“The Highest Spiritual Practice” ~ Working with People Who are Dying

– An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: So what happened after college?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: After I graduated in 1975, I became fascinated by Ram Dass’s interest in working with people who were dying. He was referring to it as the “highest” spiritual practice he had ever come upon. He was the one who originally inspired me to spend time studying with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I went to meet her at a conference in Berkeley, California in March of 1976, and studied with her right after that. My friends Stephen Levine and Dale Borglum were also there. Elisabeth was another great influence. I was so moved by her simple, sweet, compassionate consciousness – and the very precious manner in which she embraced the unvarnished Truth of life and death. She gave a two-hour keynote lecture. About thirty minutes later I found myself alone with her in the elevator at The Claremont Hotel. I looked at her and said, “Dr. Ross, what made you the way you are?” And she looked at me and said, “Vell, Dahlink, eet’s seetink et zuh betsites of my dyink patients” (sitting at the bedsides of my dying patients). Then she sort of looked me up and down, and said, “Maybe you should try it!” It sounded a little crazy to me, but I thought, “She is like a saint. Whatever she’s doing, I want to do it too.” There was also a wonderful fellow named Charlie Garfield at that conference. A workshop I took with him was another major turning point.

My own mother had actually helped me to embark on that path, and – at the time – I didn’t realize it. When she was dying from brain cancer in 1969, she insisted on coming home. No one died at home in those days. There were no hospices or hospice-style organizations. Our family doctor recommended against having her come home because he wanted to protect the family from what he felt would be an overwhelming emotional burden. In those days, people who were dying were generally left isolated and alone in some hospital or nursing home while all of their doctors, family, and friends were ignoring the truth and lying to them – you know, saying, “You look GREAT! You’ll be better soon!” And then they would step out of the room and say, “My God, she looks awful. I don’t think she’ll last a week.” So my mother wanted no part of that kind of hypocritical nonsense. She knew she was going through the most profound transformation of her lifetime. She wanted to be in her own home with her own family. My father arranged to have a hospital bed set up in the guest bedroom, and provided around-the-clock nursing care for her. The time she and I shared together in the last few weeks of her life was SO precious!

NILS MONTAN: What happened in those weeks?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Well, because of her brain tumor she became aphasic – unable to speak. So she and I would just sit in silence and hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes. And what we shared in those extended periods of silent connection was SO amazing! It felt like we were both getting a glimpse of eternity – just looking in each other’s eyes. It was much like the experience I had four years later looking into Ram Dass’ eyes. I mean, my mother and I would just transcend together. It was amazing. Thanks to her, I had some profound training before I ever met Elisabeth. At the time, I didn’t even realize that my mother was giving me the basic experience to do something that would become one of my primary roles later in life.

A few years later I began working with Stephen and Ondrea Levine – setting up lectures, workshops, and retreats that focused on dealing with grief and dying. They have also been major influences in my life. Just being in their presence was so sweet. They were like the perfect older brother and sister. We would just float in sweetness! Stephen helped me to bring my meditation practice into clear focus, and gave me a much deeper connection with the core teachings of Buddhism. He is the one who taught me – by example – how to teach meditation.

– Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil.

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