~Last Sunday, Braja Sorensen talked about taking no shortcuts to love. Today we begin to explore death and how the way we relate to death affects the way we live our lives.~
Death takes us and breaks us, and rips us into little, tiny pieces we suddenly have to reconstruct into our selves again.
More often than not, whether it’s our experience of the death of a loved one, or something that brought us close to our own death, or even our knowledge of the sudden and brutal deaths of strangers as a result of crimes or accidents, knowledge of death works on our consciousness in very powerful ways.
This is why the Bhagavad Gita is dripping with the subject of death!
It aims to murder our obscure vies of who we are, and replace them with brilliant ones. The Gita was designed to kill everything that prevents us from being ourselves, and do so on a war ground: the prefect metaphor for impermanence, a place where life is snatched away in the blink of an eye, the shooting of an arrow.
Each and every one of us, have had our own versions of arrows to dodge in our lives. Death is the arrow none of us can dodge. No matter how rich we are, or intelligent, or powerful, death is the equalizer among humans.
Well over 200,000 people die each day around the world. Multiply that by all the people that knew them and are left to grieve their deaths, and that makes millions of people suddenly facing death every day on our planet, just as Arjuna did in the Gita.
If each of those individuals used the opportunity of death to evolve their consciousness, (as the Gita suggests), this world would be a much better place!
Why? Because, according to the Bhagavad Gita, the secrets to unlocking a better life rest hidden in our relationship with death. And much of the Gita asks that we become conscious of that relationship and start working on it.
~Yoga is about getting really cozy with death~
Now before we can kick our shoes off and start snuggling up to death on the couch, allow me to introduce you to death as an opportunity to get to know yourself better.
Not the parts of yourself that are born, and linger for some time, and then die, (like your latest raw food craze, or your certainty that your last love was the love of your life), but the parts of you that are consistent: the deepest parts, the most beautiful parts, the one’s really worth celebrating. You are all the parts of yourself that never die.
Sometimes destruction is necessary to find what is permanent in our lives and find a foundation we can stand on no matter what earthquakes shake us. When Arjuna was shaken in the Gita, it was Krishna who helped steady him when he was the most broken.
We all need to be broken to find the unbroken self at our core.
And we are most shattered when something we value suddenly disappears. From objects and places that hold special meaning to us, to careers, relationships and people we love, and everything in between, there is a fleeting nature to nearly everything we participate in during our lives. The Gita focuses the reader on this fact.
When we invest too much of ourselves in what’s fleeting, we have a hard time identifying with what’s not.
Death always invites us to identify with what is permanent over what is temporary. Just like the flame on a candle needs a dark room to really glow, we all need to face death to find the undying parts of our self. And Krishna describes many of these eternal ingredients of existence in his famous conversation with Arjuna.
They also consistently use repetition to drive home important points. Krishna exposes Arjuna to death over and over again repeatedly during their talk on the battlefield, causing the drumming of yoga philosophy to resound more loudly in Arjuna’s consciousness than the drums of war that were making him anxious. Armed with yoga, anyone can face death!
~Yoga is facing death fearlessly~
What does facing death mean then? One way we face death is when a loved one dies. But that does not happen to us every day.
Most of the deaths we might be exposed to in the course of a single day are ones that happen to strangers: soldiers in the middle east, a child who had been kidnapped in our part of the country, a miscarriage, maybe even a teenager who died in a car crash down the street from our house, or the little old lady next door, taken away in a screaming ambulance. It could even be a friend’s spouse who took his, or her own life.
Usually, the closer the particular death is to us the more profound an impact it can have on us.
It can even be a death that happened on the other side of the planet! But if upon hearing about a death we feel helplessly gripped, disturbed, emotionally challenged, deeply pained, or angry, then that is an experience of death the Gita calls the best of yoga teachers!
~Yoga means seeing death as our teacher~
Death is the guide that shows us what we are most attached to in our lives.
It gives us heartache and triggers pain from the past. Facing the death of something, or someone we love in our lives will hurt us to the degree that our consciousness is absorbed in it.
When our consciousness wraps itself around something impermanent, then we’re in for a long and bumpy ride! Krishna takes Arjuna on such a ride in the Gita, as he helps him let of everything that is dying in front of him. To do that Arjuna grieves.
Grieving is also part of yoga, as demonstrated by Arjuna.
Sometimes yoga practitioners attempt to discard natural, emotional engagement with experiences in life, because they mistakenly think that emotions are not part of the yoga process. So they suppress valuable emotions, such as grief. And yet, our emotions, like grief, work on our hearts in wonderful ways that aid in the unfolding of our consciousness.
Seeing death as our teacher means embracing the period of grieving that naturally follows death as well.
We need to trust what our teacher gives us and surrender to the process. What we don’t want to do is extend the duration of our grieving by wallowing in it. The Gita calls such static states tamasic, or dark. We move out of the darkness and into the light by embracing what is.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is encouraged by Krishna to embrace impermanence. Part of embracing impermanence means accepting destruction and death as part of life here on our planet. The more we internalize this perspective, the easier it will be to move through our lives, as world is marked by beginnings, middles and endings. Krishna says in the Gita that he is all three!
~Yoga is learning to embrace the impermanent in our lives~
The ancient times that yoga emerged from, measured how skilled one was at living by how comfortable they were with death, destruction and impermanence. Gracefully coping with the temporary nature of everything around us, translated into living a more fulfilling life.
But what if our own death is staring into our eyes? How do we embrace that?
Because life and death are two sides of the same coin, the Gita not only functions as a manual for life, but as a guidebook on how to die as well. Yoga philosophy states that the way we live greatly affects we way we die. If we use our lives to become comfortable with all the lessons death has to teach us, then our deaths will also be comfortable.
