra was correct that “deep meditation” was a preferable way to attain “shifts in awareness,” Ram Dass conceded he was correct, then waved a baggie of bud and said, “But pot works faster.” He’s back on the speaking circuit, circulating widely, apparently enjoying himself and making people feel better about life. It’s almost as if the brain hemorrhage never happened.
THE LOST OPPORTUNITY
There is a huge, booming market these days in studying the relationship between the physical body and the meditative mind. A Google search for “physiology of meditation” produces over 700,000 hits. The Dalai Lama has been the headliner at a number of symposia that purport to bring together neuroscientists, yogis, therapists, and philosophers to share their knowledge, presumably to make progress toward a unified theory of consciousness. However, there is a paucity of meaningful experimental work. The “TM” group has pushed the “measurable benefits” of their trademarked “20 minutes twice a day” mantra meditation, but this is sales material, not scientific work. The brain waves of meditators have been traced on EEGs, biofeedback studies have been conducted, and recently a small Harvard study claimed that meditators actually have thicker brain tissue in some brain regions. But we still know very little about the physiology of spirituality.
So when an unfortunate accident comes along that might give us some insight into the issue, you’d think we might take it. You’d think someone might look at Ram Dass’s condition post-hemorrhage, and want to de-brief him on his conclusions. Question number one would be, “Do you still believe that there is a non-physical, deathless awareness existing independent of your physical body?” If Ram Dass answered, “Yes,” the next question would be, “Why were you unable to contact that awareness when you were dying?”
We should ask Ram Dass these questions because he was a practicioner of spiritual technology that relies on a philosophical postulate that is impossible to confirm – the deathless core of our personal existence. The fact that, after a lifetime of teaching meditation, he now relies upon cannabis to attain “the soul perspective” should give us some pause. What’s the point of a lifetime of meditating, if we end up lighting up a joint? He claims to be “a mixed message,” and in the realm of ultimate reality, that’s not a plus. He recently said, “Silence is the royal road to God. Silence prepares you for death.” But he’s now reported to be doing more preaching and talking than ever. Shouldn’t he be preparing for death more assiduously? However, there’s a good side to his continuing willingness to talk. That means that before he goes silent altogether, someone could ask him, “What happened that shook you up so much, and why does it not seem to matter anymore?”
WHY NOBODY ASKS THESE QUESTIONS
Nobody asks Ram Dass these questions because they don’t want to hear the answers. If indeed, a man who was expecting to find himself all dressed up in spirit and ready to head for liberation or the next incarnation, instead found nothing, then a central justification for adopting his philosophy has been destroyed. For the last thirty or forty years, the media has fed us a steady diet of near-death experiences recounted by people who wandered through death’s door to discover tunnels of light, guardian spirits, dead relatives and angels, and came back to live a better life. And here we have the story of a guy who, by all rights, should’ve gotten a better reception in the last waiting room before final departure, and discovered absolutely nothing. Clearly, this is an answer that no one wants because you can’t use it to sell religious instruction, inspirational books, yoga mats, or meditation cushions.
A FEW INFERENCES ABOUT SPIRITUAL TECHNOLOGY TO BE DRAWN DESPITE RAM DASS'S FAILURE TO MAKE FULL DISCLOSURE
I’d like to conclude by posing two questions.
First, is awareness inextricably bound up with the activity of the physical body and brain, such that we not only appear to be inert when we die -- we really are?
Second, if awareness and physical life are inextricably connected, is spiritual technology of any value at all?
Let’s face it – the spiritual lobbyists cannot answer “yes” to the first question, because their entire product is based on cultivating and coping with the fear of death. But as people who answer questions based on evidence, this is a question for which all the reliable evidence compels a “yes” answer. We may not like it, we may be prejudiced against believing it, but if we were asked to disprove it or be killed this very instant, we would admit that we have no proof. All of the proofs that have ever been offered wouldn’t convince any objective, impartial judge, as they all amount to appeals to the impulse to believe. And believing without evidence is the alternative to reasoned decisionmaking.
But my answer to the second question might surprise you. I think that spiritual technology has lots of value, but not as the insurance policy peddled by fear-mongers in religious robes. Spiritual technology, rightly understood, is a branch of life science and physiology, a collection of folk techniques for better living. There is a subtle energy body suffusing the human body. There are acupuncture lines and chakras that can be charged with energy. Harmonizing breath, calming sounds, and transporting music, are all real vehicles for strengthening the human organism and expanding its capacity for happy living.
Quite likely, there is no way to bridge the gap between one living body and another, even though it was tantalizingly depicted in James Cameron’s recent animation epic, “Avatar.” For all the self-promoting ballyhoo of Tibetan lamas who claim to have enjoyed multiple reincarnations as a “lineage of enlightened consciousness,” there’s no proof of the claims, and plenty of evidence that the entire tulku trip was a clever innovation by the clergy to put themselves on an equal footing with the hereditary feudal lords, and indeed to manipulate feudal families by inducing them to vie with each other for the privilege of having their sons chosen as the “reincarnations” of dead, wealthy lamas.
The realm of “life after death,” or the space between one life and another, for those who fancy the notion that reincarnation or transmigration actually occur, has forever been the playground of deceivers, shysters, table-tappers, mediums, and spiritualists, and the daily operational base for priests and preachers. Harnessing spiritual technology, which can be used to deepen our experience of life, to the obsessive and useless project of defeating death, is just one more way in which religion and spiritualism wastes our time and resources.
Ironically, those who forget about death altogether and focus on living life to the fullest today, using every vehicle at their disposal, may find themselves in very exalted spiritual company.