The Zen of Good Living
Is life worthwhile? And what is death? Does knowledge of death help us live better? Suma Varughese responds to these questions posed by Arun Chatterjee, an enthusiastic seeker
Eversince Suma Varughese left the editorship of Life Positive in 2017 she has had her hands full. Riding on the wings of her super successful writer’s workshops she has been touring the country, meeting new people and disseminating spiritual knowledge to one and all, along with the skill of good writing.
In the course of her work she had a discourse with Shoonyo, a spiritual teacher on Instagram, where they discussed Shakespeare famous line, ‘To be or not to be.’ Inspired by the talk, one of the members of her Zen Pen club, Arun Chatterjee, came up with a set of thought-provoking questions on life and death and posed them to Suma.
She answered his questions on Zoom for the benefit of her students and is more than pleased to share her wisdom with the readers of Life Positive.
Below are her reflections:
Q. Many of us believe that life is a continuous struggle. If that is so, what is the point in carrying on with life? Is this struggle worthwhile?
It is a fundamental question, a question that must have occurred to all of us at different times in our life’s journey. And as long as the answer to this question eludes us, we simply cannot reconcile to life. The sad thing about questions like this is that they need to be answered by us alone. No one else can answer this question for us. Yes, answers to this question are available in all the scriptures and most explicitly in the Indian scriptures, but unless these answers come alive for us, they may not affect us. Nevertheless, what others say can give some pointers, so, in that spirit, I am answering this question.
It is said that Shiva was so upset with the design of life drawn up by Brahma with its brief joys and interminable sorrows that he set out to discover the way out of this loop of birth and death and created yoga. But, then again, do you know anyone who does not cling to life? The Buddha once said compassionately: “Everyone loves life and fears death.” How come? You could say that the life urge has been inbuilt in us (which I think it has, otherwise I wonder how many of us would have lasted this madhouse that is Planet Earth). Or you may say that it is fear of death and not love of life that keeps all of us on this shore. And you may be right. Yet, life is not something many of us give up without a struggle. Many years ago, I met an elderly lady at the Willingdon Club. She had been wheeled to the table I was sitting at by two helpers. She had to be fed her food as she could not eat on her own. She was helpless in every way, but her brother assured me that she absolutely loved life!
Look at our street urchins, cavorting around at the traffic signals, with no shelter, little food and clothing, but with laughter shining in their eyes. Doesn’t the question always arise: How come these kids seem to enjoy life so much when there are weeks when you cannot even summon up a smile?
Or take fisherwomen, full of vitality and robust self-respect. I remember a time when they would travel in the second class ladies compartments of Mumbai locals, with their big baskets of fish and loads of water leaking everywhere. The office-goers would recoil from them and revile them among each other. But these women were unfazed. They would happily trade insult for insult, accuse the women of sitting on their boss’s laps, and exit the field with honours. Or take the case of our daily help. Overworked, underfed, usually with an alcoholic husband to look after, battling gigantic problems every day, yet the smile on their faces seldom waver for more than two days at a stretch.
I am pretty sure these people don’t ask themselves whether life is worth living. They are too busy living. So what is it that enables our help to get up in the morning and make breakfast for the family after being beaten black and blue by their men the night before? Or after having sat up the night before tending to an ailing child? Or what enables the street kids to dance in the rain with nothing in their belly? It is the life force. No matter how unendurable the situation, the life force snakes up and suffuses them with strength and courage, and puts them back on their feet.
So how do you get access to the life force? By living. By partaking of life. By going where life is. By doing what needs to be done. Taking care of children and elders. Cooking and cleaning. Showing up at work every single day. By feeling your feelings. By crying your heart out. By laughing loud and long. By singing and dancing. By participating in community activities. By full-hearted celebration of festivals. By cultivating relationships. By walking barefoot on Mother Earth. By living on the edge. This is what keeps them going. And this is why they innately feel that life is worth living.
