August 30, 2022

How to Be With the Dying: Brian Kraemer’s Inspiring Story

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Brian Kraemer is an old and dear friend of mine. We have exchanged many warm e-mail messages over the years. And once I was lucky enough to meet him when he visited me. He was ostensibly here to relieve me of the burden of many of my books, but actually we used the occasion to get to know each other more deeply. After that, I read a couple of his autobiographical books, and through them, I came to know even more about his personal and spiritual life. To me, Brian is a great and wise man with a beautiful soul and a loving heart. So, yes, I have come to think very highly of Brian and treasure his friendship.

He is also a faithful reader of my blogs and almost always finds the time to comment on them very thoughtfully. Moreover, usually he is able to find some way to connect the themes of my blogs to his personal life.

Such was the case when he read my most recent blog, “Being Mortal While Being Immortal,” in which I spent some time discussing the horrors of most conventional nursing homes and other institutions where people at the end of their lives languish until they are finally released from the trials of their body.

Brian, it turns out, has spent many years in such settings, and I was so moved by his account of some of his experiences in them that I asked his permission to share his story with you.

Here is what he wrote me today:

When I was seventeen, I was driving a tractor through an almond orchard here in northern California. It was August, hot, dusty, miserable, and noisy. I hated it. I remember the moment I said to God, "What is worth doing in life because this 'aint it!" I heard as clearly as I'm writing now, "Go visit the seniors in the retirement homes." I had no idea what I was doing so I bought some stationery in case anyone wanted to dictate a letter to a loved one. I asked to borrow the car and drove to Chico. In those days, there were no rules or policies about entering such a convalescent hospital which is where I started. I just walked in and made my way to the first door with a resident. "Hi. My name is Brian Kraemer. I'm here to visit people. Would you like to visit?" The elderly woman immediately invited me to sit down and we became good friends.

Thus began a now forty-one-year love affair with seniors. I have enjoyed several thousand grandmas and grandpas, mostly grandmas because the grandpas die earlier, but I have adopted many of them and they me. I play piano for them. I listen to them. I ask them questions. I treat them with the love and respect they deserve. I remind them that they are the same women and men they've always been even when they can't speak anymore, can't hear well, see well, control their own bowel functions. They are the same amazing human beings with profound life stories and I want them to know that I know this is true. I have seen many tears as I do nothing more than reassure them that they are the same person they've always been. 

I remember one gentleman whose wife was talking baby talk to him because he had a stroke and she thought he had lost his mental faculties. When she wasn't around, I reminded him of all the amazing things he had done for others and I knew he was the same man and understood everything I was saying. Though he couldn't talk, tears flowed down his face as I did nothing other than reassure him of my own understanding of his wholeness in a broken body.

I have had so many seniors, disabled by strokes, pound on the arm of their wheelchairs after each song I play on the piano. They want me to know that they appreciate me and they appreciate the memories that these old tunes from the thirties, forties, fifties, and so on bring back. "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me..." These seniors may look terribly ragged in these aging bodies, but they are the same imaginative five-year-olds, playful teenagers, voluptuous young adults, and so on that they've ever been. They haven't lost anything. This is the thing we need to remember more than anything else. Though they are becoming physically feebler and feebler, they are adding experience after experience and literally becoming more whole. A ninety-four-year-old woman is not just ninety-four. She is every age, every moment of every age, she has ever been all at once. When we behold a ninety-four-year-old woman we are beholding a gold mine of experience and knowledge and wisdom. The wise search for the gold in there and these seniors love being simply seen for the richness of who they are.

I have to share one more story before I go...I was in my early twenties and I had been visiting these senior centers and convalescent homes for a few years. A nurse asked me if I would visit a particular woman who she said "was not doing well."

I walked into the room and this elderly woman was whimpering like a frightened animal. She had an oxygen mask on her face and she just kept making this whimpering sound like she was so afraid. I walked up to her and said, "Hi. My name is Brian. I come to this home to visit people. May I visit with you?" She nodded her head yes and I stood at her bedside telling her a little about where I grew up nearby and why I was there. 

She couldn't talk, but obviously she understood everything that was going on. I asked her, "May I pray for you?" She nodded her head yes. I put my hand on her hand and said a simple little prayer, nothing particularly religious or flowery, just simple, "God, please bless this woman and help her to not be afraid. Please take good care of her and help her feel better." That was it, short, sweet, sincere, from a child basically. I then asked if it was okay for me to sing a few songs for her. Again, she nodded yes. I sang "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," "Jesus Loves the Little Children," "In the Garden," anything I could remember by heart and while I did so, I knew it was the right thing to do to run my fingers through the hair on her forehead. I sang and just kept running my fingers through her hair. She closed her eyes and got that look that cats get when they are petted. Within a few minutes, her breathing got quieter and quieter and she fell asleep.

I stopped at the front desk and told them that she was asleep now and I would come back in the morning to find out how she was doing. When I returned the next day, I was told that she had "passed in her sleep." I still get tears in my eyes when I think about that precious time she and I had together in the closing hours of her life. I cannot tell you how meaningful those moments were when two human beings met together in a sacred moment and were kind to each other. I hope to God, and I mean it, I hope to God that someone walks into my room, prays for me, sings to me, holds my hand, and runs his or her fingers through my hair when I am on that final journey into further realms of adventure.

I think it's so important to trust that so much is going on for all of us all the time that we don't even begin to understand or appreciate the wonder of it all. When someone is in that final transitional period we call "dying" it is entirely possible, I think even likely, that that person is being nurtured, held, supported, guided, comforted by beings other than ourselves. We have midwives in this realm. I believe with my whole heart that they have midwives in other realms as well and these midwives help us through the process of first inverting, flipping over in the uterus, and then beginning the process of transition. We will soon ask ourselves, "Why was I so afraid?" We have done this infinite times and will continue to do so. "You must be born again," Jesus said. I think he may have meant exactly what he said. "You must be born again."

August 25, 2022

Being Mortal While Being Immortal

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

If you read books or listen to podcasts on spirituality, you are bound to be told – many times ad infinitum – that “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I usually wince with dismay when I hear such twaddle repeated over and over. Not that it’s in the category of a Trumpian “big lie,” which is obviously a big lie in its own wrong; I actually believe that I am an eternal being who has dipped into the illusion of time in order to learn certain lessons, such as being able to tie one’s shoelaces without assistance, until I can be sprung from this temporal prison. It’s just that I have a pedant’s revulsion whenever I encounter such pap. It’s the same category as another spiritual bromide, such as “there are no accidents.” You’ve heard that one, too, right? To which I am wont to counter, “except for chance events, errors, mistakes and random mayhem.” Yes, I admit it: I am an unrepentant curmudgeon when it comes to spiritual clichés.

However much such spiritual drivel may arouse my spleen, I have always been a sucker for a good quip or a witty zinger. One of my favorite characters who is as quick with a quip as anyone I know is my fellow curmudgeon, Woody Allen. Yes, I know his reputation has been tarnished in recent years from all the to-do about whether he did or didn’t, but I have always been partial to Woody, not only for his mordant wit, but perhaps because we are virtual contemporaries, he having arrived on the planet just twelve days ahead of me, in 1935. You will see where I am going with this shortly, but for now “here are some of my favorite things” that Woody has uttered to amuse us:

Nature and I are two.

Man can’t live on bread alone; he also needs a beverage.

I don’t believe in the afterlife, although I am bringing a change in underwear.

But what will be of more interest to us in what follows is suggested by some of Woody’s quips about death. For instance:

I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

Clearly, Woody is not keen on death. He says that he is firmly “against it.” Most people would doubtless agree and would rather not think about it. If you are under sixty, you probably would rather think about other things, such as orgiastic sex. In which case, you might not want to bother reading the rest of this blog. 

