Thursday, November 07, 2013

Yoga and death

(That is my skull ring, crusted with faux crystals, a la the famous one by Damien Hirst)

I have a comfortable relationship with death, in that I like the idea of meditating on it, so one understands and prioritises life. I have had this feeling with death since childhood.  

Even in youth a lot of my silver jewellery that I picked up (those days they would not dream of making such jewellery in India) in Germany were skull-themed, or had odd death /or that-worldly stuff -- like scorpion, snake, toad, creepies and crawlies. I loved them, or was fascinated by the dark world  they inhabited, as much as I was with death. 

These days (must be that I have now crossed half a century) the sense of the companionship with death is also quite acute. It is as if I can see each moment very complete -- rising and falling, in death, and rising into another moment, another life. Its very odd to explain that, but when you read Vedanta, something of that sort of experience becomes apparent. There is also an acute sense of watching my thoughts, all very crystal clear. And also, realising how many minds we have -- the biological one, the spiritual one, and so on. Plus, of course, the limiting one and the universal, expansive one. Each moment, each thought offers you a choice to be limited or expansive. It is very exciting, if you can make the choice, because something big falls in place, and death becomes companiable, making life simpler and easier to deal with. 
This 'wisdom' is only lately acquired, tho I have struggled with the concept of that, trying to transform into experience what could otherwise remain very exciting theory. 
Below, some thoughts on yoga and death, which I did for India Abroad, a few years ago:

Yoga is designed to create the ideal conditions of the body, physical stamina and mental endurance so  we can be trained for this great adventure of the spirit. Death is not some dreaded unknown. For self-realisedyogis, their birth is freshly celebrated when they lose the sense of a puny self and expand their consciousness to include the universe. They have no idea of death, much less any fear of it.  In fact, a Jivanmukti yogi is one who drops this idea of a little self (called jiva) and allows his pure self (atman) to merge with the higher consciousness (Brahman). The Christian mystics believe that Christ’s own idea of the trilogy – father, son and holy spirit – meant this  same movement towards a higher consciousness. The Kathopanishad says, “The body is the city, with eleven gates, of the ever unborn, all unfailing consciousness. He who knows this will never come to grief and is liberated twice over.”

In this yoga, faith must not be corrupted with self-interest. Here the divine is not placed on a pedestal outside, but within oneself. And when this happens death is a just negligible signpost on the way to a higher destination. When Lord Krishna says, “Natwewaham jatu nasam” (Never I was not.), he was also urging us to feel this eternity in our very being. The Chandogyogpanishad explains this: “That Self which is beyond decay, death, sorrow, which requires no food nor drink, which is all accomplished desire, all fulfilled thought, should be looked for, should be inquired after. He gains access to all world, has all his desires fulfilled, who having known this self, realizes it (fully in himself and all).” This is the only goal. And only those of us fear death who have forgotten our higher goals, immersed as we are in running around fulfilling our earthly ones.

For instance, only when a student is completely unprepared for the exam does he dread entering the examination hall. He cannot sleep the night before the exam and faces the paper with a sinking feeling. But a well-prepared student feels a frisson of excitement and a pleasant stress (called eustress) when he faces his question paper. A yogi has a similar relationship to death, unafraid and even pleasantly anticipatory.

The maha mrityunjaya mantra (used in most yoga ashrams) evocatively describes the nature of this faith, fearlessness and even disregard towards death. The mantra, inadequately translated here, means just as a cucumber drops from the vine when it is ripe and ready, so too we must jettison this sense of this our little selves on our journey into immortality. The Mahabharata puts forth this yogic idea of life and death with the same clarity: “Having obtained this priceless birth with all the senses in their full activity, he who does not understand the good of self, destroys himself.”  What this means is that many of us lead a lives of living death even while nursing an unnecessary fear of death.

The Diamond skull, by international artist Damien Hirst

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