Thursday, July 03, 2014

Random thoughts and lots of tea

Photograph from http://www.vintagetouch.co.uk/

On death and letting go
We are never really introduced to a very useful concept of life, and death. The concept of letting go. Letting go of a painful past, sadness, fear, failure and most importantly, letting go of someone you love by choice or no choice, as happened in this case. For most people I know, the importance of letting go and more significantly, 'ways of letting go gracefully' was never broached as a subject worth deliberation at any point, not even while growing up. 

Another concept that often evades active discussion is that of death itself and the associated experience of intense fear and despair in the context of fearing one’s own death or that of a loved one. Generally, people avoid mentioning death in a conversation as it is stereotypically understood as a bit of a ‘mood-spoiler’ when there are other, more positive and fun things to talk about instead. So people don’t prefer to talk about it unless they are forced to by circumstances. This does point towards one thing though: a high level of denial towards death even though it would certainly come, sooner or later. We all know that breath is not a permanent thing. It stops one day for each one of us who is reading this (or not). Our denial or acceptance of it will not change that fact.  

This article touches upon both these concepts in a random way, without trying to tie loose ends or join the dots. The intention is to be able to contemplate constructively. 
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An alternative view regarding physical death, which is not so escapist in nature, is that if we understood final death (of the body) differently, and if we knew how to let go gracefully by not making a great deal out of the ‘going away’ part, as everyone alive is pretty much on the same way out. We existed fine before we checked-in (into the body) and we will be just fine after checking-out. This is something we need to start cultivating trust in. That way, we would probably be more at peace with ourselves and the world, and we wouldn't feel the need to feel extremely bad or ‘unfortunate’ about the experience of loss that death brings along. That physical part of us from where we are feeling this loss is also in a constant process of dissolving you see! With this insight in the background, it is possible to see the final physical death as the other side of the coin of life, not as an experience to be avoided or postponed at any cost, that too in vain!

Once we accept that, we would be more focused on the quality of life we live, the meaning and purpose we give it and ways we can optimize all the good things life has to offer, as long as it lasts.

Acknowledging death
Experiencing death of a family member is a reality we all go through at one point or another in life. I have experienced the same recently and that is what has prompted me to write about it, perhaps for sharing of some of the experiences, a cathartic process by itself. The death I am referring to was most unexpected as everything was fine one day and then, suddenly, out of the blue, there was the diagnosis of an illness at its last stage, pretty much beyond the scope of medical science. Technically, there was a cure and it was even applied in time, but there was no cure to the side-effects of the cure!

Soon enough, the inevitable happened. Friends and relatives queued up at hospital first and then at home to pay their last respects. ‘God is to blame for this,’ someone else tried to explain the occurrence nobody was ready to acknowledge initially, so high was the level of disbelief. Then slowly, reality began to sink in as there was nothing more left to do to change the situation we were all finally heading towards. Overall, for one long month, relentless efforts were made for revival and recovery of the concerned person: the best doctors, the most expensive procedures, but nothing was enough to postpone what cannot be postponed endlessly anyway.  

While modern medicine does provide immediate relief to patients but there is one thing for which it should be squarely critiqued. Allopathic procedures overwhelmingly overlook the quality of life of the person whose time for transition has come, and the doctors know it too. Still, they pierce and cut as often as needed, assuming the patient has no consciousness at any level. They penetrate the patients’ body with tubes, pipes and injections; apply bandages on eyes that probably still want to see, make incisions, draw blood, leave the bones broken (after CPR for instance), utterly imposing themselves over the patient’s probable last-minute felt-need…

Maybe the patient would have wanted solitude, hear a prayer, hold hands of loved ones, or go through transition in a spiritually reassuring environment. Maybe the patient didn't prefer living through the panic and chaos of doctors (and other strangers), which is far from reassuring during his or her last moments. Of course family members make that (expensive) choice on the patient’s behalf. It is not an easy choice for them either: whether to let go now or hope for a miracle of modern medicine, later. In most cases of patients in the ICU, the last-minute aggressive medical interventions get prioritized and they take away from the quality of one of the most important and inevitable experiences of life, i.e. death, making it more painful, fearful, shocking and seemingly out-of-place for everyone involved.

Celebrating life
The alternative way of looking at death, as mentioned before, would mean that a funeral would look more like a celebration of a long life lived instead of mourning of a sudden death (usually the latter happens since we never prepare ourselves or contemplate carefully about the subject). It is all about where we focus our energies now, as in, how we choose to remember the departed person: in joy, celebration, fondness and from a state of gratitude and blessing or in morbid, depressing ways that further break us down.