In the longest epic poem of the world, the Mahabharata, from which the Gita emerges, King Yudhishthira is asked: “Of all the things in life, what is the most amazing?” To this, he replies, “That a man, while seeing others die around him, behaves as if he will never die.”
A denial of death, or fear of it, was interpreted as an undesirable state of being described in ancient Vedic literature as a tight flower bud refusing to blossom.
Even modern investigators of consciousness, like Carl Jung, echoed this by viewing humanity’s general resistance to death as “something unhealthy and abnormal, which robs…life of its purpose.” Thus, reconnecting with purposeful living meant relinquishing one’s identification with temporary aspects of existence, such as one’s body. A peaceful death equaled the birth of illumined consciousness.
In the Gita, Krishna repeatedly weaves references to the impermanence of the body into his conversation with Arjuna, who is lamenting about all the imminent deaths before him. Krishna, however, doesn’t really enter into instructions for dying until chapter seven, which is about knowledge that has been realized, and not merely heard, or vijnana.
~Yoga is the practical application of timeless knowledge to our lives~
Realized knowledge has a different effect upon our consciousness than memorized knowledge because it leads us to a natural and effortless application of that knowledge. Knowing what is good for us has value, but being able to act on that knowledge has an even greater value.
This is because the absorption of knowledge is most profound when it arrives through experience.
We cannot pretend to be detached when someone dies, we must experience the grief and pain to reach that state of peace. All these experiences of grief in our lives work on our relationship with death, gradually preparing us for our own death.
~A peaceful death is the effect of a life lived in yoga~
Before Krishna gives Arjuna the formula for dying peacefully he first takes him on a philosophical journey through discernment (buddhi), action (karma), knowledge (jnana) and meditation (dhyana). Toward the end of the seventh chapter, right before Krishna plunges into what divinity is, or the transcendent Brahman, he talks about yoga in relation to dying.
Krishna describes how one whose thoughts are “absorbed in yoga” will know him, even at the time of death. Why would one wish to know Krishna at the time of death? What does it mean to be conscious of him as one dies?
Right before Krishna speaks those words to Arjuna he identifies himself as four basic principles of existence:
The principle of self (adhyatma)
The principle of becoming (adhibhuta)
The principle of divinity (adhidaiva)
The principle of sacrifice (adhiyajna)
If one can meditate on these four aspects of existence at the time of death, according to the Gita, one never needs to fear death again.
To put it simply, if one genuinely knows oneself, one’s relationship to this world, one’s relationship to divinity, and the sacrifices one makes in love, one dies at peace.
Krishna tells Arjuna that simply focusing on him at the time of death automatically encompasses all four!
~Yoga is meditating on Krishna at the time of death~
In the Gita, Krishna represents many things! He appears as Arjuna’s chariot driver, or fate and time, and as his best friend, or love. He appears in nature as the fragrance in the earth, the taste in water, the radiance of the moon, the ocean, the wind, the spring season, the Himalayas, etc. Krishna also identifies himself with discernment and desire that does not conflict with dharma, the qualities in the universe, quietly repeated prayer, courage, secrets, knowledge, and beauty, just to name a few!
Krishna even says in the Gita that he is death.
By identifying himself as death, Krishna gives great value to the death we see around us, as well as our own death. Death can serve to develop our consciousness in the most powerful ways, as when we find ourselves in the company of a great yoga teacher.
For death in yoga philosophy is regarded as a mere shift in the physical location of consciousness. And consciousness determines destination:
“…Whatever state of being one remembers upon giving up the body at the end of life, to that very state one always goes…being conditioned by that state of being.” (Bhagavad Gita, 8.6)
When one stops identifying consciousness with physical elements, then consciousness moves into a new state of being that no longer requires the experience of dying.
~Yoga is realizing that we are not made of destructible ingredients like flesh and blood.~
It is an indestructible state of being that Krishna guarantees Arjuna will be reached by those who think of him at the time of death, for he is one with that eternal state of being:
“At the time of one’s end, remembering me alone while giving up the body- One who goes forth, goes to my state of being; about this there is no doubt” (BG 8.5)
Until then, we are all required to face death and destruction in our lives in the many ways they present themselves, for they are like boats that ferry us to the shores of pure consciousness.
The Gita tells us that if we practice absorbing our thoughts on Krishna –and everything he identifies himself with in the Gita- during such times, doing so during our own demise will become second nature.
So the more chances we have to develop our relationship with death throughout our lives the better! In the East, such opportunities are considered good fortune. According to the Gita, thinking of Krishna at the time of death is the greatest fortune!
Human beings naturally think of whatever grips their hearts the strongest at the time of death. Usually it’s a loved one. In yoga this is called one’s istha-deva. In the Gita, Krishna speaks of himself as the ultimate istha-deva. And he speaks of love as the yoga that will connect us with him, and thus give birth to the undying part of ourselves.
~Yoga is being absorbed in pure love at the time of death~
If we really wish to absorb ourselves in love, learning from death is the way to do so.
In chapter eight of the Gita, Krishna calls this the “power of yoga”, and it is through this power that we find our own: Our power to live joyfully, our power to love deeply and our power to die peacefully.
So just die into love!
And, in yoga, we don’t have to wait until our body dies to do this, we can practice doing this throughout our entire lives, every single time we feel like a little part of us is dying, every time we grieve, every time death touches us. For, in yoga, we die to live more fully.
For earlier posts in this series, see the Elephant Journal author pages for Catherine Ghosh & Braja Sorensen For continued posts in the series, see Yoga in the Gita.
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