It is usually the middle class which asks these questions. We have the luxury to do so. The struggle for survival is not so acute that it comes in the way of us contemplating our navels from time to time. And besides, our lifestyle often alienates us from life. Technology creates the illusion of not needing anyone. We sit in our rooms at home plugged into our music or laptop, exchanging hundreds of messages on WhatsApp, not having enough conversation with our families. We travel by car in comfort and style but rarely encounter another human being. We spend our weekends in malls with other middle-class people surrounded by stuff. The more we swaddle ourselves with comfort, the more alienated we get from life. And so we fall prey to depression and ailments. Life will reveal its beauty to us to the exact extent that we live it.
Q. Is there a higher purpose to life?
Indeed there is a higher purpose to life. There is a method to this madness. All the seeming chaos, confusion, and randomness of life crystallise into perfect sense to those who get it. There are people we know in our own lives who seem to have these answers. There is a certainty about the way they live. They seem to know exactly what to do in each situation. There is serenity in their faces. Life does not diminish them. On the contrary, it expands and deepens them.
I think, for most of us, these answers come in the process of living life. The answers may not be the same for all of us, but they lead us to the same coherence. For some, love comes as the answer. The more they love, the tamer and easier life seems to get. A friend of mine shared that she had great difficulty with her toddler who threw tantrums, broke things, and listened to no one. Ultimately, she just began to love him as he was, not expecting any change. The little boy calmed down, but the bigger change was in her! She found that being able to love him as he was, enabled her to love herself as she was. Others find the answers in giving and serving. The more they do so, the more meaningful life becomes, and they find that life too starts serving them.
Ultimately, what is this higher purpose? It is to understand life, for in understanding it, we understand ourselves, God, and others because we are made of the same stuff. And when we understand it, we will know how to live it. We will learn how to heal ourselves and free ourselves of all limitations. We will learn how to be free of conflict with the other without compromising on our self-respect. We will learn how to conduct ourselves with the larger world—the environment. Above all, we will learn how to relate to the Supreme Being. Our life comes together and becomes increasingly easy. Problems may come, but they no longer faze us because we know how to handle them. The better we handle the problems, the more we expand and become free of our own emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. And that mind-made entity, the ego, becomes less noisy, less demanding. The leaner the ego, the greater our focus on others, until the time when the barrier between us and the other simply falls away and we become one with all that exists. This is enlightenment, and this is what our entire human life in all its thousands of incarnations has been leading to.
In his translation of the Upanishads, the writer and spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran writes: “Take the example of a man who has everything, young, healthy, strong, good and cultured, with all the wealth that earth can offer; let us take this as one measure of joy. One hundred times that joy is the joy of the Gandharvas [heavenly beings], but no less joy have those who are illumined.”The great promise of enlightenment is, as the Buddha said, freedom from suffering. Life continues to happen. Problems may still rain upon the enlightened, but since they are free of the ego, there is zero suffering—just situations to be resolved. Even one moment of this state is enough to tell you how immeasurably valuable life is because only through it could we have got this opportunity.
Q. How do we make life worthwhile?
As I mentioned in the earlier answer, we can make life worthwhile by living. By following our dreams. By doing something new everyday. By disturbing the routine on a regular basis, so you don’t get stuck in a groove. Exploring your potential for writing, cooking, haircutting, running, trekking, and so on. By taking calculated risks when needed. For instance, proposing to the one you love or signing up for Kaun Banega Crorepati (a quiz show on Indian television). Take a chance and learn ballroom dancing. Apply for that promotion. Work on yourself ceaselessly.
