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How Ram Dass’ Teachings Can Make End-of-Life Caregiving Easier

The ‘Be Here Now’ author’s timeless wisdom still resonates

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Michael Donnelly

Every caregiver can relate to feelings of guilt and anxiety, the overwhelming sense that we aren’t doing enough for our loved ones. Frustration, an emotion experienced by all human beings, can become a feedback loop to caregiving guilt in those moments when we lose our patience or wish to be somewhere else. And there we are again, feeling as if we have failed. 

The 50th anniversary of Ram Dass’ foundational book, Be Here Now, felt like a good time to tap into wisdom from the esteemed spiritual guide and cultural icon who dedicated his life to teachings based on caring, kindness, service, compassion and love. The Harvard professor and psychedelic pioneer — formerly known as Richard Alpert — became a disciple of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba after a life-changing trip to India; his subsequent work, including 12 spiritual books, was a philosophy, not a religion, and accessible to all. Ram Dass’ messages particularly resonate in the areas of caregiving and the acceptance of the end of life. Paralyzed by a stroke, Ram Dass spent 22 years in a wheelchair and devoted much of his work to helping us better accept and be prepared for the end of life, right up to his own death at the age of 88 in 2019.

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A caregiver once shared Ram Dass’ famous quote, which gave me comfort in the days when my own father was beginning to slip away and allowed me to lean in without fear.

“We are all just walking each other home,” she said to me, and it was a reminder that all of us will take this journey. The greatest privilege is to be there for someone else. 

Focusing on service and compassion

Raghu Markus, 75, from Ojai, California, is the executive director of Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember Foundation, where he continues the work of Ram Dass by making the content available to all in podcasts, smartphone apps, online courses, articles and music offerings. In 2016, Markus cofounded the Be Here Now Network, where he hosts the Ram Dass Here & Now podcast, as well as his own Mindrolling podcast. He is also the producer of Becoming Nobody, a Ram Dass documentary feature film that was released in 2019. 

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Ram Dass' book 'Be Here Now' was first published in 1971.
Ram Dass

“This work is about letting go of the identity and roles that we’ve created for ourselves and focus on 24/7,” says Markus, who worked with Ram Dass since the 1970s. That sense of identity in terms of caring for someone is applicable to all caregivers. “It’s important for all of us to think about when it’s ‘enough’ in regard to self-interest,” he says. “Instead, the focus should shift from a mindset of thinking about how we can feel better about ourselves to what we can do for others.” 

Ram Dass offers practices and perspectives to help us transport ourselves out of a more inward focused mindset to one of service and compassion. “So much of the polarity we are seeing in the world today is because we are focused solely on the “mini-me-self,” adds Markus.  

Making end-of-life passages easier

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“Ram Dass was a pioneer who brought a spiritual perspective to the end of life,” said Dale Borglum, founder of The Living/Dying Project in Marin County, California, an organization that helps educate people about the end of life.  “His philosophy brought richness to the final days of dying patients and their families and improved the end of life for so many.  His work has been impactful for not just our organization but for countless others working in this space.”

One of Ram Dass’ most iconic expressions, which applies to caregivers present at the end of life, is the term “loving rock.” Markus explains that when you enter a room with someone who is in the end stage of life, your goal is to become a loving rock, a being not caught up in fear and anxiety. Those emotions render us less capable of helping and being there for our loved ones as they pass on.

“The rock is the part of you that won’t get lost in the suffering and the loving part radiates compassion, joy and love from your soul,” Markus explains. He cautions that if you aren’t taking care of yourself, eating nurturing food, listening to music that soothes you or other activities that bring you peace, it’s difficult to embody the “loving rock.” The way to achieve this is through practice, sitting quietly, taking a walk and dealing head on with the anxiety that accompanies losing people you love.

“To quote Ram Dass, dying isn’t an error in the curriculum of birth,” says Markus. “It’s part of the process, just like growing into oneself, finding a career, taking care of family and then moving toward the kind of surrender required to let go. Dying is like taking off a tight shoe.” It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions around losing someone, but the fact is, it’s about them and not us.

Ram Dass’ teachings are about creating an atmosphere of unconditional love, something very relatable for most caregivers. It’s also the idea of working on yourself so that you can be of better use to the people around you in life. “When you spend time getting to know yourself and going deep inside, you are better able to sit with someone else and radiate peace,” says Markus. “It’s about finding the joy and the purpose in acts of service.”

'Connect with the soul' left behind

When caregiving a loved one with dementia or other neurological conditions that change the person we used to know, Markus instructs us to “connect with the soul of the person — not the personality of the person who has dementia or cancer — but the soul behind that.” That’s not so easy for some of us going through the day-to-day reality, but those are the moments Ram Dass encourages us to reach deeper into what we think of as our own guiding light, whether that’s religion, a friend, nature, or whatever moves us beyond that moment of fear and anxiety.”

And for those caregiving moments when we when we feel like throwing in the towel, due to stress or exhaustion?  “Caregiving can be extremely trying,” he acknowledges.  “We need to develop self-compassion and recognize that we are human and it’s normal to have feelings of burn-out.” 

Markus was present as his own mother declined from dementia and when he forgets a word now and then, he can feel his own anxiety and fear rising, worried he might be suffering her same fate. “The first thing I do is identify ‘this is fear’ instead of trying to push it away. When fear and anxiety come for you, we need to practice mindfulness to relate to the emotions, rather than running, hiding or meeting them with passive aggressive behavior.”

Letting our loved one ‘lead the way’

Every religion has a way of defining the divine presence at the end of life and Markus believes that there is something guiding us through this stage. “The end of life is not necessarily pretty and that can be difficult to take, but ultimately it’s a matter of letting go and surrendering at the end. We need to let the loved one lead the way and not get caught up in all of the thoughts that separate our connection to the person who is passing.” 

Caregivers are extremely hard on themselves, which only exacerbates the difficulties, Markus observes. “We need to make dying more of a part of living,” he says. “It’s part of the fabric of life, and who knows? The next place we go could be amazing.” As Ram Dass headed toward death, Markus says the spiritual teacher sought to embrace the adventure. “He was not looking forward to dying,” he explains, “but he was looking forward to what happens after.”

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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