But we are actually not going to talk about death so much as what happens when you get old and have to face the prospect of death. This is when your telomeres begin to shorten, when you start developing tumors or cancer or heart disease, when your body has begun to betray you and you live in fear and chronic, often severe, pain. In other words, we are talking about your future, and mine. We are talking about the disease from which none of us will recover – aging.

I’m afraid this will make for rather grim reading – until the end. And there won’t be much more humor to leaven the load. But there will still be the occasional zinger, as in this famous remark of Bette Davis: “Old age is no place for sissies.” If you live long enough, though, you will be living in that place. Let’s check it out before we get there.

Our guide will be the gifted writer and physician, Atul Gawande, the author of the best-seller of a few years back, Being Mortal. In what follows, I will be drawing on his very readable and enlightening book about what’s it’s like to be facing death in America at this time. What he has to tell us won’t reassure Woody, but it will help us be better prepared for the inevitable.

For years I resisted reading this book, despite its excellent reviews and the urging of my cousin, Cliff, a retired cardiologist, who assured me it was a “terrific” book. But having spent forty years consorting with the once nearly dead who had reported their NDEs to me, I figured I had already devoted enough of my life thinking and writing about about death. But, truth to tell, I was just like everyone else when it came to thinking about dying itself. Frankly, I would rather not – die. Or even think about what my later years might entail if I ever should find myself heading toward that final abyss. After all, despite my infirmities and decrepitude, I am actually in pretty good health. I had never had a serious disease, I was still enjoying life and had continued to write and keep as active mentally as I could. I had been extremely lucky, especially compared to many of my friends who were far worse off than I was or who had already kicked the bucket. What me, worry?

But like many elderly people nowadays, I live alone, and as I am now heading toward 87, I had to admit that I could no longer pretend that I was invulnerable to what are often loosely and playfully called “the ravages of age.” Indeed, no male member of my immediate family had ever lived to 87. How long could I really expect my good luck streak to continue? Most oldsters like to think they will die peacefully in their sleep after a happy life. But, face it, that is as rare as winning the lottery, a delusional wish-fulfillment. You may not die like Tolstoy’s fictional character, Ivan Illich, by screaming in agony for three days before your death, but if you were to read Gawande’s book of horrors, you would quickly learn that you are not likely to enjoy your descent toward death once your body begins to fall apart, as it will.

So, in the end, I figuratively girded my loins, and delved into Gawande’s book. In fact, I was already familiar with Gawande. I’d been reading his work for years, mostly in The New Yorker, for which he’s long been a staff writer. But as a writer and medical scholar, he has had a very distinguished career. He has been awarded many literary prizes, is a MacArthur Fellow, and is on the faculty of Harvard. He is widely and deservedly recognized as one of the most outstanding writer/physicians in America. So I knew I would learn a lot from this man.

Still, he begins his book by covering a lot of the ground I have discussed in some of my previous blogs. For example, although Gawande grew up in America, he refers to his Indian background where typically older people are revered and remain in their families until their death. His parental grandfather, for example, lived until almost the age of 110, and only died because of a freak accident.

In cultures with traditional extended family structures, old people are not warehoused into nursing homes as they tend to be in our modern culture. But with the rise of isolated nuclear families in our own time, many old people are effectively deposited into nursing homes where strangers care for them and family members may visit only occasionally, if at all. Or, since increasingly old people, especially women, live by themselves, they may become ill, which creates still other problems. One way or another, the situation of old people can often be fraught with risk or even greater peril – complete abandonment.

But here’s what makes it worse, as Gawande points out. In former times, people didn’t live to a great age. During ancient Roman times, for example, the average life expectancy was about thirty years. Even in the Middle Ages, it was rare to live beyond one’s fifties. And when people did die, they tended to die quickly. Even in George Washington’s time, dying could come overnight, as it did for him. On December 13th, 1799, he suddenly became ill. By the next night, he was gone.

Being interested in classical music, I can’t help thinking of all those famous composers that never made it out of their thirties. Schubert, for instance, died at 31, and Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Carl Maria von Weber, and Henry Purcell never lived to see forty. 

But now, thanks to advances in sanitation, diet, and medical technology, people can live to very advanced ages, which means that, relatively suddenly, our country and most others in the developed world, are struggling to support vast numbers of older people who can no longer live independently. Enormous amounts of money have to be expended, especially in the last year of elderly people’s lives, to house and take care of them. They become, as sociologists put it, “surplus populations.” And since most families can no longer take care of their own, institutions arise to warehouse the old until they die. Thus, we have seen the rise, especially since the middle of the last century, of the obscenity of nursing homes.

Of course, there are many caring people who work in such places, but these are poorly paid jobs, and for many, it is “just a job.” How many of us dream that one day we will wind up in such a dismal and depressing setting, being taken care of by a succession of strangers, when we have lost all agency over our own fate? But this could indeed be your fate one day, my friends. This is how your life could end when you are sick, infirm and perhaps demented. It could happen to me, too, of course, but I would be tempted to say, “over my dead body!” Truly, I would rather die than to end up in such a place, wouldn’t you?

Gawande spends a lot of time talking about life in nursing homes, and offers a number of case histories of people who were forced to live out their lives there. They make for frightening reading. And, remember, Gawande was visiting such places and writing about them before COVID hit. We all remember in the beginning of the pandemic that nursing homes were often settings where COVID could easily spread, causing many people to die, perhaps a blessing in a way, though dying of COVID, alone and without family, had to be a ghastly way to expire.

Have you ever visited such “homes?” I have. During the last years of my mother’s life when I was still teaching at the University of Connecticut, I had to place my mother, then in her early 80s, in such a home in Berkeley. I would visit her as often as I could, and once I was able to move back to California, I was able to visit almost weekly until she died.  

I am an only child from a very small family, and in all the years she lived there – she died when she was nearly 89 – no one else ever visited her. (Sometimes, however, my girlfriend at the time, would accompany me.) What you would have seen if you had been with me is fairly typical of such homes. You enter and you see a long corridor of people strapped into their wheelchairs, drooling or cursing of just sitting there, mute and absent. Many are demented, of course. My mother shared a room with a succession of women she didn’t know, some of whom would rave during the night, she told me.

My mother was beginning to lose her hearing, but she was still, until the near the end, mentally competent. She could no longer walk, so on nice days I would push her wheelchair around the neighborhood (fortunately, the streets were flat), or take her out in back and read to her (she liked to listen to short stories by Chekhov) or play gin rummy with her. But she couldn’t read, didn’t want to listen to the radio or watch TV. She didn’t even like to be touched. She mostly remained quiet and just stayed in her bed. She had no life. The place had no life. My mother wasn’t mistreated. The staff, so far as I could tell, were kind and caring people. But, still, I felt absolutely dreadful every time I had to leave, seeing her there in her bed, lying passively, not even able to say or wave goodbye. I would kiss her on her forehead and say I would see her again next time until there was no next time.

Gawande, who in preparation for writing his book, spent a great deal of time in places like those in which my mother vegetated and died, came away with the direct knowledge of how much such institutions fail to serve the needs of the people in their care. At the outset of his book, he offers an almost savage indictment of the failures of modern medicine:

You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions – nursing homes and intensive care units – where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the most basic comforts they need most. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to the very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.

But in his travels, Gawande didn’t just wander through the often soulless and depressing interiors of nursing homes; he also spent a lot of time seeking out experts in the field of death and dying, such as elderly geriatricians (apparently themselves a dying breed), but especially innovators who are trying to change the culture of such institutions so that they would become much more than joyless prisons for people who were suffering and merely marking time, as my mother did, waiting for the end to come.

Many of these pioneers have come up with ingenious solutions to enliven the daily lives of the residents of these homes, and some of the stories Gawande recounts in his book are very inspiring and hopeful – and often hilarious. I only have space to relate one such story, but it shows what is possible if one has imagination, pluck and perseverance.

