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One might wonder why a unit on Death is included in what is essentially the beginning of a series of guidebooks. Or why the first chakra would contain both birth and death. There are several reasons. First of all, death isn't the end of anything although our culture has taught us to fear it as the potential or possible end of all existence. It is more likely to be a gate into another form or something that serves transformation. In this case, it is like a birth. It's a beginning of a new phase of life, a rebirth. Most eastern philosophies teach the doctrine of reincarnation. If it is true that our souls reincarnate through many lives, then death is, in fact, a transition. Incidently, it seems to not be true that there is a judgment after death. Another reason why death is in the first chakra is that it is one side of a very important energy polarity: life and death. And we have seen that polarities do not exist in the ultimate reality. So death and life must be part of a seamless whole. Yet another reason is that, as we begin the journey home, we experience the death of life as we have known it, and further along, death of the ego in the sense of its surrender to the Higher Self.
Typically death is felt to be an ending. Someone you loves dies or a romance is over. This is death in the sense of loss. The body or form drops away, and that one who was such an important part of your life is gone. Or the relationship that was so fulfilling is no longer present in its old form. In fact, it may have been replaced by something ugly or angry. Another way of thinking about death is as a way to make way for the new. Once Chidvalasananda was asked why there has to be so much destructiveness on earth, and she replied, "To make way for the new."
Bartholomew once told a story about death (workshop, Montrose, CO, January 14-5, 1995). It seems that, at one time on earth, life was very sweet, and so more and more souls came to be born in order to enjoy it. And the parents enjoyed their sexuality and procreation. But soon there were too many people for the earth to support, so a decision had to be made. Should they not allow any more newcomers, or should those who had enjoyed the earth already die and make room for more? The decision was made to die in order to allow those on earth the pleasures of procreation.
Another way to think about death is as a gateway into another reality and another form. For those who believe in the immortality of the soul or individuality, this idea feels comfortable. For those who do not, there is no hope for continued existence which may lead to fear. Plato once said that if we existed before we were born and were not afraid, there is no reason to fear death since we return to where we have come from which was not a fearful realm. Perhaps some fear of death is learned because of association with the concept of hell. Another likely explanation is fear of loss of self or individuality. It is true that ego doesn't go.
The concept of reincarnation is a comforting one since it validates the survival of some part of ourselves, our individuality. The Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead (Fremantle & Trungpa, 1975) and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Rinpoche, 1992) both outline the stages of dying and tell what to expect in the transition and also when we are no longer in a body. You will have an opportunity to explore this further in a later chakra. The general idea is that the body is only a temporary dwelling and, when it is no longer useful or when we have completed the task we were born to do, it is sloughed off. So we are talking about transcending the body.
Death may also be seen as renunciation: the death of desires and/or the death of expectations of rewards or approval of others. Taken to its logical end, this idea would also include death of the ego, its self-will, selfishness, continual wanting and need for separation.
One of the major tasks that Yoga and Buddhism ask us to do is to let go. Some folks say, "Let go and let God." This is extremely difficult to do for Americans who are raised to be independent and self-sufficient. "I can do it myself," can be heard early on from toddlers who are in the midst of learning to be competent. So it is no wonder, after a lifetime of doing it ourselves, that we find it hard to trust the Divine One enough to see how It might be able to solve our problems.
However, you may find that a solution that is allowed to come through you is much more desirable than one your ego tries to create. This is a lesson I seem to have to learn over and over. Since I am the only person here, I sometimes panic and worry about where help for maintenance and repairs will come from. What happens is that whenever I try to do it myself, Spirit lets me. When I finally give up in despair, help is immediately forthcoming. For example, once an arborist came here to live for several months just when the cottonwood trees needed pruning.
What all this amounts to is giving up control - a mini death for ego - or for some of us a major death if control has been a large factor in our defense mechanisms.
An even greater renunciation involves letting go of our attachments to people, especially friends and family members. This is not to say that we don't have them and interact with and love them, but rather that we are able to let them go. This means the death of control again and manipulation as well. It means gracefully releasing them if they need to grow, change or move away. We wish them well and say goodbye.
Another form of renunciation that is expecially difficult is surrendering the need for others' approval. So much of what we do is tailored to feedback from others that reassure us we are loved and respected. But, to the extent that our actions are motivated by the need for approval, we are not free. Only the Divine One is capable of unconditional love. It is curious that this very One makes no demands of us but rather supports our journey Home with infinite wisdom, patience and compassion for our suffering and efforts toward liberation.
We also must give up expectations of reward or punishments for things we do or say. If it is true that we are embodied forms of the Divine One, the only will to be manifested is Its Will. To accomplish this, ego's will must be surrendered. This is called ego death because it may feel like annihilation to the ego to give up having its own way and trying to control what happens to it.
Letting go allows us to sail on the river of life back to the sea from which we sprang - the Ground of all Being. However, this is not to say that we become spineless or wishy-washy. Far from it. It requires courage, Spiritual Will and perseverance to do Divine Work and to travel Home. Since we are pilgrims of the stars, we can draw on the infinite store of Love for our motive power.
Exercise: Renunciation and Letting Go
1. Think about your life and how you hold on to or try to control people and events around you. What do you need to release or let go of? How will you approach the issue of renunciation in your life? What, specifically, will you commit to letting go of? Outline a brief series of steps you will take and a tentative timetable of practice. Write a paper presenting your ideas.
"..what is to be abandoned is not a certain lifestyle... but the sense of the self as being distinct and different from everything else. To be like a child acting spontanteously" (Venkatesananda, 1983, p. 73).
2. Read Chapter 5 in End of Sorrow. Why does Krishna say that selfless action is better than renunciation of action? Do you agree? What is it that the Sannyasi renounces when s/he becomes a monk? How would you know that you are successful in detaching yourself from your ego? What is spiritual wisdom and how is it discriminated from intellectual knowledge? What is the "miracle of meditation?" What is the only barrier to the Lord and what does Easwaran recommend as the way to surmount it?
Easwaran says, "When there is a selfless woman at home, the men come home with eagerness." Do you agree with this? If so, why? If not, why not? How would the situation differ if it were a selfless man? Or would it not differ? What effect do you think that establishing a habit of going to sleep with the mantram on your lips would have on dying? Why is meditation called "the bridge from the human to the divine?" What does Krishna mean by "sin?"
"The Gita doesn't say not to go after pleasure; it says that when you go after pleasure, you are also going after pain." What does this mean? Is it true in your experience? Both Christianity and the Gita tell us to live for others in order to find the kingdom of heaven within. How does this work? What is the supreme goal of life and the truth of the Gita? How is it attained through meditation? What does the law of karma say? Where in the body is the center of Christ-consciousness?
Make some notes in
Easwaran, Eknath. The end of sorrow: The Bhagavad Gita for daily living, Vol. 1. Petaluma, CA: 1981.
Fremantle, F. & Trungpa, C. The Tibetan book of the dead: The great liberation through hearing in the Bardo. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1975.
Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan book of living and dying. San Francisco, CA: Harper. 1992.
Christ, Krishna and you. San Francisco, CA: Vedanta; or NY: Ramakrishna,
Unit 11. Wholeness and Healing begins to bring the
work of the first chakra to a close. It seems fitting to examine some healing
practices since we have seen so much that has gone wrong in our beginnings.
We will look at healing attitudes, psychotherapy, contentment, cleansing
and purification, and how to select a teacher. We will also revisit rebirth.