Death and dying: Tantrik teachings on death.
My grandmother just died. In speaking with my mom during my grandmother’s passing she perfectly encapsulated the essence of the dharma teachings on death by saying, “You know, your Nonna is dying like she lived… hard. She’s fighting. And your Papa, he died like he lived: open and surrendered.”
And there you have it. This is the key to the death and dying teachings from the yoga perspective: as you live, so shall you die.
Death, personified as Lord Yama in the yoga tradition, teaches us the value of sobriety. It is very useful to re-evaluate our life through this lens. What are our priorities? Why do we do what we do? Where are we going? Where did we come from? Who are we? What do we really want out of life?
Yogins of the Sakta-Saiva Dharma keep “remembrance of death” as a daily, living precept. The intent of this practice is not drudgery, nor is its fruit contrived guilt and darkness. Rather, this practice of remembering enriches and enlivens life, while lending us the courage to detach from the aspects of ourselves that are not congruent with our purpose and direction.
One of the hallmarks of authentic spiritual practice is “practicing where we are at” and not where some highbrow philosophy says we should be.
Where most of us “are at” in regards to death is scared shitless. Being real with this fear and preparing for what is inevitable is not a drag. It is practical and honest.
Or at least I think so, because I really don’t want to panic when my time comes—and I don’t know when my time is coming. I don’t want to be flailing in terror like my Nonna has been. I don’t want my face to wear a look of horror that scares my loved one’s who are hopefully by my side. Forget what the teachings say about what happens after death. Before it, I don’t want to live my life with an undercurrent of anxiety about something so natural and certain.
So, then, there are things that I need to confront, accept and perhaps transform about my situation right here and now. There are things that I need to deal with. I cannot run away from any aspect of life… because I know… as I live, so I shall die.
How do I show up in life?
At the moment of death will I be relaxed, surrendered, and at peace? Am I going to be at ease? Am I going to be in a state of love and grace? All of that depends. Am I in that state now? How often have I been in that state recently? How about as a habit throughout most of my life? What about in stressful situations when the shit hits the fan? Do I crumble in fear, freeze in panic, run away, deny, avoid, look for something—no anything—to not be in my actual situation, to not feel the pain, to buffer the discomfort?
Or, do I remain in a state of peace and love even when things are hard? I have to ask myself these questions because, frankly, I don’t always like the answers. I have to keep it real. Because if I’m not so surrendered when I can’t pay my bills, or when my child’s fever spikes, or when I am filled with regret for things I did, or didn’t do… then how can I expect the measure of contentment that I hope to die with? How can I hope to not be as terrified as I think I might be?
These are questions that the yogin ponders as she must. This is why the “Cremation Ground Siva” is an Icon of Essence that we look to with reverence. This is why the practice of living fully in every moment, or realizing our ultimate human creative potential is the same thing as saying that every moment is a practice for Death and Dying.
I am so grateful that every autumn our school of Sakta-Saiva Dharma makes it a priority to revisit the teachings on Death and Dying. We can never answer all our rational questions about something as mysterious as Death. But, there are a lot more answers than most people think there are. We can learn about how we dissolve—body, mind and spirit—and how to best prepare for and navigate that process. There are tools for practicing now, which simultaneously enhance living and serve as trial runs for the moment of dying.
There are even very practical views and methods that we can learn to better assist others, our loved ones, who are living their final moments and might otherwise suffer in a state of confusion and fear. Certainly, we can never control a force such as death and any conscious efforts to work with it are best practiced with humility. But there are things we can do. We are not helpless. We are empowered beings that are endowed with greatness and responsibility.
What good is a spiritual practice if it is not giving us the best chance we’ve got to experience everything about life, most especially Death, with a masterful touch?
I am grateful for the taste of sobriety re-awakened in me in the wake of my grandmother’s death. May all beings be free from the fear of death and in so becoming, be truly and fully alive. And may my Nonna rest in peace.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger
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