In upstate New York in 1991, a young Harvard-trained physician named Bill Thomas became the director of a nursing home. He didn’t like what he saw there, and had an idea. He wanted to attack what he termed the three plagues of nursing home life: boredom, loneliness and helplessness. So to bring some life into this nursing home, he proposed to bring dogs and cats – and a hundred parakeets -- into his facility!

The administrators thought he was nuts. Besides, this would never fly. There was no way they could get such a wacky plan approved, much less funded. But Bill Thomas was the kind of guy who would not be denied. He proved to be incredibly dynamic and persuasive. And in the end, he was able to accomplish everything he had in mind.

Once the animals came into the home, there was of course pandemonium and confusion, but ultimately most of the residents were delighted. The animals were a big hit and the residents’ spirits were uplifted. Many were brought out of their shells of isolation, as Gawande relates:

“People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking," Thomas said. "People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights turned back on in people’s eyes. 

Researchers studied the effect of this program for two years. The findings? The number or prescriptions was half that of conventional nursing homes. The need for psychotropic drugs, like Haldol, decreased. Total drug costs fell 38% compared to other similar homes. Deaths fell 15%. In short, Thomas’s plan was an improbable but undeniable success.

Gawande’s book, though it is full of heartrending stories of people’s ultimately futile battles with their illnesses – and the reader gets to know many of these people, as Gawande makes sure to stay in touch with them – is also studded with stories like that of Bill Thomas, of people who buck the system and find ways to bring hope and compassionate care into the lives of those who would otherwise be forgotten and left to suffer.

Suffering is inevitable, of course, especially for the old and infirm and those afflicted by incurable illnesses, but ways are being found to mitigate that suffering by paying compassionate attention to the special needs and goals of people who find themselves, as many of us will one day, dealing with intractable illnesses as they approach and often yearn for death.

Gawande himself, as gifted a surgeon as he is, is very forthright about his own shortcomings as a physician when it comes to learning how to be with the dying. Doctors, after all, are not trained to deal with the dying; they often don’t know how to talk to or be with such people, and sometimes lose interest in them once they feel they can no longer help them. Doctors are taught to fix things, but you can’t fix death. If you regard death as the enemy, then the enemy always wins in the long run. It’s understandable that many doctors would prefer to ignore or slight the dying in order to attend to the living.

But Gawande in the course of doing his research for his book and talking to so many people has come to learn a lot about how to be with the dying, and he has advice for his fellow doctors, which he sums up in three questions they should be sure to put to such people:  

What are your biggest fears and concerns?

What goals are most important to you?

What tradeoffs ae you willing to make, and what ones are unacceptable to you?

Gawande cites research that shows one of the most important things that doctors can do for the dying is to engage them in discussions about such issues, and not just the treatments that they could perform, which ultimately often prove useless and just extend their suffering. “Doctors everywhere,” Gawande writes, “become all too ready to offer false hopes, leading families to empty bank accounts … and take money from their children’s education for futile treatments.”

The dying don’t just want technical information, which often just confuses them, anyway. How do they know what’s best for them? No, they want doctors to listen to them, to their fears, to understand their goals, to engage with them, and not just to offer their “expert opinions.” In short, doctors need to learn to shut up at such times and listen. That can make all the difference, as Gawande notes: “People who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”

And eloquently concludes:

Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversation in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.

Gawande is the son of two physicians, and his father was a distinguished urologist, a man of immense energy, as healthy as “a Brahma bull,” Gawande says, but in his seventies, he finally begins to learn that he, too, will have to face his mortality. Always healthy, he becomes sick and then gravely ill. The last pages of this incredibly moving book become even more poignant when Gawande has to deal with his own father’s illness and, ultimately, with his death. I found this part of the book very tender, sad, and yet so aptly fitting, as if everything that Gawande had learned in conducting the research for his book could at the end be distilled as his final gift to his beloved father. What a beautiful tribute to a loving father from a loving son. 

A Personal Postscript

Gawande does not seem to be a religious man. I gather that like most physicians he has a secular outlook on life. His concern throughout the book is of course on questions of mortality, and not with what may come afterward. But I, who have mostly been concerned in my work with what happens at the point of death and with what people realize at that liminal transcendent moment, have a different point of view. What struck me in reading this book is how desperately people cling to life, and how, even when they long to die, their families often urge their doctors “to do everything possible” to preserve their lives of their loved ones, even if that only serves to prolong their agony.  

In one of my previous blogs, I recounted the case of the world-famous psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, who resisted to the last his wife’s desperate pleas to be allowed to die because of unremitting pain from terminal cancer. She wanted death, but her husband desperately didn’t want her to leave – to leave him.  

I wish people could know that when facing death, despite the pain, there is no reason to fear. I suppose I am guilty of resorting to a cliché of my own when I say that through my work, I have learned that “death is not a dead end.” Maybe I should write a book called “Being Immortal” and send a copy to Woody Allen while there’s still time. For I really do believe that we are eternal beings, and that we are all destined to return to our true home once our life on this plane ends. Maybe this, too, is something that those who attend the dying might want to keep in mind. After all, anything that could ease our own fears of dying may also serve to reassure those about to make their final passage to whatever may lie beyond this mortal life of ours.


If you didn’t read about Ken Ring’s new book, Blogging Toward Infinity, be sure to check it out on Amazon where you can order a copy, if you like. Here’s a link that will take you to his book:

August 15, 2022

Advertisements for Myself

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Before most of you were born, the American writer, Norman Mailer, brought out a book with this title. Not being keen on Mailer (I seem to have an aversion to pugilistic writers inclined to stab their wives), I never read it. But here I would like at least to purloin his title in order to do something I trust will be less violent, though perhaps still a little unseemly. You see, I may need to ask your help with a new book of mine.

Here's the story. I’ve just published my latest – and my last – book of essays, which I’ve entitled Blogging Toward Infinity: Last Notes from the Ringdom. Some of you – I hope many of you – have already read some of the blogs in this book, but I doubt that any of you have read all of them. Now, here’s your chance in case you missed some of my imperishable writings. Anyway, here’s what the cover looks like:  

And here’s link to the book in case you’d like to check it out:

Since this is my farewell to writing books, the cover shows me waving goodbye as I go off into the infinite distance, not to death, but to the death of writing books. Since I’ve written more than twenty books over the last forty years or so, I think it’s time to retire my fingers and use them for better purposes, such as remembering to cut my fingernails before people mistake me for Howard Hughes.

But seriously, I’m not just asking you to consider buying my book, though perhaps some of you will, or, if you do, whether you would be kind enough to write a review and post it on Amazon, which would be nice and appreciated. No, I would like to ask you another favor, if you’d consent to become a part of my coalition of the willing.

You see, although I don’t expect to retire on the royalties from the sale of this book, I would like to avoid ending my life as a literary failure. So, to avoid that sorry fate, since I am not able to use a professional publicist to hoot the horn for my book, I’m hoping that some of you would be willing to post something about this book on your Facebook page or other social media that you use. Please don’t do this if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. In that case, just delete this blog and don’t bother to read the rest.

But if you’d care to help me promote this book, here’s what the publisher wrote up about it, which you could perhaps use:

This is Ken Ring’s last book, and though he claims to spend most of his days whimpering, his farewell to writing, as his final essays will demonstrate, certainly goes out with a bang. As he veers unsteadily toward 87, Ring has lost none of his verve or literary panache. As always, his essays sparkle with his usual wit, but mainly reflect Ring’s more serious concern to address some of the topics that have engaged him during this last phase of his life.

Still, the book begins in a more lighthearted way with his reminiscing about his early life with his absent father (“my father, once removed,” he calls him) and about some of the other things that shaped his character, such as the greatest movie ever made that few people have heard of. He also devotes several essays to largely unknown facets of Helen Keller’s extraordinary career, including “the sex life of a saint.” But most of the rest of book is devoted to Ring’s careful study of the lives of animals and considerations of animal welfare and the movement for animal rights. And it concludes, fittingly enough, with a number of essays that distill what Ring believes are the most important lessons that people should take from his many years of researching near-death experiences – all of which was foreshadowed by that film he saw as a youth that changed his life and foretold his destiny. 

