Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #17 – Practicing Death

April 23rd, 2018

It felt like death. I had just spent the week finishing my last Monday Morning Greetings and pressed the command key to copy it when the whole document literally turned to Chinese letters. Now this had nothing to do with the fact that the article was on Chinese Proverbs. It was just some inexplicable computer glitch that had a twist of irony, but that’s not all it was about. Writing is an intense labor and the product is your child, so when it is lost there is pain. I am proud of myself though.  I wasn’t too flustered; although, I did wish I had my child back. What I did get, however, was a personal illustration of the theme of the lecture that I was about to give that evening called “The Art of Living and Dying”.

 

My theme was “Practicing Dying”. That was Plato’s answer when asked to sum up his teachings. And here was the example that I needed for illustrating my point. Death is the obliteration of the false ego – our inflated self-conception of being the enjoyer – when the world moves not only beyond our control, but digresses to annihilation. Similarly, in life, the false ego is also crushed as the world moves against our control, a micro death so to speak. My computer glitch and consequent loss thus made it clear that life is both like death and prepares us for death by helping us to renounce the false conception of the enjoyer.

 

The more I thought about my micro near death experience, the more I realized how such experiences work and how powerful they are. One phrase came to mind that supported my insight: “Die to live”. It’s a phase coined by the German philosopher Georg Hegel, and often used by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja to highlight the point now under discussion: In order to realize our eternal life, we must allow our ego to die. And the most substantial way to do that is to not feed it by indulging in the self-pity, frustration, or anger that arises when the world moves against our control. We can thus practice dying by neglecting the voices of the ego and by remaining equipoised, while at the same time devotedly serving in circumstances that God places us, a spirit very much akin to the nature of the soul. I think a poignant example will help further clarify these points, an example that I had the fortune to witness.

 

Gauri was convinced that suffering is caused by ignorance and that the greatest compassion was to distribute spiritual knowledge. She therefore performed the austerity of distributing Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books eight to ten hours a day. As she always thought of others before herself, she found immense inner joy doing this daily despite its challenges. Unfortunately, one day she was diagnosed with stage-four cancer and immediately left for Vṛndāvana to die. I was in her room one evening with others on what would prove to be her last day, when suddenly Dr. Narottama, her ayurvedic doctor entered. He directly went to his patient, felt her pulse and announced, “Disease is finished. You have one hour left to live!” I was initially confused by his apparently contradictory statement, but after some thought I understood his enlightened message: The real disease and the cause of suffering is not the transformation of the body, which is inevitable, but the false ego, the consciousness that makes us identify with the body and thus suffer its transformations, including death. Gauri’s disease was therefore indeed finished, although she would leave the body soon due her cancer.

 

And sure enough within one hour she was gone, but before she left in that ensuing hour, we witnessed something amazing. Not only was she fully conscious the whole time, but she even made a point to have her picture taken smiling to be sent to her friends who had served with her with similar dedication. She then verbally relayed a message to accompany the picture: By full dedication to one’s duty and service and by tolerating the concomitant dualities of the world one could, as promised, indeed conquer death. What an example of practicing dying!

 

 

 

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