When a person dies, there arises this doubt: ‘He still exists,’ say some; ‘he does not,’ say others. I want you to teach me the truth. — Nachiketa to Yama in the Katha Upanishad
An old teacher of mine died last week. Franz Wellek, so his name, was an unconventional character, a free thinker who was involved in environmental activism already back in the 1980’s. I remember him as a creative man true to his own beliefs, unperturbed by the opinions, gossip and ridicule of others. Through his living example, he inspired many to live a fulfilled, authentic life. Even in death he continues to inspire. While still alive, he wrote his own death notice that appeared in the local newspaper with the headline:
I am dead.
The text reads: I thank all those who have contributed to my ripening. Don’t mourn too much for me, live your few days consciously and enjoy life!
His wife is throwing a party to celebrate his life at the end of this month. I was really energized after reading this ad. It’s so refreshing in its contrast to the usual mournful obituaries. Since I was a child, I’ve wondered why death is seen as something so terrible in Western culture. Death is inevitable and it’s natural. Unless you die peacefully in your sleep or are an advanced yogi, dying itself may not be overly pleasant, but everyone has to go through this gate. So why scorn the inevitable?
Poor old death has a very bad reputation indeed, and most of it is due to our lack of understanding as to what death really is. If we believe that we have only one life, that we are this body and this mind and nothing else, then the certainty that all will be over soon may be distressing. But even if we believe in only one life, wouldn’t the knowledge that we will die sooner or later make us live all the more consciously? The certainty of death can’t be changed, so why are we crying about it? Or worse, why are we not living life with more enthusiasm, gratitude and joy, knowing that our days are numbered?
In yoga and many other Eastern philosophies, death is but a doorway and an inevitable step on the long ladder of transformation. ‘As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches out for the next, so the Self, having come to the end of one life and dispelled all ignorance, gathers in his faculties and reaches out from the old body to a new’, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad say. This statement sums up yogic philosophy pretty well. Here, our individual souls are part of one supreme soul, the Paramatman. The body is viewed like a set of clothes: when it is worn out, it is shed and a new set, or body, is taken. This happens until the individual soul realizes that it is really part of the supreme Soul, which it has forgotten due to the distractions of Maya, the illusion of our material world.
In yoga, all our practices lead towards this realization: realization that we are part of the Self whose true nature is bliss. Life is a spiritual journey, a cosmic game, and our only purpose is to grow and realize that we have forgotten our true nature. This realization, which can take many lifetimes, is called enlightenment, and once we are established in it, we are free from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. We then dwell in realization of Brahman, the supreme consciousness. We may however choose to take another body in the form of a realized Master who returns to Earth to help others find their way back to Truth.
Yogic philosophy proposes that we experience so much struggle and pain in life because we live in ignorance of how things really are. We don’t see the purpose and wisdom of life, and hence we struggle against it. When we start to practice the methods described in the scriptures, our vision becomes clearer, our awareness more refined and it is then that we experience liberation. ‘When you hear about the Self, meditate upon the Self, and finally realize the Self, you come to understand everything in life’ Yajnavalkya said to his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – sound advice indeed.
Even if you don’t believe in Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, acquainting yourself with death makes sense. The only thing to fear is fear itself, and we often lose our fears when we understand something. Of course we feel sad when somebody we love leaves the earthly realm. That’s only human. But if we understand that this person has only concluded part of their journey and is now progressing, parting from them can become a bittersweet affair. In many tribal traditions that live closer to nature than we do, death is actually celebrated. Yes, the community is inevitably sad to say goodbye, but is at the same time wishing the deceased well with a big celebration. In rural Tamil Nadu in India, they even sit the dead person on a chair in the middle of the celebration!
Whatever your beliefs, death is inevitable. If you are afraid, face that fear and look death in the eye, like our hero Nachiketa. And most importantly, live consciously and with gratitude for every breath and the gift of life.
‘Nachiketa learned from the king of death
The whole discipline of meditation.
Freeing himself from all separateness,
He won immortality in Brahman.
So blessed is everyone who knows the Self!’
I recommend the following books if you want to learn more about the mysteries of life and death:
‘The Tibetan book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche
‘The Upanishads’, translation by Eknath Easwaran
Books by Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, who wrote extensively on death and dying