By Swati Chopra
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 response
As 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.
Death, 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.
This 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 change
In 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. Not only do our bodies change, so do our ideas, our behaviours, and the ways in which we deal with people and respond to situations. As a child of two, one had a very different view of life than did one as an adolescent of 16. And both these are so radically different from the place one currently is at.
Though everything is real in the moment it happens, it quickly passes away, dies if you please, and in the next moment, something rises anew. Because of constant change, nothing remains, everything passes. Just as in a flowing river, there is never the same drop of water at one spot in two different moments, so it is in our lives. Death is not just a one-time event, it is happening right here right now, in the space between two moments, in the gap between each in-breath and out-breath. Kaal, which in Sanskrit means both time and death, constantly churns, devouring everything in its path. As it is said in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am Time, destroyer of all; I have come to consume the world.”
At the same time, navinam navinam, kshane kshane (newness, newness, in every moment!) Our worlds are consumed all the time, and created anew. The impermanence of life, our bodies and selves, is a reality we touch and experience daily when we die in some way and are renewed in another. The Sufi, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, says in one of his poems: “I died a mineral and became a plant. / I died a plant and rose an animal. / I died an animal and I was man. / Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?”
Rumi’s words arise from a profound understanding of death arrived at by a mind unclouded by the fears, insecurities and desires that we are normally plagued with. To weave the understanding of impermanence and unceasing change in our lives is but one of the aspects of reaching to the bottom of the mystery of death. To fundamentally change our relationship with death, we need to do more. We need to expand and explode our consciousness to a place of unshakeable oneness, the place that’s beyond all dualities, even that of ‘life and death’.
Sogyal Rinpoche says in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this separate identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up.… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?…. What will happen to us then if we have no clue of deeper reality?”
The deeper reality
For eons, the goal of spiritual seeking has been transcendence, from the afflicted, shallow beings we know ourselves as, to a perfected, skilful, maybe even ‘divine’ state. An attendant to the realisations that sprung from this search has been the idea of liberation, moksha, and nirvana. Liberation from what? The earthly state, the bondage into human suffering. Liberation into what? A non-dual state of oneness that has been variously called Brahman, all-encompassing God, extinguishing into nothingness.
We know ourselves to have consciousness, and a deeper inner reality than what is apparent on the surface. Even if we have never meditated, never read any spiritual books or been told of this, we still have had moments of deepening, quietening and connection that we might not label ‘spiritual’ but that feed our spirit and intimate us of the vast ocean of consciousness within. We hear the ocean’s roar, we smell its salty spray. We now have to get off our surface reality, and actually find the ocean and dive into it.
Nisargadatta Maharaj was fond of explaining this situation using the parable of a pot. We fill a pot with water and put it in a river—the water in the pot cannot touch the water in the river because of the confines of the pot. Break the pot and look! All is one. How to break the pot? By letting go of one’s limited identity, one’s ego, and finding the silver thread of consciousness to piggyback on towards the vast, unlimited, clarity of reality.
The living dead
Does the body have to die for the pot to break? Although some traditions suggest that there can be no liberation while alive, there does exist a fascinating ideal which the Ashtavakra Gita refers to as jivanmukta—free in life. Meaning, the pot has already been broken through effort, and the self has dissolved into the ocean of consciousness. The freeliving one does nothing that is attached to the demands of the ego, and lives in complete awareness of all his or her actions, thoughts, ideas. The body-related self is dead. Long live the awakened self!
Where is pain and fear now?
Of this state, insight meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says: “In all of this there comes a dying to the old way we have held ourselves and an amazing new vision of life. This process of death and rebirth can happen in any period of time. Weeks, months or years of meditation and prayer may precede it or it may happen quickly, on the operating table, or through some powerful shamanic ritual or other exceptional circumstance. For some people it happens in the midst of daily life, the discovery of that perfect balance and greatness that is possible for the human heart.
