In that marvelous Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata, the sage Yudhisthira is asked: “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?”
Think for a moment for yourself: “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?”
Yudhisthira answers: “That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”1
The way we think about our own physical death determines in a fundamental way our perception of life and therefore how we live, what decisions we make and don’t make, and probably most important of all, our attitude towards our meditation practice. So, what is our relationship to death, our own physical death? Before we read the Master’s wise words, let’s make an experiment by reflecting for a moment on two different situations.
Consider the first situation: what are the implications if you knew without a shadow of a doubt that you would die one month from now? Just think for a moment and imagine for yourself. How would you think, feel, and act right now if you knew for sure, that in one month, your timespan on earth would expire and you would die a natural, peaceful but sudden death? If that was the case, how would you spend your last days? In other words, if we adopt the belief that very soon, no matter what, we will die, then how does it change our perspective on this amazing life that we are living right now? How does it change our appreciation of the valuable opportunities we have right now with our living Satguru who is eagerly supporting us and instructing us how to live beyond our physical death?
Our teacher’s challenge is that we are very difficult to teach and instruct because we somehow don’t believe that we need his instructions right now, because we’re not planning to die right now! If we really were seriously preparing to die soon, our motivation for dying daily in our meditation would be just a little bit more intense than it is now.
If we knew that our time was up for sure – in one month, in exactly 720 hours – we would perceive every second of our precious life with much higher value, and our priorities would be much more laser sharp than they are now. We would focus so intensely on holding our Guru’s hand so tightly that we couldn’t imagine one moment where we were not connected to our sweet teacher.
Would we worry about money issues, property issues, relationship issues, worldly disaster issues, family issues, and so forth? Not really. We would worry about and focus on letting go of all issues with the world, so we could focus on and be one with the spirit, the Shabd, the life-giving soul force of our universe. This is the life force that doesn’t die, but that leaves the body when we die, and to which that our Master is truly identified. He teaches us every day how to connect with that life force.
Did this thought experiment do anything? Did it influence you at all? Did you get a sense of how your time now could be fine-tuned, if you changed your perception about the timing of your death? It was just an experiment, but now let’s go to the second part.
Now let’s imagine you’ve received a guarantee that you’ll not leave this creation for at least 20 more years, when your time allotment in this world will expire. In comparison to the first experiment, will this imaginary promise of 20 years, or 172,800 hours more life in the physical form, change anything in your way of being now? Probably not!
The point is that when we bring our own physical death close to us, it makes us very sharp, very vulnerable, very small, very insignificant, and much more focused on what is alive, important, and relevant to us the short time we have our body in this creation. We also become aware that when we postpone our death, or maybe even “cancel” it, our involvement and attachment to the world increases to a degree where it may be at the expense of our focus on and engagement in our relationship with our teacher. Our meditation practice may lose its urgency, because we live in the illusion that we have endless time.
Our challenge is that we don’t know when our time will end and death will strike. It could be this week, this month, 20 years, 40 years or more – only God knows. In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, Maharaj Ji states it as clearly as it can be said: “When the soul leaves the body -- that is the physical death.”2
A friend recently told me a story about death that arrived suddenly. A young man lost his two best friends very early in life. A couple, both 21 years old, were instantly killed in a car accident caused by a drunken driver. He cried and mourned for days. Besides the sadness of his loss of two great friends, for the first time in his life he realized his own mortality in a very real way. When he saw this young beautiful couple lie in each of their own coffins next to each other before they were to be cremated, he clearly began to get an understanding of the difference between the physical body and the soul. As their bodies were lying there in their coffins beautiful and young, he knew that the spirit he had known in both these people was totally gone. He experienced that the real life or soul current of his friends had left, leaving behind lifeless, cold bodies. His friends were gone even though their bodies were right in front of him. Paramahansa Yogananda said the following at his death bed:
Death is only an experiment through which you are meant to learn a great lesson; you cannot die.3
What wisdom do spiritual teachers have to share with us about death and what cannot die? Tukaram says:
I am surprised at the people of this world!
How is it that they never think
of their own welfare?
They seem so sure of themselves,
But who will help them on their last day?
Why are they so carefree?
What answer will they give
to the messenger of death?
Have they forgotten that they will die?
What are they so pleased about?
What is wrong with them?
Is there anything they cannot do?
Why don’t they remember the Lord
And be free from bondage?
