Sunday, July 17, 2016

Coping with death

Death is not a generational event confined to humans. There is life and death embedded in every moment, the death of one is the birth of another. Life is strung out along a string of infinite moments, each one could be the last, no one can be sure. Death is implied when we are born. But when it happens, it can be an emotionally explosive powder keg for those left behind. Death has a long fuse that is lit the moment we are born. Time burns down that fuse. Life is a transition between birth and death, we cannot remember the former and tend to forget the latter. But death does not forget us. We get a sampling of it every night in deep sleep where we are unaware of anything. No doubt, there is a great sense of loss when we lose a loved one. This event cannot be avoided by anyone and only time can eat our grief. How do we hasten this process of healing and see the darkness that death brings in a new light?

Nature is full of transitions, like that of night and day, young and old, change of seasons etc. Evolution of life itself is one great transition spread out over millions of years, with billions of lifeforms that have come and gone before our time. Nature is great at hiding the exact moment of transition, for example, evolution from one species to another. It is almost impossible for us to pinpoint the precise moment when we slip into sleep from a state of wakefulness. Death is also a transition. When it happens, it may seem sudden, but it is in the works for a long time. Every human carries within himself or herself seeds of new life, the next generation to come. We ourselves have sprouted out of a seed. Death is implied as soon as a new life sprouts out of a seed. We suppress thoughts of death, thinking about may be considered inauspicious and we tend to feel it deflates the enjoyment that we derive from life. But in reality, every cell in the body is preprogrammed to die. When we are young, the aggregate of all cells in the body are in the growth phase. As we age the balance gradually shifts the other way. That cellular memory can never be erased. Cells that overcome this natural process of living and dying become cancerous cells. Only cancerous cells are immortal. Nobody wants immortality in that form. Even as these cells survive, they consume the body that hosts them.

Nature cleverly hides seeds of a tree in the middle of the fruit. Similarly the understanding of death is hidden in life. One has to eat the fleshy part of the fruit in order to get to the seed. Similarly, to know death, one has to embrace the two aspects of life, the formed and the formless. They are like two sides of the same coin. The senses are chiefly concerned with form. Most of our waking attention is channeled through the senses. We associated life with form. But there is life in the formless aspect of nature as well. For example, air is formless. When we breathe air, that formless aspect of nature is what gives life to our body. We are able to see the gross aspect of the body quite easily. But the subtle flow of electromagnetic impulses within the body is invisible to us. A simple EKG machine can pick up these impulses emanating from the cells of the human heart. When one understands that we are a perfect combination of the formed and the formless, we start to appreciate the interdependence within ourselves, amongst humans and between plant, animal and human species. In order to achieve a balance in the entire ecosystem of the earth, death is a necessity. It brings about balance. We want to exist as individuals, but we cannot survive as individuals. Nature does not mourn death, only the mind does.

Whether we like it or not, we are all waiting in line for our one chance to experience death. That experience cannot be known or described when we are living. Everything we currently know about death is conjecture. Perhaps it brings new limitations or it may remove pre existing barriers. We will never know. When there is life within the body, death can never be known and without the body, death can never be explained. The body can be compared to a clay pot. When a pot is immersed in a pond, water fills the pot and it is the same water inside and outside of the pot. Similarly, the life principle that exists within one being is the same as that within all living beings. The body creates a barrier that makes us think that life within one’s own body is one’s life and life that exists outside of the body isn’t one’s life. Just like a fragile clay pot that is immersed in a pond dissolves over time, the bodily frame that holds life also disappears one day. But that is not the cessation of life. As long as we live, we can consciously experience the same life that animated the body of a loved one who may have died. Through that experience of life within ourselves we can be close to another being that may have left his or her body.

