My father passed away recently, and my siblings and I were able to be with him during the last four days of his life. Each day he slowly became more and more still; he was gradually less engaged with us; his breathing slowed; and then on the last morning he quietly stopped breathing. There was a kind of sacred space in the hospital room during this time with very little connection to the outside world. We were cocooned in this process of our father’s leaving, and we thought about little else.
When I returned home, I listened to a podcast about hospice care. The nurses talked about the ways in which they cope with the process of dying. One nurse said she is very careful not to imagine her own death. This was interesting to me because as my father was dying, I thought a lot about my own death, and it was a meaningful and rich experience. It caused me to appreciate my life and all the blessings I have been given. By pondering my own death and the tenuous relationship we have with this world, I felt a deeper gratitude for everything.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book, Death: The Final Stage of Growth, wrote:
It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and meanwhile, each today is lost. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings.
There is something about loss and grief that touches us in a way that nothing else does. We are moved to think seriously about our lives, and to stop postponing what we know we need to do. An understanding of death brings us squarely into the present; knowing that each day could be our last helps us to live more authentically.
We may think that focusing on our short time on earth is morbid or frightening. We dread the loss of our loved ones, and we worry about our own aging. We wonder what will happen to us when we die. But Maharaj Charan Singh Ji, in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, explained that our meditation practice is a slow and gradual withdrawal from the body, and that it is the same as the process of dying:
You see, at the time of death we have to pass through the same process as we do at the time of meditation. Whenever the soul leaves the body, it has been withdrawn to the eye centre – only then does the soul leave the body. And at the time of meditation also, we try to withdraw our consciousness back to the eye centre. That is why meditation is known as a living death. It is the same process which we have to follow at the time of death. That is why death is not painful for a satsangi – because he is passing through the same process every day. Actually, meditation is nothing but a preparation for death.
So maybe focusing on death is not such a bad thing. Maybe it is what will, in reality, liberate us from the death we are living with in our everyday lives.
In the Buddhist tradition, practitioners are encouraged to be mindful of death. The contemporary Buddhist teacher Anyen Rinpoche writes in his book Dying with Confidence:
The river of birth carries us to old age. No matter what we look like on the outside, we are all going to get old. We should not think that just because we are young, just because we are healthy now, that we have time…. We have been born – that itself is a sign of death. We must therefore reflect on the fact of death now. If we do not think about it now, it will be difficult to think about it when it is happening – as it inevitably will. Most importantly, it will be impossible to have any mindfulness that death is approaching if we refuse to reflect on it during our life. Through the cultivation of mindfulness now, the forces of habit and practice will help us practice it at the time of death. Truly, through the power of committed practice, there is nothing that cannot become easy…. The fact of death is certain. And for this very reason, because it is completely certain, death is something we should be fearless about.
Instead of avoiding the topic of death out of fear, we can fully commit to our meditation practice and become fearless. And instead of avoiding meditation because we are restless and agitated, we can be grateful to have a practice that takes us gently through the dying process before the fact.
When summer ends and the last leaves fall from the trees, tree branches become stark lines across the autumn sky. The air changes, and we are reminded of the seasons of loss in this transient existence. The leaves gently separate from the tree and slowly float to the cold ground, waiting to disintegrate into the dark soil beneath.
In the same way, when we experience loss in our lives, we are often changed unalterably. Sometimes this happens so slowly we don’t even know it is happening until we look back and realize that life will never be what it was. Sometimes it happens so quickly we can’t grasp at first how dramatic the change really is. But happen it does.
We may be more afraid of change than we are of death. The coronavirus, for example, changed our lives in ways we couldn’t foresee, and yet as we experienced it, we continued to want to return to normal. We wanted to get back to the office, stop wearing masks, be with our families, travel freely. We wanted to be able to go see the Master. We wanted to get on with the life we had before the pandemic, the life we took for granted, the life we thought we were supposed to be living.
And yet the pandemic, like death, continued to badger us, to push us into the unknown, to force us to change our habitual patterns. Some of the ways in which it altered us have been so profound, perhaps we will never get back to our “normal” lives. But was “normal” really working for us? How do we deal with the loss of the things we expected of life?
As Soami Ji wrote so eloquently in Sar Bachan Poetry: “Let us turn homewards, friend. Why linger in this alien land?” Perhaps our desire to return to normal is a sense of lingering in this alien land, wanting this life to be more comfortable, stable, predictable than it really is. This alien land has always been illusory, changeable, unstable and unpredictable. Death, pandemics, and wars have always been part of life on this planet. The time in which we live is no different from many times in the past, and these kinds of times will come again in the future.
A lot has been written about the deterioration of people’s mental health as the world has faced one crisis after another, and fears mount about more waves of the pandemic and even nuclear war. People are burned out, frustrated, tired of restrictions, fearful, angry, and fed up. And yet, if we go back to Kubler-Ross’s statement, we can see that the denial of death is the real problem, not death itself. It is resistance to change, not change itself that causes our fears. She explains that if we realize each day could be our last, we take the time to grow, become more authentic, and reach out to other people.
When a leaf falls from a tree and lands on the ground, the natural cycle of life is for it to be regenerated into new soil in which other seeds can eventually grow. We can either take the view that the current difficulties in the world are insurmountable obstacles that are changing our lives for the worse, or we can look at them as generating new ways of being in the world – as part of a deep transformation process. Don’t we need to develop new ways of living on this earth?
When we become frustrated and depressed with worldly events, we can ask ourselves: What do we want? Do we want to return home, as Soami Ji urged? Or do we want to linger in this alien land, hoping it will return to “normal,” wishing for life to be different than it really is? Rather, let us grieve our losses, change our habitual mental patterns, turn homeward, and get busy with our own real work, as Soami Ji advised.