It will cost them nothing!4
This is an amazing poem filled with provocation, desperation, wonder, and the call of urgency. It’s a poem that calls us to see clearly that we must be humble towards our death. Our death will come much sooner than we can imagine, and we must begin to prepare for our last day – right now. Guru Nanak says:
Death is nothing but a gateway to birth.
Nothing that lives ever dies, it only changes form.
When a man’s body is weary,
the soul leaves the body
to receive newer and fresher garments.
And so, on goes the great play of God –
from eternity to eternity.5
In the foreword to the book Die to Live it states:
“Die to live and live forever,” we are told by our Master. Satsangis, his initiates, daily die to this world in their meditation. Daily they rehearse for that inevitable final departure. But now, with their Master always with them, they travel those regions of Light and Sound through the celestial spheres of the creation within, back to the level of the Father, back to their divine source.6
The explanation in Sant Mat is that you die to the world in order to be liberated and live forever and merge with our divine father. Let’s therefore get focused and ready to die to the insignificant and counterproductive aspects of our life. We need to kill the distractions. We need to eradicate our false perception of the things to which we lend our attention. We need to strangle our shortsighted awareness that makes us lose perspective of where the focus should be in life. We need to master our attention when we sit in deep and concentrated meditation, and thereby be able to fully and completely die to the world. Otherwise, we will never succeed in the promise we have made to our Master.
In Maharaj Ji’s answers to questions in Spiritual Perspectives regarding death, he keeps repeating that letting go of our attachments is one of the most difficult aspects of the process of dying. When we die, our ability to detach is ultimately tested. It’s a test in which our true priorities will be revealed. Are we able to let go of our attachments in this world, to which we have become a part, or are we so attached that we need to come back and be reborn?
As we are told, meditation is the tool, the answer, the practice that will enable us to learn to die a little bit each day. Meditation is nothing but a never-ending repetition of letting go of the world and focusing on the soul and the Shabd inside. As our Master keeps reminding us, the soul is inside and the Master is there inside, waiting for us. We “just” need to die to the world and its distractions so we can merge in peace and harmony and be one with the Shabd. Meditation is nothing but a daily preparation for death.
In a question about death, Maharaj Ji is asked:
As a result of meditation, does our soul detach itself at the time of death?
Sister, that is why we are told that slowly, gradually, we have to withdraw to the eye centre. If you put a fine cloth on a thorny bush, and you pull it all at once, you will tear the cloth. Similarly, if suddenly you withdraw to the eye centre, it becomes very painful. For this reason saints always advise us: Slowly, slowly try to withdraw. Pick the cloth off one thorn at a time and you will be able to save the whole cloth. So this process is very slow. Then it’s not painful at all. But if suddenly you have to withdraw, naturally it is painful. Therefore, we are always advised to try to withdraw slowly.7
To underline the seriousness of the challenge of letting go of our attachments to the world, Maharaj Ji further explains how even focused meditation training – taking one thorn at a time – is not always enough to cut our relation to the creation. He says in response to another question:
If we are not attached to anything in this world, nothing can bring us back, even if our meditation is insignificant. If, on the other hand, we are attached to this creation – its objects and faces – even if we have lot of meditation to our credit, we will come back.8
Isn’t the message here that it’s really difficult to let go of the world? But don’t we already know that? We should get on with it and use our time wisely while we’re alive, so at least we’ve done what is in our power and haven’t wasted our time in worldly distractions. Otherwise, we may live in the lie that death is not going to happen to us anytime soon. Not thinking seriously about or preparing for our own death may be what Tukaram is referring to when he exclaims: “What is wrong with them?”
Here is the advice from two meditators about why we need to confront our own death and prepare wisely. Swami Muktananda says:
If one wants to die peacefully,
One must begin helping oneself
Long before one’s time to die has come.9
Finally, Milarepa, a great Tibetan saint says:
You should strive for a readiness to die!
Be certain and ready; when the time comes,
You will have no fear and no regret.10
So, let’s all prepare ourselves for death by doing our meditation and tuning into the Shabd now!
- Sushila Blackman, Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 2005, p. 7
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, Beas: RSSB, 2010, #468
- Graceful Exits, p. 92
- Chandravati Rajwade, Tukaram: The Creaseless Song of Devotion, Beas: RSSB, 4th ed., 2010, p. 97
- Graceful Exits, p. 97
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Die to Live, Beas: RSSB, 1999, p. ix
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, #456
- Ibid, #459
- Graceful Exits, p. 106
- Ibid, p. 123