Or perhaps you might want to quote from my preface:

You now hold in your hands – unless you are reading this on your screen – my last book. Of course, I don’t mean my most recent book; I mean the last book I will ever write. Yes, you’ve heard this vow before. Each time I write a book nowadays, I tell you (and my publisher) that it is absolutely, positively and definitely my last book, which turns out to be true until one day, it isn’t. However, now that I am heading toward 87 and the scrap heap, I am convinced that I have finally reached the end of my writing life. From now on, I intend to devote myself to perfecting my cribbage game while I can still count.

But before I go down for the count, I had better tell you what you will find if you can get past this preamble. 

In recent years, I’ve been too lazy to write the kind of books I published when I had some misguided notion that I had something worth writing about, such as near-death experiences. So, eventually, after I became an octogenarian, I took to writing blogs. I would then re-brand them as “essays,” round them up and put them into a book. I called my first such endeavor, Waiting to Die, but then when I didn’t, I brought out a second collection, which I entitled, Reflections in a Glass Eye. The first book did rather well; the second one, with its meaningless title, was a dud. If the third time is really “the charm,” I’m golden. 

In this book, you will find “some of my favorite things.”  It begins with some accounts of my personal history as a youth and continues with recollections of friends once dear to me. This is sort of my faux-Proustian version of “in search of lost time.” In the next section, I present some portraits of well-known figures about whom I figured I could tell you some things you never would have guessed.   

The final two sections are much longer. The first is about one of the great loves of my later years. Having had my share of romances with the ladies, I have come to love animals. Not that I live with any, but I love to read and write about them. And to strike a serious note for once, if briefly, I worry about their welfare, as you will see. And, finally, I return to an earlier love, my NDE work, and try to bring out not only some new developments in that field, but what I think everyone should know about these experiences, preferably before they die. And that includes me, just in case I can ever manage to cross that final finish line instead of interminably waiting to die.

Or, hell, just write what you please.

If you need to identify me professionally, you could use this brief bio:

Kenneth Ring, PhD is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, the author of five books on near-death experiences (NDEs), including his bestselling Lessons from the Light, and cofounder and first president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).

OK, that’s my pitch and request. I hope you don’t find it too shamelessly self-serving, but at least I never stabbed any of my wives.

August 1, 2022

My Life as a Puer

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Mickey Rooney was one for sure. And I’ve read that Jack Kerouac was one, too. But there’s no doubt that another famous writer, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, everyone’s favorite book, was one. So, according to what I have read, was T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And if we go back into history there’s no doubt that the Prince Regent, who would later become George IV once old mad King George had finally died, was a flamboyant one, as I learned after recently reading J. B. Priestley’s history of the Regency, which he entitled The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency.

And although I am hardly a well-known figure like the men I have just referred to, I, too, am one. One what, you ask? The answer: To use the term popularized by C. G. Jung and other Jungians who have written extensively on the subject, I am a Puer Aeternus, an “eternal youth” for which the classic archetypal example, of course, is Peter Pan, who did not want to grow up.

Neither, as you will read, did I.

To start with the most superficial aspect of my life as a puer – and there are many things about a puer that, alas, are superficial – I’ve always looked young, and younger than my years. This was true for most of my life, and, according to my friends, who no doubt want to flatter me or pretend not to notice how old I look now, I still think that is the case. For example, lately I have been watching a series on Netflix with Michael Pollan about recent research on psychedelics. Pollan, whom I admire and respect, is 65. But, I swear, I think I look younger than he does even though I am now approaching 87.

But of course there is more to being a puer than looking youthful. Being a puer means having a certain kind of character and boyish charm, and behaving in ways that seem to belie one’s age. But what actually animates a puer like me? What drives me to act the way I do? I want to explore this next.

Reflecting on my life from the vantage point of my late eighties, it seems to me that it can be understood in terms of two overriding motives that have dominated me – the pursuit of pleasure and the search for passion. Each of these seems to be associated, however, with a different aspect of my character. Let me consider my pleasure-oriented ways first.

Of course, nearly everyone prefers and enjoy pleasures – by definition. But in my case, I think in my childhood and early teenage years I was unusually responsive to its allure and that it was this that kept me fixated in my growth, having remained, as I have said, a child in so many ways even to this day.  

Take my preferences for food as an example. I still love candy, sweets, ice cream, bagels, bread, etc. – the soft, delicious treats of childhood. When I could still walk, I would often sneak off to my local liquor store for a York Mint Patty. I eat like an 8-year-old boy.

The same thing is true about drinking. I have a cousin who is more like a brother to me whose taste in and knowledge about food is very sophisticated and who is also an oenophile. I can drink the occasional glass of wine, but I could never really understand why so many people are gaga about it. I was always a Diet Coke man – and used to enjoy sharing one with one of my girlfriends, a puella herself (puella is the female term for a puer), until I learned that it rots your brain. Also, although everyone in the world, it seems, drinks coffee, I have never cared to do so. I disagree with Woody Allen when he quipped, “Man can’t live on bread alone, he also needs a beverage.” 

Or consider my clothes – I resist wearing “grown-up” clothes – suits and ties. I had to save those for my appearances in the divorce court. I like to wear what is comfortable. For many years, I wore loafers because I remember how much as a kid I liked the way Gene Kelly wore them in the movies. To this day, I always wear white socks because he did. I still dress in many ways I did when I was a teenager, at least when I can. 

Or take my taste in music. Although I love classical music, I resist a lot of twentieth century and contemporary music of the avant garde where music has become a kind of conceptual art, experiments in sound, silences and extreme sonic sensations, which no longer seems like music at all. I still agree with Camille Saint-Saëns, about whom I once wrote a book, when he says that music is meant to give pleasure. I believe my taste in music was formed and has remained pretty much fixated on the music I came to love as a teenager. I do not have the kind of mind and sensibility that is open to novelty and experimentation; I am a musical fuddy-duddy who has never grown up musically, only older.

I still love the pleasures of childhood, and in many ways I have never outgrown them.  

But there is another aspect of my life where the passions of childhood have flowered in such a way as to promote my growth personally, spiritually and intellectually. And that, in a phrase, is the search for ecstatic experience, for a kind of transcendence. Indeed, I would say, looking back on my life now, this has been what has kept me at once growing and young.

My search for ecstasy has taken many forms some of which I have already alluded to. Opera, for example, is still thrilling to me – the sound of the human voice at full volume can move me inexpressibly, as it has many others of course (Walt Whitman wrote eloquently on this subject). Classical music has the same power over me – Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler (especially Mahler’s Second Symphony). It vaunts me into another dimension of life that, as Schopenhauer wrote, provides an intimation of the numinous. Until I was in my late 70s I had enjoyed a sexual life rich in its mystical transports and primal feelings, and have always sought such experiences.  

Likewise, with psychedelic drugs, which I used for a period of some 25 years and which brought me the most ineffably powerful experiences of rapture I have ever known and the complete, if momentary, transcendence of my ego-based self. My first, if inadvertent, LSD experience more than a half century ago was the single most important catalytic experience of my life – the one that caused me both to “wake up” to what life really was and led me from the world of ordinary psychology into the field of transpersonal psychology and shortly afterward to my work on near-death experiences.  

Those experiences, too, thrilled me to my core, as they have many others, and it was my continuing joy to write about them for many years as it was to meet so many of the people who had them and who related them to me. My interest in mystical and religious experiences was likewise another flowering from this same seed. 

In so many ways, these passionate pursuits, fueled by my desire for ecstatic experiences, have dictated the course of my life and caused me to follow wherever they led, almost heedless of the consequences, as if I were compelled by an unshakeable inner compulsion that was at the same time the source of my growth and the key to my destiny.