“Whenever it is discovered, in whatever circumstances, it begins to transform us. Even though we do not always remain in such a state, it is as if we had climbed to the top of a mountain, we’ve had a taste of inner freedom that can inform and affect our whole life thereafter. We cannot ever again believe we are separate. To the extent that we have died already, we are not afraid of dying in the old way. This is called ‘dying before death’.”
Tantra, and Buddhist Tantrayana, take this understanding to another level altogether. The nature of tantra is alchemical—it will transform rather than destroy. So instead of asking us to stamp out our fear of death, it sharpens that fear into a potent weapon that will corrode our various defilements. Symbols of death like the shamshan, funeral pyres and dead bodies, which would normally evoke fear and revulsion, are used along with visualisation of one’s own death as tools to help the mind cut away its attachment to the limited self.
To break the pot, the tantrist sees the whole world as a shamshan, where everyone is in the process of dying, including oneself. What then can be there to become attached to? If this body linked to this limited self—the pot—is already dead, then why spend any time upon it? Why not search for truth, for the universal element, for that alone matters and not this skeleton?
Vimalananda, a practitioner of the ‘left hand’ path of tantra called aghora, is quoted by Robert Svoboda in the book Aghora: “To die while still alive means to extinguish all thought of dualities. The Universal Soul is single, not dual, so you must eliminate all perceptions of duality: desirable and nondesirable, pleasant and painful, interesting and boring, and so on. Does a corpse care about anything? No, not a thing—and you must become a corpse, in the eyes of the world, if you want to be successful at aghora.”
The way to do this is to move one’s sense of self from the body-mind-personality complex to include the complex of all life. The death therefore that really matters is ego-death, or the complete annihilation of the small self, leaving one free to contact and realise truth/reality.
Karma and the soul
At this point, we may well ask: if the body dies, does anything continue? The Bhagavad Gita describes the atman as the inner core of being, that which is free of character, defilement, birth, and consequently, death. It just is, there to be identified and accessed, an element of the vast, attributeless Brahman right here within us. Just as we discard worn out clothes and take on new ones, says the Gita, so does the atman take a new body after discarding the old one, in its ever-continuing search for perfection.
This brings us into a vast continuum of being, with deaths scattered through it as nothing more than commas, brief interludes between one life and the next. What powers this supposedly endless journey? Karma, and one’s desire to get out of it all. How does that happen? By undefiling oneself so that the core element is free to return where it came from, or, where the aggregates that form our personality in birth after birth fall away and are not bound to samsara any longer.
While I cannot say for certain whether my soul or yours will return endlessly, I do know that I need to work now, in this moment, to realise the impermanence of my life and connect with life’s inner aspect. I need to keep the shadow of death close, for it will inspire me to try and respond to people and situations from my deeper self, as opposed to my limited ego-self. It will also help me appreciate the golden strand of life as I have it, with all its perceived flaws and imperfections, and use it to love, grow and become free within.
And only if I attain freedom in life, if I die while alive, will I be able to relinquish hold over my breath calmly. As Eknath Easwaran says: “All the attachments we have formed over a lifetime, all our cravings for sensory experience, tie us to the body. Then, when death comes, there is a terrible struggle when it tears us away—and the harder we cling, the more it will hurt.” Easwaran’s grandmother, who was also his spiritual teacher, taught him the secret of death at an early age. “Once, as a child, I asked her why death should involve so much suffering,” he remembers. “She didn’t answer; she just told me to sit in one of our big wooden chairs and hold on with all my strength. Then she tried to pull me out of the chair. I held on for all I was worth, but my granny was a strong woman, and with one painful wrench she had me on my feet. “That hurt!” I said.
“Now sit down again,” she said, “but this time don’t hold on.” I did as she said, and there was no struggle, no pain; she raised me gently into her arms.
“This is the secret of facing death. When death comes and growls that our time has come, we just say: ‘You don’t have to growl. I’m ready to come on my own.’ Then we take off the jacket that is the body, hand it over carefully, and go to our real home.”
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