Tag Archives: Stephen Levine

“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.

The Evolution of My Spiritual Path

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

NILS MONTAN: Can you tell us a bit about the most important influences on your thinking, and how your spiritual path has evolved?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Wow! That’s a BIG question!

I would have to say that the first big spiritual event in my life was being miraculously healed from Polio in 1953 when I was three years old. That was – and continues to be – a profound influence. The doctors had said that my case was “hopeless” – that there was a 99 percent chance I would die. But my father was a student of metaphysical Christianity – teachers like Emmett Fox, Norman Vincent Peale, and Mary Baker Eddy – and he wasn’t going to take that lying down. So my parents asked all of their family and friends and business associates to pray. Within a few days hundreds of people were praying in Protestant Churches, Catholic Churches, and Jewish Synagogues. One night, just after praying with our minister, my father had a vision of Jesus standing next to my bed in the hospital. Twenty minutes later, at 2:30 in the morning, the hospital called and said, “there has been a miracle!”

It took a few years, but when I was finally old enough to begin to understand the implications of that experience, I started to realize several significant things: First of all, I realized the power of prayer – of group consciousness. But I also realized that children can die. Since my life had been spared, I began to sense that I had better do something meaningful with it. I have often felt that I only get to stay on this planet as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

The next great influence began when I was eleven years old, and I watched my happy family dissolve into madness as my parents both suddenly descended into a very sick pattern of alcoholic behavior. Though they were affluent and had everything – materially – our culture says we need to be happy, they were miserable. That made a profound impression on me. Through their suffering, I began to see the essential spiritual emptiness of much of what our culture values and believes in.

As soon as that chapter of my life began, I felt totally depressed and lost. One Sunday morning I was sitting in church, and I started to gaze at a beautiful painting of Jesus. The minister was droning on and on, and I wasn’t really listening. I was just looking at Jesus. And a voice inside me said, “Why can’t He be here now?” And the answer that arose inside me was, “He Is.” At that moment, I transcended into another realm of consciousness – overtaken by waves of the most delicious bliss I had ever experienced. No sermon, and no Bible reading had ever taken me to that place. But the simple inner reflection on Christ’s eternal, omnipresent Being did. I felt His hands sweetly caressing my shoulders and my head, and tears of joy flowed down my cheeks. I think that was the first time I consciously experienced “darshan” – or, the Presence of the Master.

Around that same time I first heard Martin Luther King speak. Again, I was moved to tears. I had goose bumps and waves of energy running up my spine. I had never heard a speaker who moved me the way Martin did. I just sat there crying and smiling. He spoke with such strength and clarity. The minute I heard Martin speak, I got it. I got the simple truth that we are all God’s children – there is no one higher or lower, no one better or worse. All are loved equally by God. Later, I became aware of Dr. King’s hero, Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi became a huge influence on me.

When I was eighteen, I encountered the teachings of Meher Baba, who lived from 1894 to 1969 and was one of the greatest saints in India’s history. Shortly after that I came into contact with Ram Dass, first through hearing a tape of a lecture he had given, and later through his classic book, Be Here Now. Through Ram Dass, I connected with Neem Karoli Baba, another great Indian saint. A few years later Ram Dass introduced me to Stephen and Ondrea Levine. Stephen is the author of some magnificent books, including A Gradual Awakening, Who Dies, Meetings at the Edge, and A Year to Live. It was Stephen who really helped me get grounded in Buddhist thought and meditation practice.

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