Actually, I haven’t read that much about motivations of puers, but scanning the Internet in preparation for writing this blog, I did find some confirmation for why my life developed as it did.

For example, one such article states the following:

The puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else. Today most puers and puellas can be found in ashrams seeking a religious experience or using drugs or alcohol to escape reality. Reading this, I was reminded of what Bertrand Russell, an intellectual hero of mine when I was young, wrote at the beginning of his autobiography.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy … I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.  

I don’t know if Russell could be regarded as a puer – although everyone seems to have called him “Bertie,” as if he were a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel – but I have long been struck by the fact that, like me, he had numerous affairs, some of which were quite scandalous, and, again like me, he was married four times.  

Perhaps multiple amatory relationships and marriages are typical for many puers. For example, Mickey Rooney who lived until 93, almost as long as Russell who died three years short of his century, was married eight times! And guess who his first wife was.

Ava Gardner! Can you believe it? At least he started at the top, but it’s not surprising, given that he was a consummate puer, that it didn’t last.

Which brings me by way of these digressions to the dark side of being a puer. It’s time to talk about my relationships with women, a fraught subject.

To begin with, let me quote some sample passages from just one of the articles I read about puers and their difficulty with commitment:

Puers generally have a hard time with commitment. They like to keep their options open and can’t bear to be tied down. They act spontaneously, with little thought of consequences….

Puers and puellas live a provisional life. There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape.

Puers chafe at boundaries and limits and tend to view any restriction as intolerable. They do not realise that some restrictions are indispensable for growth.

This certainly resonates with me, but I had always ascribed this feeling to my Sagittarian nature. (My astrological chart, if you care, or put any stock in such things, shows me strongly loaded with Sagittarius signs). And what does this say about me? That I love and need freedom, independence, and not to be tied down. That is my cardinal trait. But it’s complicated because for me, according to what I’ve been told by astrologers I trust, I also have a deep need for intimacy. I’ve always known this. But that brings up a conflict – how to balance the need for independence with my need for intimacy. I have never been able to achieve that balance, and that has caused pain to many women as well as to myself.

I remember once meeting an astrologer for the first time. She didn’t know anything about me, and before giving me “a reading,” she simply looked at my chart, and then said this. “You have been married three times.” (Which was true at the time.) “And you have a very hard time with commitment because you have a freedom/intimacy conflict, as shown by your grand square.” Bullseye.  

So whether it is because I am such a strong Sagittarian type or that I am a puer, or both, this has resulted in a great deal of agony in my life and for many of the women I have been with or married to. I eventually find marriages or committed relationships confining, and I bolt, seeking freedom from constraints once more. In that way, I am a typical grief-causing puer.

I am not ugly, and when I was young I wasn’t bad looking, but for whatever reason, I learned by the time I was in my mid-twenties that I was attractive to women. At that time, a beautiful woman who was the cynosure of the psychology department where we were both graduate students, fell in love with me. I was both thrilled and astonished. But because I was married and could not leave my wife, I could not pursue this relationship. This crushed the woman – she shortly thereafter withdrew from graduate school and moved to a foreign country – and I was depressed for a year.  

Over the years, and I don’t mean to brag or turn this blog into a sentimental confession, I have known the love of quite a few beautiful and accomplished women. And I have actually been stalked by other women and accosted by a few more. Why?  

I may not have been a particularly good-looking man, but what I had was a certain winning charm. People, and not just women, were always attracted to me. Many of my students were also. But not just because I could be charming and playful, but, I believe, because of my natural tendency to become deeply interested in most everyone I came to spend time with. 

I remember reading about the playwright, George S. Kaufman, who was not a handsome man, but he always had a way with the ladies. What was the secret of his success? He may have been joking, but he said he always noticed when they changed their hairdo and commented on it.  

In the case of women, I think many of them came to love me because of the quality of my genuine interest in and attention to them. I listened to them attentively and sought to know them, whether or not I was interested to pursue a romantic relationship with them.

But for those I did, it rarely worked out well in the end, and in the end there was pain. The same pattern repeating over and over again.  

I will not go into details here; you don’t need to know any of that. It’s enough that I do, and I have written a great deal about my anguish and regret in some of my books that I have kept private and not shown to many people. My children may want to read them after I am no longer here.

All this is just to make it clear that as much as I have enjoyed my life as a puer, it has not been without the cost of a great deal of suffering to others as well as myself. There is no light without its shadow.

Time to start summing up. So, on balance, what do I conclude about my wayward but often very gratifying life as a puer?

Yes, in many ways I suppose I’m still a child, still a puer and always a puer, despite its costs, but in another way, once childhood pleasures gave way to adult passions, my real life could begin. And it has been, on the whole, a life of adventure and exploration, both intellectually and spiritually. I have taken many voyages and visited many extraordinary realms, both interior, through my psychedelic excursions, and outwardly, through my travels throughout the world. I have known many lovers, who have likewise enriched my life more than words could ever convey and for whom I have had the deepest gratitude for everything they taught me about life and love.

I have had a great variety of intellectual interests that have found expression in my writing – social psychology, altered states of consciousness, the study of near-death experiences, UFO encounters, classical music, the struggle for Palestinian justice, animal cognition, and numerous other topics. In all of this, I have been following my vocation, wherever it led, as a devotee of the passionate life the seeds for which, I am convinced, were already present in the child I once was and to some extent, with the qualifications to come, remain.

But still, I am an old man now, a senex, to use the term favored by Jungians. What is like to be puer in an old man’s body?  

My passions have cooled a bit as my infirmities have taken over my life, and I find at this stage that my desire for freedom and independence is largely a memory. I don’t feel that way any longer, and my physical limitations would preclude that kind of life, anyway. I am now very dependent on others – my caregiver, my neighbors, and, most of all, my beautiful and loving girlfriend, Lauren, who has put up with me for the last seven years and counting. I thank my lucky stars that she has been in my life all these years. She is the perfect person for me at this point in my life, and don’t I know it. I will be a puer to the end, but I think I have mostly outgrown him now. Maybe, finally, I have managed to become an adult.

July 21, 2022

The Waiting Game

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Several years ago, I published a little book of mostly humorous essays that I whimsically entitled Waiting to Die. After having spent more than half a lifetime researching and writing about what it’s like to die (it’s so much better than living, according to what I’ve been told by the people I’ve interviewed), I thought I could write about what is like waiting to die, at least what it’s been like for me. When I wrote the essays for that book, I was in my early eighties, and I joked that it was then my goal to live to be a thousand – months old. That would have gotten me out of here at a little more than 83, which seemed to be a good age to die.  

I made my goal, but at the same time, I failed to achieve it. That is, I lived to reach my thousand-month marker, but the problem was, I didn’t die. Instead I was condemned to begin my second thousand-year cycle, though I still cherish every hope I will end well before it does.  

Actually, I remember the exact day when I reached my original goal. It was on April 13th, 2019, and, strangely enough, it was one of the very worst days of my life. As it happened, I was vacationing with my girlfriend Lauren in Pacific Grove – my longtime favorite town in California where I had spent many happy times in years past – at that time. There was a professional conference being held during that week – that was one reason we were there then – and I was going to be honored for my work. But when I woke up that day, I was terribly, wretchedly sick. I could scarcely get out of bed. I couldn’t go to the conference, I could only go to the bathroom (I will elide the sordid activities that brought me there). The thought even occurred to me that perhaps I really would die that day, but, obviously, no such luck. By the next day, although I still felt weak and wiped out, I was beginning to recover. But in a way, the worst was still to come. 

Pacific Grove is a hilly town and where Lauren and I were staying then was down close to the ocean. To get up to the main part of town where the restaurants and shops are, we had to climb up a little grade and then surmount a long hill. I found that I couldn’t do it. Well, I could but only with the greatest difficulty. It wasn’t just a hill any longer; it seemed to be Mt. Matterhorn. 

