By Swati Chopra July 2004 Rather than entertain ourselves away from death, an embracing of our mortality could help us become more connected and open, and remove what could be a major mental block in our life quests. The way to do this is to see the dance of change and impermanence, and rise beyond our limited selves to live in the eternal present I was five years old when my father died. His body was brought home from the hospital and laid out in the drawing room, wrapped in a white sheet. I have lucid memories of this time; of being strangely calm and watching the drama that we create around death unfold before me. Relatives gathered, mostly people I had never seen, and cried. My mother cried, my grandmother cried. I cried a little but for the most part watched the corpse that everyone said was my father but to me was nothing like the big, gentle man I knew. Then, he was taken away to the shamshan, placed on a pile of wood, and burnt. Though my father’s absence would mark me forever, his death was to become a profound teaching over the years that would lead me to some of the greatest truths of life—change, impermanence, cessation, learning to let go. The human responseAs I have gone about putting this issue together, there are two stories that have turned up repeatedly as pointers to the human relationship with death. Both stories are ancient and Indian, yet the attitudes they bring forward are universally and recognisably human. One is from the Mahabharata, where a wise prince goes to quench his thirst and is questioned by the keeper of the lake: “What is the strangest thing in the world?” The prince answers: “That we know we are going to die but pretend we will live forever.” The second is from the Buddha’s life. A grieving mother brings her dead child to the Buddha and asks him to return it to life. The Buddha asks her to bring a mustard seed from a home that death has never visited. She tries but is of course unsuccessful, embracing in the process the inevitability of death. Between them, these two stories reveal the ways in which we normally respond to death. While we are alive and well and immersed in the business of living, the thought of our own death rarely enters our mind. And even if we are faced with it, as we watch news of natural disasters and killing on television, or more directly when we perhaps see an accident on the road, it never feels immediate. We might shudder and think, ‘it could have been me’, but then we are impatient to shake the thought off as unpleasant and, as the prince says, “pretend we will live forever”. On the other hand, when a loved one dies, we grieve and mourn, and try desperately to grasp at their memory, to keep them alive like the mother who wanted the Buddha to return her son to life. Isn’t that our first, and possibly only, instinct in dealing with a loved one’s death? It is deeply disturbing to think they are gone forever, and will never again be part of our days and nights for the rest of our lives. Life does go on after a time, and we learn to live with the fact of our loved one’s death, but if we haven’t used the opportunity to make our peace with the constant dance of change that is life, we continue to be jerked around and thrown off balance every time we are faced with change, with death. As is our nature, we want to run away and if possible never face what is unpleasant, what will force us to leave the groove we have worn into life and settled comfortably in. Death, the greatest change of them all, does that every time it touches us. Perhaps because of this proclivity to resist discomfort, perhaps because of the scary possibility of complete annihilation, we prefer to bury our heads in the sands of unknowing and carry on as if death will never happen to us. Much less prepare for it, we would rather we never ever had to even think of it. No, not me, that’s the neighbour you are talking about, the one who is 86. Or perhaps you mean the person from work, who smokes non-stop. Or the friend’s friend who is always falling sick with one thing or another. But not me. Never me. How desperate this declaration of denial sounds, but if we could put in words the way we normally behave around death, this could well be it. Modern visionDeath, it is said, is the greatest of our fears, and one that lies at the root of all our other fears big and small. Fear of the dark, of dogs, of being alone et al will, if we begin tracing them to their source, ultimately lead us to the primal instinct for survival, which in essence is the running away from death. This is an important instinct, for it enables us to survive, and our bodies to fight infections and disease, but it also means that we are pre-wired at the cellular level to fear death—something that cultural and social conditioning reinforces. To transcend fear and arrive at a deeper understanding of death and ourselves, these layers need to be peeled away one after another, until we are able to see clearly the dance of life and death and our true place in it. Unfortunately, we have convinced ourselves that the best way to deal with death is to take our minds off it. I once read somewhere that modern urban life is humanity’s creation to entertain itself away from the fear of death. The inner journey that is required to understand not only death but also our self, our innermost reality, and our consciousness, does not feature on our ‘must do’ lists at all. Why? For we rarely find the time to be with ourselves: there is always more money to be made, more stuff to be bought, more fun to be had. And then there is television to fill any gaps there might be. Life is fast and furious, and has us by the jugular. It takes work to free ourselves, and as we turn within, we realise just how deluded we have been. Our collective vision has been filled with images and sounds that suggest youth and physical perfection as ‘normal’ and ‘cool’. We have learnt to compliment those who “don’t look their age” and admire the tummy-tucked, the botox-injected, and the face-lifted. Wrinkles and white hair remind us of age, and consequently of death, and who wants to think of that? This worldview that India, traditionally an age-respecting culture, seems to be buying into, is a product of the rationalist-materialist way of thinking. It characteristically denies the existence of anything beyond surface reality, literally that which you cannot see and touch and prove under a microscope in a laboratory. Life is seen as a function of biological and chemical components that can hypothetically be explained through a set of equations, as can the working of the rest of the universe. And death, the cessation of all life functions, is the ultimate failure. This explains why a part of modern scientific research has been obsessed with the prolonging of human life, and has come up with bizarre inventions like cryonically freezing a dead body to be preserved for a hundred years until it can be de-frozen in what is imagined to be an era when death would have been conquered by clever medical research. Natural contextThis shows us just how much we have become divorced from our natural selves. We have insulated ourselves so effectively from nature, the very ground that we emerge from, that we no longer can identify ourselves in the web of life, and the millions of ways in which we are connected with the rest of creation. As I write this, I just have to turn my eyes outwards to see the amaltas tree outside my balcony in rich yellow bloom. The harsher the sun that beats down upon them, the yellower the blossoms become. In a few days, the monsoon winds will come sweeping into Delhi and the warm rain will weigh down the delicate petals until my entire balcony and the road below is a sea of yellow. The seasons will turn, and long brown fruit will hang from the sturdy branches, filled with seeds. And so on it will go, each season rising and ebbing, flowers, seeds and leaves being born, ripening, fading and falling away. If we close our eyes right now, and look at our own lives with our inner eye, we will see the same amaltas rhythm being played out there. We are born from a seed. We grow through the years, our minds and hearts and limbs stretching outwards, finding sunlight and water, new ideas and love, and we continue to grow. We turn to nurturing and finding balance as we have children and take our place in our community, and allow friends to rest in our shade. Our children grow too, and move on, and a time comes when we begin to fade away. As we age, become bent and then fall away, we look around and see so many new seeds ready to be born and grow. Remembering this organic process that unfurls through us helps bring ourselves in our natural context. A context that is missing from our air-conditioned lives lived in watertight containers where we have become habituated to seeing ourselves as such-and-such person with a fixed identity, visiting card, email address and phone number. What if life is not a linear progression, one straight line between start and finish? What if it is a whole lived out in cycles, where life lives through us instead of us living life? If this is true, then death can never be complete annihilation. Rather, it would be a coming full circle, where one dissolves into the very ground one arose from, one has travelled from dust to dust and merged into the dynamic ground where birthing and dying occur in each moment. One has become the compost from which new life sprouts. Where is the fear then, and the nerve-shattering sorrow? Dance of changeIn connecting with our natural selves, we are able to identify the dance of change that perpetually goes on within and around us. How impermanent the identities we ascribe to ourselves are, and how dynamic the field of life. N
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