Preparing for Death
We lament the death of others but rarely think constructively of our own. Actually, we would be wise to be concerned with our own end and prepare ourselves for what will then happen to us. Where will we go as we pass through death’s doors? Whom are we going to meet there? Would it not be prudent to consider these questions? Religious books talk of this subject, but we rarely pay attention to them for we may believe them to be either fantasies or fairy tales, or efforts to wean people away from sin, or to persuade them to perform good deeds. The fact is that we all have to cross the gates of death. No one is an exception. Why then shut our eyes to the subject?
The time of death is clearly not the best time to begin preparing ourselves for death. It is easier to do it with time on our side, or as Lao Tzu, the Chinese mystic, says in the Tao Te Ching, “Manage the difficult while it is easy, manage the great while it is small. All difficult things start from the easy, all great things in the world start from the small. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
That first step, the mystics advise us, is to become aware of our attachments. It is our attachments that make us suffer and it is they, we are told, that can bring us back into this world. To paraphrase a saying from the Bible: Where your treasure is, that is where you make your home. Our treasure is whatever we care about most. If, at the time of death, we are greatly attached to people or things in the world, we will not be able to rise above these attachments. Like a magnet they will drag us back to this world: it is the mind that gives direction to our soul.
There is a lot of misunderstanding concerning attachment and detachment. Detachment does not mean renunciation. A person can renounce wealth and still be thinking about money all day, or renounce sex and be having lustful thoughts all day. Detachment means to rise above obsession and the desire to possess or own a person or thing. To become detached certainly doesn’t mean that we stop loving. When a person is associated with another for some time, it is normal that a bond may develop. Attachment is the preoccupation with someone or something to the extent that one becomes restless and loses one’s balance at the thought of losing that person or that object. It includes the most common obsession – the obsession of me and mine. When we die, these attachments project themselves and fill our attention, making it very hard for us to embark on the journey beyond.
Most people would agree that it is normal practice to make preparations if one is going to travel to another country. One at least considers and makes arrangements for the means of transport and decides where one is going to stay. We are so careful in these worldly matters that we rarely undertake a big journey without making all sorts of arrangements beforehand. Yet for the one journey which everyone has to make, few people do anything. Who really considers even where that journey through death leads, or how one should prepare oneself to make it smooth?
To solve the riddle of death, philosophers through the centuries have spared no effort. But the fact is that the intellect fails. Learned and illiterate alike are helpless to find the answers. How many people must have had the same thought: How satisfying it would be if someone returned to narrate his actual experiences! We guess at what death means, but our musings are only figments of our imagination – wishful thinking to comfort us in this one dark certainty at the end of each person’s life.
The saints or true spiritual teachers have solved the mystery of death. Through the work they do on themselves and the control they have of their consciousness, they can leave the human body every day and travel into other realms of existence. By learning from them we too can acquire the means to triumph over death.
They teach us that death is not to be feared. It is only the name given to the phenomenon of the soul leaving the body. Death is merely the withdrawal of the soul from the gross senses and its entrance into finer regions. It is merely giving up the present garment, namely, the body. It does not mean annihilation. There is life after death.
The saints have dealt with this subject at length. They have described the method of passing from one level of existence to another. By following the method of meditation prescribed by them, a disciple can learn to pass through the gates of death and return to the body at will. Only a person whose soul has travelled through the finer realms before death can understand this reality. Only experience can convey to a person what it is. Intellect is helpless to comprehend it.
This subject will be dealt with in greater detail in the chapter on meditation. For the moment we need to put it aside so that we can concentrate on the immediate issue of what one is to do first. If someone is in a house that is on fire, he will be well advised to think first of the quickest way of getting out of it before asking such questions as who set it on fire, and when and why it was set on fire. The answers to these questions can be determined after one has escaped.