That’s when I realized that my spinal stenosis from which I had already been suffering for several years had now reached a point that would prevent me from traveling or doing much of anything. Lauren and I had always enjoyed eating at our favorite restaurant there, Pepper’s, which was located toward the top of that steep hill. That day was the last day we were ever able to dine there, and that trip was the last time I was able to visit Pacific Grove, or PG, as we always called it. I have never been able to get back there – of course COVID would soon prevent that, anyway – and I never will. 

So although I didn’t die that fateful, but not fatal, day, April 13th, 2019, it did seem to mark the end of my life in another way. After that day, I would become effectively housebound, which has been the case ever since. I now live essentially as something between a shut-in and a cripple. My life didn’t end that day, but in another sense, that day did indeed mark the end of my life, as I had been used to living it. In Waiting to Die, I mused that I wasn’t really afraid of death, I was afraid of living too long! Now my worst fears have been realized. I have not been able to dismount on this not-so-merry-go-round of life. 

So, here I am, drifting unsteadily on wobbly legs toward 87, wondering what to do with myself. Of course, I can still read – although I’ve recently been having trouble with my vision. But after having had some surgery recently to remove something nasty from the left side of my face, something went wrong. I now have the feeling that there is a worm crawling around inside there, and the funny thing – though it’s not funny to me – is that that feeling is intensified whenever I watch TV. It’s been over a month now and my dermatologist who performed this operation has no idea what’s going on. So even watching TV is a bit of problem now, but the worm in any case does not show any interest in taking up residence elsewhere. I have other physical problems, too, but who wants to read about the troubles of an old man? I will not bore you into soporific stupefaction by giving you the litany. You get old, your body falls apart. That’s life in the lame lane. You get used to it. There are worse things, God knows. I have been lucky – or perhaps not -- to get this far. 

But perhaps the worst thing for me – you will laugh at this – is I really don’t know what to do with myself these days. I have written many books and in the last few years I have written dozens of blogs, but for now, I know I have written my last book (it is now at my publishers and should be out later this year), and I am blogged out. I can’t think of anything worth blogging about, and in recent years, I have always lived to write. I have no hobbies, I have few friends, I don’t much feel like writing e-mail, I’m alone most of the time, although I have a wonderful caretaker, a loving girlfriend and kind neighbors. But, still, days of puttering around my house when even doing routine chores exhaust me and cause me to pant like a slobbering dog, don’t make for much of a life. If I could still write books, I might entitle my next one, Still Waiting to Die. I suppose there’s always Netflix to distract me from my troubles and get me through the night. 

The odd thing is, despite what I have written, I am not depressed, at least not most of the time, although occasionally I do sink into a state of torpor and ennui. But mostly not. Mostly I am still glad and grateful to be here. I just wish I could think of something useful to do with myself. Right now, it’s time to crumble up some walnuts for the birds outside on my patio. At least I can make the birds happy. That’s something. 

In the meantime, I’m still playing the waiting game. So far, I’m losing, but I haven’t lost hope that I will eventually figure out what to do with myself. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

June 8, 2022

How I Became a Baboon

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Well, actually, I have deceived you. This is not really my story, but it is the story of someone who learned to become a baboon as a result of living for two years with a troop of baboons in Africa. I found in reading this remarkable document I was so moved, I became almost speechless with wonder. And I knew at once that I would want to share it with you.

The woman who wrote it,
Barbara Smuts, is currently an emerita professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Michigan. She is famous for her studies of baboons, chimpanzees and dolphins. I will give you more information about her and about the article from which this excerpt is drawn at the end of this blog.

But for now, I invite you to become acquainted with this remarkable woman and learn how it was that she became a baboon and, more important, what she learned about herself in the process. I think by the time you get to the end of this blog, you, too, will be left, as I was, with a feeling of awe.


“Resting in the shade of a tree, Alex, Daphne and I lazily contemplate the landscape, dotted here and there with herds of zebra and impala. A breeze rises, fluffing up the hair on Daphne’s head. I fiddle with a brightly colored stone and Alex leans over to peer at my find. Then he rests his head against the tree and dozes. I look past him at Daphne and our gazes meet. She makes a friendly face and moves a little bit closer. Daphne, too, begins to nap, and soon I’m drifting off as well, lulled to sleep by the sound of her gentle breathing and the birds flitting about in the tree above. My body relaxes completely, secure in the presence of my companions. 

“Many of us have shared such peaceful moments with dear friends. But my experience under the tree had an unusual twist because Alex and Daphne were baboons, members of a wild troop that for over two years daily welcomed me into their midst. Through this close association, I discerned in each baboon a distinct presence that seemed much like the kind of ‘self’ that dwells within me. Among scientists, applying concepts like ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’ to nonhuman animals is very controversial, both because no one agrees on how to define these terms, and because however we define them, they retain a subjective dimension that makes them resistant to investigation by scientific methods. Rather than enter this treacherous territory, I will just tell some stories to give a feeling for what it is like to encounter a ‘self’ in wild baboons and other animals. 

“During multiple forays to Kenya and Tanzania over the past 25 years, the baboons I came to know the best belonged to Eburru Cliffs troop (EC), named after a rocky outcropping in the Great Rift Valley near Lake Naivasha. EC’s 135 members moved as a cohesive unit in search of food throughout a huge area of roughly 70 km. For two years, I joined the baboons at dawn and travelled with them until they reached some sleeping cliffs at dusk, twelve hours later. With occasional days off, I repeated this routine seven days a week. For several months, I lived alone and went for days without seeing another human. Later, I lived with other researchers whom I saw in the evening, but I interacted with people infrequently while with the baboons. 

“I came to live with baboons as a result of my lifelong curiosity about animals. Although I entered their world as a scientist interested in primate social behaviour, many of the skills I used to get to know them were inherited from my ancestors rather than learned in graduate school. Until recent times, all humans possessed profound familiarity with other creatures. Paleolithic hunters learned about the giant bear the same way the bear learned about them: through the intense concentration and fully aroused senses of a wild animal whose life hangs in the balance. Our ancestors’ survival depended on exquisite sensitivity to the subtle movements and nuanced communication of predators, prey, competitors, and all the animals whose keener senses of vision, smell, or hearing enhanced human apprehension of the world. 

“Each of us has inherited this capacity to feel our way into the being of another, but our fast-paced, urban lifestyle rarely encourages us to do so. During my life with the baboons, I discovered that, plunged back into the wild world from which we emerged, ancient skills come alive, and once again human and animal minds meet on equal ground. 

“However, at the beginning of my study, the baboons and I definitely did not see eye to eye. I wanted to get as close to them as possible; they wanted to keep their distance. 

“Convincing them that I was not a threat was the first major challenge I faced.

“I began with the obvious first step: In open country I approached the wary troop from a great distance and halted whenever they began to move away. The baboons gradually allowed me to inch closer, but progress was slow. Then I began to notice more subtle responses to my presence. For example, baboons, ever vigilant for predators, look around a lot while foraging, and I realized that as I drew closer, more of their looks were directed at me. A little later I noticed that even before this happened, females began to issue calls and direct stern looks at their infants to signal them to return to mom, just in case the dangerous human moved any closer. By tuning in to these more subtle signals, I was able to stop approaching before most of the baboons got nervous. Soon they let me get much closer, and eventually I was allowed to move among them freely.

“When speaking about this process at professional gatherings, I’ve used the accepted scientific term, ‘habituation’. The word implies that the baboons adapted to me, that they changed, while I stayed essentially the same. But in reality, the reverse is closer to the truth. The baboons remained themselves, doing what they always did in the world they had always lived in. I, on the other hand, in the process of gaining their trust, changed almost everything about me, including the way I walked and sat, the way I held my body, and the way I used my eyes and voice. I was learning a whole new way of being in the world — the way of the baboon. I was not literally moving like a baboon — my very different morphology prevented that — but rather I was responding to the cues that baboons use to indicate their emotions, motivations and intentions to one another, and I was gradually learning to send such signals back to them. As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signaled a profound change from being treated as an object that elicited a unilateral response (avoidance), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate. Over time they treated me more and more as a social being like themselves, subject to the demands and rewards of relationship. This meant that I sometimes had to be willing to give more weight to their demands (e.g., a signal to ‘get lost!’) than to my desire to collect data. But it also meant that I was increasingly often welcomed into their midst, not as a barely-tolerated intruder but as a casual acquaintance or even, on occasion, a familiar friend. 

