Death - Embracing the Unknown
by Roozbeh Gazdar
Think about it. Death is probably the only certainty in life. However lofty our goals may have been, however prestigious our achievements, it remains that one day we are all going to die; it is an irrevocable fact and nothing can be done about it.
The problem lies in our own reticence in accepting this. Having grown up culturally conditioned to perceive it as something evil, to be avoided and fought off, we persist in sweeping away references to death under the carpet. No wonder then, that when the grim reaper finally comes knocking, we couldn’t be less prepared!
This is even more tragic when one considers that, as the perceived end of the present life, death is in a way our ultimate destination. Paradoxical as it is, we live only so that we may die. Does it not follow then, that we invest at least as much of the care and forethought we lavish on other details in life, on how to exit gracefully from it?
As Sogyal Rinpoche explains in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, "...we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us... to force us into looking at our lives. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare - wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind..."
Having been in close contact with the terminally ill during her long tenure with the Tata Memorial Centre, a cancer hospital in Mumbai, understanding death and dying has remained Dr Satyavati Sirsat’s lifelong concern. In her book, Death - the Final Freedom, co-authored with Fr Lancy Pereira, a practical handbook for the care of the dying as well as preparing for one’s own death, she writes, "Death loses much of its sting if one tries to fill each moment of life with wonder and love - as if it were the last moment. If… acceptance (of the loss) is freely and consciously given when one is hale and hearty, the pain of the dying process will be greatly diminished."
She advises that everyone, "including those still young, leading extrovert lives and not suffering from a terminal disease", prepare for ultimate death by meditating on it.
One of the chief reasons of our anguish and difficulty in facing death, according to Sogyal Rinpoche, is that we ignore the fundamental truth of impermanence. "We so desperately want everything to continue as it is that we have to believe that things will always stay the same. But this is only make-believe. And as we so often discover, belief has little or nothing to do with reality, " he explains.
Thus he clarifies, "It is important to reflect calmly, again and again, that death is real and comes without warning. Looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired, relaxed and comfortable, lying in bed, or on holiday, or listening to music that particularly delights you?"
Referring to the contemplative masters in Tibet, Sogyal Rinpoche says that while going to bed at night, they would leave their cups upside down by their bedside. Who knows whether they would wake up the next morning? He therefore advises, " Reflect on this: The realisation of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold onto, perhaps our only lasting possession."
The Dying Moment
According to religions and schools of thought that believe in reincarnation, one’s conduct in the actual moment of death is of special significance; the state of mind at death after all, it is believed, is the springboard that determines the circumstances of one’s rebirth.
At this critical juncture, a lapse may lay a lifetime’s practice to waste. As the Dalai Lama explains, "At the time of death, attitudes of long familiarity usually take precedence and direct the rebirth. …strong attachment is generated for the self, since one fears that one’s self is becoming non-existent."
Thus elaborates Sogyal, "...our state of mind at death is all-important. If we die in a positive frame of mind, we can improve our next birth, despite our negative karma. And if we are upset and distressed, it may have a detrimental effect, even though we may have used our lives well. This means that the last thought and emotion that we have before we die has an extremely powerful determining effect on our immediate future."
Helping Others Die
How can we help people who are dying? Realising the inadequacy of traditional medical care for terminal patients, Dr. Sirsat helped establish Shanti Avedna, India’s first hospice for terminal patients, in Mumbai, where today, she trains volunteers in the finer points of care-giving for those in the twilight of their lives. She explains, "A person about to die is always aware that this is it -he or she is going to die. It falls on the caretaker to allay any anxiety or panic that they may be feeling and ensure that the patient approaches the end peacefully."
While kind words and even music help, it is touch, she believes, that is an especially potent tool. "Placing your hand on the chest is very reassuring for a dying person. It helps them know that they are not alone," she explains.
Having attended the bedsides of scores of dying people, she emphasises that each individual demands a unique response. "It is important to know the person before the terminal stage is reached. I like to ask questions, know the real person and then tend to each differently," she explains. For instance, she recalls ministering to a dying mother by holding out her baby and letting her pat and caress it, and thus helping her die peaceful and contented.
Accept it we may, but will we ever be able to love death? After all, says Dr Christian Bernard, "Death is often a friend. It does what medicine cannot. It cures."
Apart from grief that naturally forms a barrier between the dead and their living loved ones, Dr Sirsat asserts that there is nothing unwholesome about death; only our associative memory makes it an artificially frightening experience, which we resist. "Death," she insists, "is peaceful, often beautiful, even glorious."
The idea of death as a celebration is not entirely unknown. Writes Sogyal Rinpoche, "...in the Tibetan tradition we do not celebrate the birthdays of masters; we celebrate their death, their moment of final illumination."
We end with the inimitable Osho’s take on this, "Death gives you the ultimate in orgasmic joy: the body is left behind forever and your being becomes one with the whole... But it does not happen to everybody who dies, because the people who have not lived rightly cannot die rightly either. ...if you can remain centered, calm and cool and watching …your death will bring you to the ultimate peak of consciousness..."
"Yes, my sannyasins celebrate death because they celebrate life. And death is not against life; it does not end life, it only brings life to a beautiful peak."
Subject: love - 25 June 2008
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