In 1997 a stroke brought death up close and personal to author and spiritual teacher Ram Dass — and with it an opportunity to self-evaluate how he had approached his own death. One might expect the former Harvard professor, once known as Dr. Richard Alpert, to regard some things in terms of passing or failing a test — and he did just that early in the highly acclaimed film Ram Dass Fierce Grace (2001).
During that unexpected health crisis Ram Dass did not encounter those moments of his near death as he thought he might, and says as much in the film: “It shows I have some work to do, because that’s the test and I flunked the test.” Having been “stroked” thus became not only a dominant focus for Ram Dass (which means servant of god) but the impetus for additional spiritual homework.
Fierce Grace underscores how Ram Dass grew to realize the truth of his guru’s wisdom when he told Ram Dass that the stroke would be grace. What viewers witness in Fierce Grace is the early work Ram Dass did in order to make his massive stroke a vehicle for attaining that goal, bringing him to a state of peace more marvelous than he could have imagined was possible.
That film does a thorough job of covering the biographical notes of his life and the significant elements of his approach to physical recovery and sincere spiritual practice. But it now can serve in a new role: as a valuable foundation for more fully appreciating the beautiful Netflix film, Ram Dass, Going Home. Director Derek Peck’s exceptional documentary is just what the title intro says: “a short film about being.” Indeed, short it is, but it is has a remarkably long emotional impact.
Going Home allows viewers to catch up with Ram Dass in Maui where we see him navigating his personal spaces while in a wheelchair. This is where he has been earnestly working on preparing for a passing grade on his final exam. He speaks of Maui as a refuge, and the glorious cinematography makes that perfectly clear to anyone who has not yet been to the island. Away from the hustle and bustle, with caregivers to assist him in his daily routine and the sanctity of his home studio with its ocean view, Ram Dass has endless moments to repeat the phrase that keeps him in the present: I am loving awareness, I am loving awareness, I am loving awareness, I am….
Ram Dass retains his focus by doing physical therapy and his spiritual homework. Although it is not for us to pass judgment on another’s spiritual standing, it is impossible not to see from the radiance of his countenance and laughter in this film that he is not joking when he says, “I don’t wish you the stroke but I wish you the grace from the stroke.”
The 31 minutes of Going Home pass gently like paradise trade winds on nature’s soundtrack. It is a visual delight with a soothing score, making for a meditation on love, truth, beauty and wisdom. The intimate profile leaves viewers with an invitation to come to an assessment of the progress Ram Dass has made, and for considering one’s own spiritual practice. That is perhaps where its greatest impact lies, as the loving wake-up call to awaken – whether in full health or not.
The lesson Ram Dass emphasizes is that suffering is grace. “The stroke pushed me inside even more, and it’s so wonderful,” Ram Dass says with a toothy smile as he laughs.
“That suffering is the sandpaper, from the spiritual point of view,” he explains, “that is awakening people, and once you’ve started to spiritually awaken you re-perceive your own suffering and start to work with it as a vehicle for awakening.”
His journey from stroke to grace serves as a unique inspirational guide for aging boomers and for anyone interested in learning from this explorer of consciousness who dropped out of his academic role, into his soul and is nearing home. By offering his hard-earned wisdom with kindness so that others may find their own inward way to peace and more love, Ram Dass continues living up to his name.