Secondly, find a purpose to live for. During World War II,Viktor Frankl, a psychoanalyst, was sent to the infamous concentration camps. Very few came out of these places alive. Frankl did. Why? Because he had written a book which he wanted to publish so badly that it gave him the strength to withstand all the brutalities he was subject to. The book was later published, and it was called Man’s Search for Meaning. It says the exact same thing—find a ‘why’ and man can survive almost any ‘how.’ Many parents find that meaning in their children. To look after them and give them a worthwhile childhood will help them crest all sorts of challenging situations, including cancer. The purpose does not have to be great or lofty. It could be nurturing and nourishing your small business enterprise. Running an NGO. Wanting to see your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. It could be to contribute to humanity through music, writing, or fine art to leave something of truth and beauty behind.
Thirdly, and to me, the most important thing, for it transforms you fundamentally, is to understand life. Once you understand life,your whole perspective shifts radically. You are filled with joy and purpose. It infuses your life with meaning. And you will most probably find your purpose through it.
Q. What exactly is death? Is there another way of looking at death and of accepting it as a part and parcel of life?
Death is a continuation of life. Only in the disembodied state. Our body drops at death, but our soul and our mind continue the journey. And this makes sense when we realise that we are energy. And energy does not die;it only transmutes. So, absolutely, death is part and parcel of life. Death is not to be feared.
Q. How does one prepare for death?
By living rightly. By aligning with the laws of life. By doing as much good as we can. By realising as much of our potential as we can. Because then we will have fewer regrets and even fewer fears when death comes. Moreover, meditating upon death is one of the best ways we can learn to really live. Most of us shy away from addressing death. It is the Great Unknown which fills us with fear and dread. When the Yaksha (a nature-spirit) asked Yudhisthir(in the Mahabharata) what was the most astonishing thing of all, he replied that we see death everyday but never think we will die. I am sure this is true even during the pandemic when so many people are dying around us.
So, when we accept death as a reality that is always there, many things become clear to us. One is that everything is impermanent. Death makes it so. I have a few pretty mugs which I cherish. One of them got chipped the other day. Now I cherish the others a little more and value the time I have with each of them because they too will soon get chipped. It is equally true of our loved ones—families, friends, pets. Recognising that death can come any moment and unannounced, really jolts us into living. Into not taking anything or anyone for granted. A very close friend of mine recently got a severe paralytic stroke and died a week later. I don’t say that one or two experiences of sudden death will transform our attitude to life. But reminding ourselves moment to moment of death’s inevitability will eventually force us to factor it in, in the way we live. Another meditation is to die to each day. At night before sleeping, we take stock of all that has happened during the day and come to terms with it. Thus, if death should steal upon us in our sleep, we are ready to leave.
Another beautiful insight that death gives us is that we waste so much of our time and energy on things that will not outlast death. Our money and possessions, our status, fame, and power. They are all for nothing. When we die, we cannot take anything with us. But there are two things we do take with us. One is our self-work. Since the psyche survives death, it will record the sum total of our growth. How much more honest, courageous, selfless, or balanced have we become? Also, since everyone else is also a soul, our relationships with each of the people we met in this lifetime will survive death. So, according to me, the only worthwhile investments of our time and energy is to work on ourselves and our relationships. Because they will outlast death.
Q. Is there life after death?
Indeed, yes. Those who have had near-death experiences say that the afterlife is almost exactly like Planet Earth. Families live together. They even have pets. They pursue their callings and talents, and many spend a lot of time supporting those on Planet Earth. The best thing about the afterlife is the unconditional love and joy that everyone emanates. Personally, I have always thought of Planet Earth as a boarding school and the afterlife as a home. Which makes it a very attractive place for me.
Q. Is life better, or death?
If you are alive, life is better. If you are dead, death is better! They are like yin and yang. Both are needed. You can consider death to be like a breather between lives. A much-needed breather that enables us to take stock of the life we have just led. We ask ourselves where we could have done better. What lessons still remain to be learnt. We heal from the wounds dealt to us by life, and we catch up with our loved ones who are already in the afterlife. But as long as there is still some karma to be expiated, the time will come when we will be called upon to go back on the field. So, back we go. Hopefully, we will be the better for the breather and more willing to learn our lessons!
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