Dismantling the Universal Fear of Death.
“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” ~ Elizabeth Kübler-Ross
One of the most fascinating subjects I have studied whilst emerged in Vedic culture is the interesting concept of death. Firstly, I absolutely embrace the idea that death should not be looked upon as a dark, unknown and mysterious abyss that we must fear and dread, but as a transitional phase in the many changeable moments of our lives; within this we learn that nothing is permanent, everything changes, and nothing is destroyed, only transformed. This we supposedly know already, but how many of us can actually put it into practice in the smaller day-to-day changes that life brings us? How many of us resist change, find it difficult to “let go” of the past or of a person, object or animal? Not accepting change is like not believing that we will one day die, but holding on to the vain hope that we will be personally exempt from the clutches of death because we are somehow different. Being able to adapt, accommodate and adjust yourself to any situation is a sure-fire recipe in the fight against suffering and misery. I challenge you all to adopt it as your newest and latest mantra and watch the results unfold.
To truly understand this concept, not just on an intellectual level but really comprehend it and incorporate it, is what will make death lose its enigma so we are able to accept it as just another experience in our lives. We must embrace it as much as we embrace life itself and know that as we breathe in for the first time to begin our lives, so we must breathe out, as the last of our vital breath (prana) is exhaled from our bodies. So what happens on the journey in between? Life happens. It is a constant pulsation of inhalations and exhalations taking us on an adventure through the roller coaster of life. If we manage not to fall off the ride by maintaining a firm and equanimous mind when the vicissitudes of life come our way, then we can face even the biggest of conflicts and life changing situations. We are able to dive under the giant wave when it comes toward us instead of panicking and trying to flee in the opposite direction with the disastrous result of the wave crashing in around us and pounding our helpless bodies against the rocks. The force of nature is stronger than we are and to think that we can control death or even avoid it altogether would be quite frankly naïve and going against the dharma of our nature.
Perhaps what makes us truly apprehensive at the whole idea of death—even though we know it to be the only one true reality—is that we simply don’t know what to expect as no one has ever returned from that fascinating journey to enlighten and expand our limited views and inform us of who we will see and what we will experience, and this unknown factor always creates fear within us.
I am reminded of Nachiketas in the Kathopanishad when he asks Yama (the Lord of death):
“Master, man is mortal; but some say that death is not the end, that there is an entity called Atma which survives the body and the senses, Others argue that there is no such entity. Now that I have the chance, I wish to know about the Atma from you.”
To which Yama replies:
“…the Atma is agitationless, unruffled. It is Consciousness, infinite and full. He who has known the Atma will not be moved by the dual ideas of ‘is’ and ‘is-not,’ ‘do-er’ ‘not-doer,’ etc. The Atma is not even an object to be known! It is neither knower, known nor knowledge. Discovering this is the most supreme Vision. Informing one of this is the most supreme instruction. The Instructor is Brahmam (Absolute Consciousness). The instruction is Brahmam and the Instructed is also Brahmam. Realisation of this ever-present Truth saves one from all attachment and agitation, and so it liberates one from Birth and Death. This great Mystery cannot be grasped by logic. It has to be won by Faith in the Smrithis (scriptures) and experienced.
“The Atma is capable of being known only after vast perseverance. One has to divert the mind from its natural habitat—the objective world—and keep it in unwavering equanimity. Only a hero can succeed in this solitary internal adventure and overcome the monsters of egoism and illusion! That victory alone can remove grief.”
Then Krisha reinforces this in the Bhagavad Gita and says to Arjuna:
Dyaya II, sloka, 27
For in that case death is certain for the born,
And rebirth is inevitable for the dead.
You should not, therefore, grieve over the inevitable.
Dyaya II, sloka, 22
As a man shedding worn out garments
Takes other new ones, likewise the
Embodied soul casting off worn-out bodies,
Enters into others which are new.
But most people today dislike mentioning the big D word, thinking of it as an unnecessary topic to discuss while they still breathe in life. This precise avoiding of the topic is what makes us unprepared to deal with it in our lives; we think that it is something that happens to others but not to us. We are not taught in school the sensible subject of the Art of Dying gracefully, or how to accept death as a normal part of everyday living, or even how to pick up the pieces after a loved one dies, but instead we are left to our own devices to manage how we can. So how is it possible when we are on the threshold of death to make the transition to the other side or to help someone else make the transition?
“Dying is moving into a more beautiful house, quite simply abandoning the physical body is like a butterfly abandoning its silk cocoon.” ~ Elizabeth Kübler-Ross
The Vedas state that your last thought before death will be the seed that passes through to your next life and will be how you will begin and continue in your next existence. So if you go out resisting, with fear and negativity, then that is precisely how your next life will start, full of pain and suffering. This samskara, or impression, will be sown into your next life. Therefore it is essential to try to remain as calm and focused as possible; meditation is an incredible tool and can help enormously you and those around you, as maintaining a calm attitude is just as important for those who will be saying goodbye. By weeping, sobbing and clinging you make it harder for the person who must leave this plane of existence as they feel your attachment and resist their own departure.
It is a futile act to grip on to the bed sheets and begin regretting your life and let fear consume you. Accept, forgive, be grateful you have another opportunity and think positively so that your last step will be the beginning of your next, the closing of one chapter is to simply begin another, a rotation so to speak as life is circular in nature, and this once-unpleasant reality might in fact hide blessings and treasures. Our only problem is not knowing how to let go and accept our destiny—attachment grips us and drags others down with us. Remember that acceptance is always life’s greatest ally and once acceptance is fully felt then you are on the path to free your mind from its limiting restraints; you are quite literally on the path to liberation.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Ghandi
Recommended Reading: Death and Dying: Elizabeth Kübler Ross
Recommended Film: What dreams May Come (Director: Vincent Ward, 1998)
Yogini and Yoga & Dharma instructor on the Art and Science of Living, Yogita expresses her gratitude to her Guruji, Swami Shankaratilakananda for being a beacon of inspiration, for his all encompassing knowledge, generosity, compassion, light and spirit which shines through her example. Contact Yogita via email.