“Being treated like a fellow baboon proved immensely useful to my research, because I experienced directly critical aspects of baboon society. For example, I soon learned that the baboons’ most basic social conventions entail acknowledgement of relative status through respect for personal space. In general, each baboon has a small invisible circle around him or her that a lower-ranking animal will rarely invade without first signaling intent (usually by grunting) and receiving from the other an indication that it is safe to approach (usually a reciprocal grunt and/or the ‘come hither’ face). If the approaching animal is dominant, he or she may or may not respect the other’s personal space; it depends on the nature of their relationship and the current context. For example, when a higher-ranking female approaches a mother in order to greet her young infant, she often pauses to grunt and make appealing faces at the infant outside the boundaries of the mother’s personal space. This indicates that the female’s intentions are friendly, which reduces the chances that the mother will leave with her baby. In contrast, if a female is approaching a lower-ranking mother in order to take over her feeding site, she’ll usually enter the mother’s personal space without pausing, causing her to move away. 

“Once I became sensitive to the importance of personal space in baboon society, I realized that the boundaries of personal space could shrink or grow, depending on the individuals concerned and the situation. For example, when a male courts a female, her personal space tends to expand, and to woo her the male needs to be very sensitive to this shift. In a similar vein, if a subordinate, S, has recently been threatened or attacked by a more dominant animal, D, S’s personal space in relation to D will expand until they have reconciled (by touching or through vocal communication or until enough time has passed to neutralize S’s fear of D. Sometimes personal space shrinks to nothing. This occurs most often among very young animals, kin, or close friends. In such intimate relationships, no one worries too much about being polite. Thus, the way baboons construct and relate to personal space reflects, among other things, the intentions of each party; their age, gender, and relative statuses; their degree of familiarity; the trust a subordinate feels toward a dominant; recent histories of interaction; and the particular circumstances of the moment. 

Primatologists have long recognized the fundamental importance of personal space by considering ‘approach–retreat’ interactions a valid measure of relative status. But status is just one of many factors influencing how baboons relate to one another. Familiarity and trust — which allow two individuals to overlap their circles of personal space, regardless of gender, age, or relative status — are every bit as important. In my relations with baboons, these two elements proved more salient than status. 

“Every well-trained field worker knows that it is critical not to move too close to the animals one is studying, so as to minimize one’s influence on their emotions and behaviour. But less often do field workers acknowledge the subtle and complex issues that arise when the animals regard the scientist as a social subject. For example, as a graduate student I was told by more experienced primatologists that I should always ignore or slowly move away from any study animal who came near me or tried to interact with me (in other words, any animal who entered my personal space). The idea was that, by ignoring the animals, we would discourage them from paying attention to us. The baboons soon taught me otherwise. 

“One day, when I was sitting on the edge of the troop, a foraging female approached me. When she was about two feet away (an undeniable overlap of personal space), she grunted softly several times without looking up. I turned my head to see whom she was grunting at, and, spotting no other baboons within 15 yards, realized that she was talking to me. After that epiphany, I paid much more attention to what it meant to the baboons to ignore another’s approach. 

“When a baboon makes the come hither face, he or she flattens the ears back against the skull and raises the brows to reveal the white skin on the eyelids. This expression conveys friendly intent. 

“I soon learned that ignoring the proximity of another baboon is rarely a neutral act, something that should have been obvious to me from my experience among humans. Whether or not a baboon ignores another conveys a great deal about the relationship. At one end of the spectrum, as mentioned above, baboons who are closely related or good friends sometimes completely ignore each other’s proximity, especially during foraging, much as we might disregard a family member who approaches while we are absorbed in a task. At the other end of the spectrum, a female with a young infant will often flee when a male new to the troop merely glances her way. Most relationships fall somewhere between these extremes, and usually when two baboons meet, they acknowledge each other’s presence through conventions like grunting, the ‘come hither’ face, or brief greeting rituals involving body contact. Depending on the context and the animals involved, ignoring another can be a sign of trust (as among close kin), or an indication of great tension. For example, among adult males vying over status, the ability to ignore a rival’s approach signals a refusal to submit to him and often provokes even closer proximity as the other male attempts to force the rival to lose his composure. 

“Thus, although ignoring the approach of a baboon may at first sound like a good strategy, those who advised me to do so did not take into account the baboons’ insistence on regarding me as a social being. After a little while, I stopped reflexively ignoring baboons who approached me and instead varied my response depending on the baboon and the circumstances. Usually, I made brief eye contact or grunted. When I behaved in this baboon-appropriate fashion, the animals generally paid less attention to me than they did if I ignored them. It seemed that they read my signals much as they read each other’s. By acknowledging a baboon’s presence, I expressed respect, and by responding in ways I picked up from them, I let the baboons know that my intentions were benign and that I assumed they likewise meant me no harm. Once this was clearly communicated in both directions, we could relax in one another’s company. 

“Ignoring an animal in a neutral or mildly friendly situation is usually a low-cost mistake, but ignoring a hostile animal can have grave consequences. I learned this lesson not from a baboon but from a brash adolescent male chimpanzee named Goblin. Shortly after I arrived at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Goblin began to stalk me. He would materialize before me, give me a hostile look, and then disappear into the vegetation, only to re-emerge minutes or hours later to glare at me again. After a few days of this, he began to attack me. Sometimes, he would charge, slapping me as he passed by. Sometimes he would sneak up behind me, punch me in the back, and then flee. At other times he would lurk in the bushes until he saw me adopt a vulnerable position, such as squatting on the edge of an incline. Then he would throw himself through the air, land on my back, and pummel me as we tumbled down the slope together. 

“This went on for a couple of weeks. Goblin had not hurt me seriously, but I was bruised, and more importantly, I was a nervous wreck. I spoke to the research director about my problem, who recommended that I just ignore him, confident that he would soon tire of his games. Then I found out that another researcher who was small like me had been so tormented by Goblin that she could no longer follow chimps out of camp. I became plagued by imaginary headlines (‘researcher foiled by chimpanzee stalker’) and feared an ignominious end to my studies. 

“I tolerated a few more of Goblin’s attacks. Then one day he snuck up behind me and stole my rain poncho, which I had looped around my belt. Getting hit was one thing, but losing precious and irreplaceable rain gear was too much. Without thinking, I spun around and grabbed an edge of the poncho just as Goblin twirled to run away with it. I pulled hard. Goblin stood bipedal and pulled at his end. Suddenly, he relinquished his grip, and as I leaned forward to maintain my balance, I swung a hard right. The blow, softened by the poncho covering my fist, rammed into Goblin’s nose. I had acted instinctively, without thought. Indeed, had I thought about it I never would have done it, because several of Goblin’s adult male allies were nearby. But I was lucky. After I punched him, Goblin crumpled into a whimpering child and went to Figan, the alpha male, for reassurance. Without glancing up, Figan reached out and patted Goblin several times on the top of the head. 

“I later realized that Goblin had been treating me just as he was treating some of the adult female chimpanzees. He was at the age when a young male chimp climbs up the female hierarchy as a prelude to taking on adult males. Goblin apparently viewed me (and the other chimp-sized woman he had so badly intimidated) as another female to dominate. He had already subdued every chimp female except Figan’s sister, Fifi, and the biggest and toughest female, Gigi. One day when Goblin was harassing Gigi, much as he’d harassed me, she turned and smacked him hard and I realized that my instincts had been on target. A female chimpanzee being harassed by an adolescent male will either submit (removing the reason for his attacks) or, like Gigi, fight back. By ignoring Goblin I had failed to send a clear signal either way, and so he persisted. After the poncho episode, he did not bother me again. 

