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by Ram Dass
Riverhead Books, 2000
Review by Michael Sakuma, Ph.D. on Nov 29th 2001

Still Here

I had never read any of Ram Das’ work before I picked up Still Here, his latest effort that describes his/our adaption and accommodation to the aging process.  I approached the book with high expectations, mostly due to several recommendations from friends who follow Ram Dass’ word. I must admit that I came away from the book with mixed feelings.

The focus of Dass’ latest work revolves around a near-life-ending stroke that he suffered several years ago.  The incident, understandably, seems to have brought him face to face with his own mortality and perhaps a fear of death that he has had to work through.  Alas, this book seems to revolve around his reflections surrounding our existence and specifically, “how to grow old.”  The description of his stroke and recovery is fascinating, and as I was reading I found myself wondering how someone with partial aphasia (language disturbance) could express his ideas through such eloquent and fluid prose.  It is, quite frankly, awe-inspiring.

An important idea that runs throughout the book is that there is something about “Western” culture and thought that makes us fear death.  Our negative bias against the elderly, our glorification of “science” and marginalization of “nature” has the long-term effect of isolating us, as many of us don’t see growing old/death as a “normal” progression of life.

While I like most all of the ideas that Dass presents and I can understand why he has become a spiritual icon, I found some of what he was saying to be regurgitation of things that I have heard others say, and while there is nothing wrong with this, it bothers me a bit that he presents the ideas as his own “enlightenment”.  For example, he talks a bit about a practice called of ego decentralization and that can be brought about by “mindfulness”/meditation.  He states that “fear” comes from self-conscious and that mindfulness can lead to “spiritual” awareness.  These are very interesting concepts, but concepts that I believe became popularized by the psychologist/spiritual guru Carl Jung decades ago.  I cannot begrudge Dass for espousing these views, I share them myself -- I guess I was just disappointed and expected something “very different” than I had read before.

In short, Dass has many pearls of wisdom in this book that will stir your conscious or unconscious existential angst.  We all age and die, and we all need to do it in a way that we can accept. If you are familiar with the work of Carl Jung, Morris Berman or contemporary Buddhist-psychotherapist Mark Epstein, you may be disappointed at some of the conceptual similarities in their teachings.  However, I found that I gained less from what Dass was saying, and more how he said was able to say it (for instance, the fact that he was able to say it at all). He must truly be a remarkable person and we surely can all learn from his example.

© 2001 Michael Sakuma
 

Michael Sakuma is an Assistant Professor of  Psychology at Dowling College, Long Island, New York.