Just as the physical body that holds the life current creates a barrier or separation from other life forms that share the same life energy, there is a barrier that keeps experiences that are unique to each individual within one’s mind. The barrier that exists around every individual’s mind is the ego. It creates a sense of separateness. The ego barrier cannot be forcibly penetrated and the experiences contained within that mind stolen. But it can voluntarily be given up. This “giving up” or “death” of the ego is celebrated. Those who do so may be called saints or humanitarians. We see them as individuals fit to be put up on a pedestal but they don’t see themselves as such. They have “died” as far as they are concerned and have a sense of oneness embedded deep within themselves. They don’t maintain their individuality for selfish reasons. This sense of oneness is there within all of us, but has been been buried and hidden from our conscious grasp.

When the ego dies, a new life is created within ourselves. It can be thought of as an egg shell breaking and a chick emerging from it. That life is not conditioned or confined within the shell anymore. The ego can also be thought of as a ship carrying passengers. The ocean on which a ship floats can exist without the ship but the ship needs water to float on. Life can exist without the ego but ego needs life. When a ship that has sailed for many years is retired and broken down to scrap metal, the ocean on which it sailed remains intact. A ship can never leave a trail in water, but the water can leave traces on the hull of a ship. Similarly, with the death of one physical form or one’s ego, life can never be extinguished. Life can alter one’s body or mind, but we cannot alter life. Life leaves its mark on us, but we cannot alter the universal life principle.

The same life energy which is the same in each and every one of us can be readily experienced in the heart, not so in the mind. Mind loves variety. No two thoughts are alike let alone two minds. But the feeling of love that is experienced in one’s heart is the same for everyone. What changes is its depth and conditionality. There is no end to the depth to which love can reach. But there is an end to the mind. The mind is finite, love is infinite. The mind cannot reach what has not been in our prior experience consciously or unconsciously. We have the option to express ourselves through the mind or through the heart. The mind can be limiting, heavy, self centered, dark and exclusive. The heart is expansive, light and inclusive.

Just as we have the option of seeing life through the mind or the heart, we can also think of death in those terms. When death is viewed through the lens of the mind, there is fear, denial and suppression. Any thought that is suppressed tends to come back with equal force. Very few people think about and ponder the mysteries of death before it happens. Steve Jobs said Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything: all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure… these things just fall away in the face of death… leaving only what is truly important. From his statements on death, it is apparent that he did not view the subject of death as most people do. Remembrance of death is what drove him to achieve what he did in his life. In it he saw the value of time and as a result he lived his life with a purpose and a sense of urgency to achieve. His last words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” During his lifetime, he greatly valued beauty and simplicity. Perhaps he saw a reflection of those values in his experience of death. We cannot see what he saw in those last moments, but his words say it all.

Beauty and simplicity. These are not words that usually accompany death. Normally one would say death is ugly and complicated. We come into the world with a very simple but profound question, “Am I?” and leave with the answer “I am”. We keep uttering the question “Am I?” throughout our lives but fail to understand the significance of that question. When “Am I?” is repeated continuously, one forgets it is a question and it turns into “I am” (It goes like this - Am I Am I Am I Am I….after a few minutes it becomes hard to say if that is Am I or I Am. When “Am I?” turns into “I Am”, the question, “Am I the body?”, becomes a rhetorical answer, “I am the body.” When this becomes ingrained in our mind, we cannot think beyond the body

When our questioning stops, we become identified with whatever life brings our way, be it our body, mind or anything else. We go from asking “Am I the body?” at birth to fully believing “I am the body” at death. This conclusion is the source of most of our miseries, including the pain of separation that stems from the finality of death of a loved one. Only when we begin to question what life is do we see death in a new light. Life is mysterious. Those answers may never come, but through that process of questioning we can avoid identification with something as perishable as the body.

When the mind asks that question, it is asking “Am I all these experiences?”. If one has not transcended the mind at the time of death, the answer will likely be “I am my experiences”. When one repeatedly asks the question, “Am I love?”, the answer at the time of death may be “I am love” if one has become truly loving in the course of one’s lifetime. Most people die unconsciously. Very few die consciously. Only those who are aware of and understand the value of each passing moment stand a chance of dying consciously. What our life may be in the future may be predicted on what we are today. But what comes after death cannot be predicted. The playing field becomes level once again, just as in birth. When looked at from the window of life, those two bookends of life may be summarized into “we come with nothing and leave with nothing”. Having a sense of awareness of our last conscious moment before death can be practiced everyday before we fall asleep. Sleep relates to the body and the mind. Ordinarily our awareness has become part of that body-mind complex. If we are able to slowly peel away awareness from the body and the mind, we can practice watching a recurring process like sleep in preparation for the one off phenomenon of bodily death.