“The baboons never attacked me, fortunately, since the males’ two-inch-long razor-sharp canines can inflict lethal wounds. People sometimes ask me, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ In fact, while studying chimps at Gombe, I was initially terrified of the baboons who shared the park, because they were so unfamiliar to me. However, by the time I got close to Eburru Cliffs, I felt confident that, if a baboon felt like attacking me, I would know it. The degree to which they accepted me among them suggests that they felt much the same about me. 

“Because I wanted to minimize the ways in which my presence might change their behaviour, I did not cultivate personal relationships with the baboons or encourage them to cultivate such relationships with me. I turned away from juveniles who invited me to play, and when a baboon touched me, I waited for a moment and then slowly moved away. Over time, such overtures became less rather than more common, suggesting that my low-key responses reduced the baboon’s curiosity. The mutually respectful but somewhat distant relationships we developed provided ideal circumstances for my research. 

“Although I didn’t relate to the baboons one-on-one (aside from the nuanced responses described above), I did develop a feeling of intimacy with the troop as a whole. I spent most of my waking hours with them. I ate my own food and drank my own water, but otherwise my routine was identical to theirs. I walked wherever they did, and I rested when and where they rested. Often, during siesta time, there were only a few big trees in sight, and it seemed natural to for us to share the shade. 

“After doing much of what they did for some time, I felt like I was turning into a baboon. A simple example involves my reactions to the weather. On the savanna during the rainy season, we could see storms approaching from a great distance. The baboons became restless, anticipating a heavy downpour. At the same time, because they wanted to keep eating, they preferred to stay out in the open as long as possible. The baboons had perfected the art of balancing hunger with the need for shelter. Just when it seemed inevitable to me that we would all get drenched, the troop would rise as one and race for the cliffs, reaching protection exactly as big drops began to fall. For many months, I wanted to run well before they did. Then something shifted, and I knew without thinking when it was time to move. I could not attribute this awareness to anything I saw, or heard or smelled; I just knew. Surely it was the same for the baboons. To me, this was a small but significant triumph. I had gone from thinking about the world analytically to experiencing the world directly and intuitively. It was then that something long slumbering awoke inside me, a yearning to be in the world as my ancestors had done, as all creatures were designed to do by aeons of evolution. Lucky me. I was surrounded by experts who could show the way. 

“Learning to be more of an animal came easily as I let go of layers of thinking and doing that sometimes served me back home but were only hindrances here. All I had to do was stick with the baboons and attend to what they did and notice how they responded. After a while, being with them felt more like ‘the real world’ than life back home. 

“Baboons are nothing if not highly idiosyncratic individuals, as distinct from each other as we humans are). But they also exist as selves-in-community. This aspect of their being is particularly salient in certain contexts. For example, when baboons respond to a neighbouring troop’s intrusion into their home range, they move together toward the enemy. They most vividly convey a sense of group spirit when they share a highly pleasurable experience. Once, after few days of heavy rain, we stumbled upon a plethora of newly emerged mushrooms — a baboon delicacy that normally evokes competition. This day, however, there were enough mushrooms for everyone. To my amazement, before anyone dug in, they all paused to join in a troop-wide chorus of food-grunts, their bodies literally shaking with excitement. In that moment, I realized that collective rejoicing in celebration of sustenance must have begun long ago. 

“The baboon’s thorough acceptance of me, combined with my immersion in their daily lives, deeply affected my identity. The shift I experienced is well described by 4 millennia of mystics but rarely acknowledged by scientists. Increasingly, my subjective consciousness seemed to merge with the group-mind of the baboons. Although ‘I’ was still present, much of my experience overlapped with this larger feeling entity. Increasingly, the troop felt like ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The baboons’ satisfactions became my satisfactions, their frustrations my frustrations. When I spotted a gazelle fawn in the distance, I apprehended it as prey, and if the baboons succeeded in catching one, my mouth watered while they tore flesh from the bones, even though I don’t eat meat. When on the cliffs after dark, the baboons warned each other of a predator drawing near, my body tensed up as if I, too, were in danger, even though my rational mind knew that there were no predators large enough to attack me within many miles.

“I sensed the mood of the troop as soon as I arrived in the morning. I could usually tell whether we were going to travel a short or long distance that day. Often, I anticipated exactly where we would go, without knowing how I did it. Even though no one had yet changed direction, I knew when we were about to head for the sleeping cliffs. When we got there and the baboons lay around in soft green grass in the glow of the setting sun, I lay around with them. They had eaten their full, and I had gathered my day’s observations. With nothing more to do, we shared the timeless contentment of all social animals relaxing in the company of their friends. After I left them each night, I felt strangely empty, eager to join them again the next morning. 

“I had never before felt a part of something larger, which is not surprising, since I had never so intensely coordinated my activities with others. With great satisfaction, I relinquished my separate self and slid into the ancient experience of belonging to a mobile community of fellow primates. 

“There were special occasions when the experience of community intensified. Once, when I was travelling with baboons at Gombe, I lost the troop during a terrific downpour. Far from camp, I ran to the lakeshore and crawled into an abandoned fisherman’s shelter for protection. The inside of the hut was pitch dark, but I soon realized I was not alone. About thirty baboons were crowded into a space the size of an average American kitchen. When I entered, some baboons must have moved slightly to make room for me, just as they would do for one of their own. But they didn’t move far. Baboons surrounded me and some of them brushed against me as they shifted their positions. The rain continued. The hut filled with the clover-like smell of their breath, and our body heat transformed the hut into a sauna. I felt as if I’d been sitting this way, in the heart of a baboon circle, my whole life, and as if I could go on doing this forever. When the rain stopped, no one stirred for a little while. Maybe they felt the same contentment that I did. 

“Another time, when I had a bad cold, I fell asleep in the middle of the day, while baboons fed all around me. When I awoke at least an hour later, the troop had disappeared, all but one adolescent male who had decided to take a nap next to me. Plato (we gave the baboons Greek names) stirred when I sat up, and we blinked at each other in the bright light. I greeted him and asked him if he knew where the others were. He headed off in a confident manner and I walked by his side. This was the first time I had ever been alone with one of the baboons, and his comfort with my presence touched me. I felt as if we were friends, out together for an afternoon stroll. He took me right to the other baboons, over a mile away. After that, I always felt a special affinity for Plato. 

“One experience I especially treasure. The Gombe baboons were travelling to their sleeping trees late in the day, moving slowly down a stream with many small, still pools, a route they often traversed. Without any signal perceptible to me, each baboon sat at the edge of a pool on one of the many smooth rocks that lined the edges of the stream. They sat alone or in small clusters, completely quiet, gazing at the water. Even the perpetually noisy juveniles fell into silent contemplation. I joined them. Half an hour later, again with no perceptible signal, they resumed their journey in what felt like an almost sacramental procession. I was stunned by this mysterious expression of what I have come to think of as baboon sangha. Although I’ve spent years with baboons, I witnessed this only twice, both times at Gombe. I have never heard another primatologist recount such an experience. I sometimes wonder if, on those two occasions, I was granted a glimpse of a dimension of baboon life they do not normally expose to people. These moments reminded me how little we really know about the ‘more-than-human world.’”


Barbara Smuts received her Ph.D. in bio-behavioral sciences from Stanford Medical School, and is now a professor emerita in the psychology department at the University of Michigan. She has studied social relationships in chimpanzees and savanna baboons in East Africa and wild bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia. For the last few years she has been studying social behavior in canines. Her publications include Sex and Friendship in Baboons (2nd ed., 1999), Primate Societies (co-edited, 1983), and numerous articles and book chapters

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