Being aware of dying does not mean fearing it but realising that it’s a part of the renewal process of the universe.
Death is not a subject we often think about or are even comfortable talking about. In fact, a number of contemporary sociologists believe that despite widespread liberalization of thought in modern times, death is one of the topics where the extent of taboo has actually grown.
There are two keys perspectives to understanding death. Firstly, that death is an integral part of life. All organisms are evolving and renewing simultaneously in some way; we are dead and alive at the same time. How conscious are us of the fact that despite our feeling completely healthy while reading this article, millions of cells in our body are dying right now? Our body is made up of cells, and cells are made of atoms, which in turn are made of electrons, protons and neutrons. These subatomic particles, moving about at amazing speed, zoom in and out of our existence all the time.
Simultaneously, these atoms and molecules vibrate, dance and reconfigure continuously. Same goes for our cells that break down incessantly, only to regenerate: 98% of atoms in a human body are replaced annually, the stomach lining partly packs up whenever we eat food and rebuilds itself about every five days, the skin, nails and hair cells are dying all the time and are made afresh every month. These individual cells die and renew frequently so the whole (our body) can live on. Similarly, we are a small part of the bigger whole (the universe), and we die and renew to keep the bigger whole alive.
Secondly, the universe is totally fluid and there is no fixed solidity anywhere — and so, everything and every organism is constantly transforming. When we eat an apple, its essence does not disappear, its nutritious elements just get transformed into energy inside our body.
Similarly, if it falls to the ground, it decomposes into soil, perhaps to turn into nourishment for another apple tree one day. Ice peaks turn into rivers, and oceans into clouds — while their underlying composition remains constant, the changing frequency of vibration of the hydrogen and oxygen molecules results in different physical forms of ice and steam.
Similarly, an adult was once a child, and the child once a fertilized egg. Through all these forms, of an egg, child and adult, the only constant is the underlying consciousness. All external appearances are impermanent — the only thing eternal is the formless consciousness which manifests in different forms from time to time.
It’s another matter that based on our conditioned beliefs, we tend to identify rather strongly with our physical form — the body, the mind and the senses. We fail to recognize that the physical form is not solid matter, even though it appears so, but essentially made up of fluid energy — the same energy that runs the universe. This energy (or consciousness) is unborn and undying and irrespective of whether we are dead or alive in the human form, we remain this consciousness. How else would you describe the transformation of forms in the above examples?
Would you say the apple died; or the egg or the child died, even though they physically ceased to be so at some point in time? So, while we may die in the physical plane, we never die in the spiritual one. Once we realize this, we can appreciate, as is said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience.”
As we become familiar with this thought process, it gives us a perspective on the purpose of our existence. As we see the ephemeral nature of all our sensual experiences, we start to become less identified with our physical self. Then, we also realize the futility of many of our vain pursuits after titles, power, money and external success. When we are even slightly prepared for death, we can appreciate each moment of life’s beauty better. The purpose of reflecting on death is not to fear it all the time, but to live in the awareness of the fragility of our existence. Reflecting on death guides us towards focusing on how we want to dedicate our lives towards more meaningful objectives. Only when we begin to know about death, do we actually learn to start living. As David Wolpe, an accomplished Rabbi, said, “The aim of life is not to know whether there is immortality, but to live so you deserve it.”
Often this wisdom about death begins to dawn on us only when we grow old and notice the limitations of our selfish existence. That’s when people start to realize the impermanence of their egoistic pursuits and acquisitions. As death draws near, the attachment to possessions and form begins to fade. That’s when people tend to become more compassionate and focused on serving others.
For the most part of our lives, we ignore paying attention to these issues. Guess, we are somewhat like the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, who hoped that as long as his son wasn’t exposed to death, sickness or any other suffering, he would never give up worldly ambitions.
In a way, we all think as long as we don’t think about death, life is quite okay. Also, sometimes people fear that if they focused too hard on these questions, they may lose interest in life in general — including in their work and family. This fear then makes us cling to the world of attachments and physical form. However, when we reflect deeply on death, we realize that this need not be the case. In fact, as we thus conduct ourselves with an attitude of let go and surrender, our productivity at work goes up and our relationships blossom further.
The point here is that if living this way and becoming spiritually aware is important at a later age, how can we learn to live that way throughout our lives? “Are you not ashamed,” said Seneca, the Roman philosopher “to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which can’t be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live.” If only we could start to live this way when we are younger, we can create a meaningful life for ourselves.