When we fall asleep, separation is implied. If an average human lifespan was just a day, that day would carry a whole new meaning and importance. The mind makes us feel we have “endless” days and nights ahead. That makes the temporary separation of sleep not only bearable but also very enjoyable. Two people who share the same bed will have to go their separate ways in sleep. One day each one of us will have to go our separate ways in death. Attachment to the physical form makes that final separation unbearable for those left behind. When death takes a person away, it does not leave a manual for those left behind to read, understand and cope. That understanding of death can never come from books, but only from the experience of life, as a witness, that is beyond the scope of the mind and the intellect. The life principle within all of us is hidden from view just like a pearl hidden in an oyster. That pearl maintains its beauty whether it is hidden in a shell underwater or on a necklace. Similarly, life maintains its beauty whether or not there is a body to express that beauty. It can be seen in anything in nature. The joy that comes from seeing a beautiful sunset or a magnificent forest are some examples.

It is said, don’t judge a book by its cover. A book’s cover may be old or torn, or new and attractive. In either case it serves to hold pages of the book together. Similarly, the body is the cover of the book of life. It is just a container and not the content. Like a book’s cover, it holds all our experiences, feelings and emotions together. A book is of no use if one does not read and understand it. Similarly, our collected memories and experiences serve no purpose unless we understand and learn from them. A surgeon first learns techniques of surgery from a book before practising and applying those skills independent of the book. Similarly, the body is a reservoir that holds all the basics of what one needs to know about life, but the experience of life must be through the body and not for the body. If one is able to master life through the body, then one can graduate to the experience of life beyond the limitations of the body. For such people, death may come as a relief. It removes the limitations that the body poses. They are one with everything. That is the real goal of human life.

Although death is a finality, an irreplaceable loss of the body, it leaves one positive behind. The memory of the departed person deepens. In the absence of someone we were deeply attached to, love for that person is enhanced. They are constantly present in our mind. Time cannot erase that memory. It may fade over time, but the memories can be relived at any time. A fundamental aspect of the mind is translating creativity into form. Forming memories is form of creativity based on real events. When memories are just memories and enjoyed as such, they don’t cause us suffering or misery. Only when we start to miss the form that created that memory is when we start to experience sadness. In other words, failed attempts to relieve our cherished memories through the sense organs is what makes us suffer.

Death is not the end of the circle of life. Birth to death is only half the story. That half is what we see and experience. The unseen half between death and birth will forever remain a mystery. Birth to death represents form and death to birth represents the formless. The mind binds us to forms which are limited and impermanent. Thoughts are also forms. When we are able to go beyond thought, we touch the liberating expanse of the formless. Within that is contained all forms, just as the oceans contain every conceivable type of marine life.

Life and death will continue to go on long after our time, as long as the sun continues to rise and set and the moon runs through its phases. The sun represents the body and the moon the mind. Once the sun rises, it stays in the sky till it sets. Similarly, once life enters the body it remains in it till we die. The sky hosts the sun and is not burned by it. Similarly, the universal consciousness holds our individual body consciousness and remains unaffected by it. The mind, like the moon waxes and wanes. The moon is just a reflector of light. It does not create light, but it adds beauty to the night sky through its soft white appearance. Although it appears large in relation to the millions of stars in the background, it is an insignificant speck. Similarly, the mind appears to be a overwhelming force in our lives, but in reality it is a very small part of what life is all about. It is best used as a mirror. If we smile, our reflection smiles back at us. If we cry, a mirror shows us a sad face. Every moment is a new opportunity to change that reflection from a sad one to a happy one. When death comes calling at our door it does not wait. There is no time to think about emotions, whether it is happiness, sadness or fear. The emotion at the moment of death is what we carry with us and also leave behind for others.