Humanists, as I found out online, conceptualize funeral as an occasion to talk about the good qualities of the person who moved on while sharing wonderful, comforting memories through narrating anecdotes about that person. It is an occasion for group-healing for people who loved that person. This is quite in contrast to what generally happens in our traditional Hindu family system in cities. 

Every new relative who walks in mourns with passion, some do it loudly, some times giving a dramatic performance of sorrow in front of an 'audience'. The words they say to the bereaved family members may or may not be carefully chosen. So disconnected are such mourners from the person or the occasion, they can even be expected to indulge in gossip or sharing 'good news' at the venue itself, instead of praying or introspecting spiritually. With such people crowding around, funeral then tends to become more of a superficial group-mourning exercise instead of a group-healing one. 

Looking back, looking forward
Many times, after someone close to us moves on, following are the kind of questions that tend to grip us: What if I never get a chance to see those I love again? What if I don’t get a chance to say how much I loved them or simply thank them? What if I get bed-ridden and dependent on a nurse? What if I get a horrible and incurable disease out-of-the-blue? What if I lose my senses and never get to speak? What if I never get to say good-bye? All this forms part of the fear and insecurity that death brings along for the people who get left behind, well, at least for the moment. And then, there are these nagging questions about the new location of the departed soul. Where is the ‘person’ now? Is s/he at peace? Is s/he happy? Will I ever get to meet him/her in any other life? When will that be and so on?

Possessed by fear and insecurity till the depression lasts depending upon how close one was to the person, we tend to put all our energies towards mourning the death of the loved one, missing the person sorely. We cry ourselves to sleep or till our eyes swell, or till our voice becomes from hoarse to silent altogether. We look pale and feel frightened as we are not getting answers that sufficiently explain the event that no one ever wanted to happen or was unprepared to face in the first place. We sometimes feel hollowed out and empty, but still continue looking for ways in which it would hurt less.    

Reflecting a little bit more on what happened, God or medical science, none has ever claimed that human beings are immortal, still we try so hard to escape death. Medical science does try to create a false hope or a temporary relief that death can indeed be endlessly postponed. But we know it can’t be done right?

Approaching this question of life and death in terms of what our own last preferred actions would be like, hypothetically, I think it would all be about expressing as much love and gratitude as possible. Speaking for most of us I know, we were never trained to express love and gratitude to our loved ones right through childhood and adolescence. However, we can learn to do it now as there is no rocket science behind it. All we have to do is simply say ‘I love you mummy or I thank you papa’ and mean it every time we say it. Likewise for all the people we love and respect. The idea is to communicate a good word or feeling the moment it arises instead of piling it on inside. Let the other know. Don’t hesitate or fear looking stupid and unnecessarily emotional. The only stupid and unnecessary part is to let life pass us by without sharing love and gratitude with all the beings around.

While the idea of living in a state of gratitude is completely missing in popular culture, ‘love’ also seems to have acquired a rather superficial connotation as we don’t tend to see beyond the media-driven crassness around it. To make it worse, we make the choice of internalizing it. That certainly is our un-wisdom, if you know what I mean.

It is one thing to get exposed to something and it is quite another to start crafting your own life and actions around the superficiality of it, in this case, the way ‘love’ is narrowed down to generally mean temporary physical gratification and a complete non-expression of a more compassionate and fulfilling version of it. Most of us tend to get caught up with the narrowed down, convenient version of love, at best, the one limited to a partner. We forget to live in a state of gratitude for all the love we have received and continue to receive from so many obvious and un-obvious sources.

The oxygen we breathe, the soothing touch of the grass we walk on, the reassuring sight and fragrance of a bright flower when we are down and out, the comforting shade of a tree (exactly where we want to park our car!), the sing-songs of birds if we stop to listen, the beautiful star-lit night-sky, heart-warming sunshine on a freezing winter day, water drops for thirsty souls during monsoon… All these are gifts from nature that we take for granted. The fact that we have our limbs and five senses intact; the fact that we can see well, touch, smell, taste, hear and utilize our feet and arms fully tends to mean the world to those who cannot.

Coming to the ‘good things’ that happen to us in life without any apparent logic, what we often refer to as ‘luck’ or the ‘by chance’ events? There is nothing ‘by chance’ in life. These so-called lucky occurrences are nothing but materialization of wishes and blessings from people who have loved and blessed us for the good (even not-so good) things we did in the past! That is the reason we should try to check our actions at all times and should continue to generate love and wishes for others since they come back to us multiplied manifold, just like a seed blossoms into a full-grown tree that bears fruit, each containing more seeds that will multiply again. 

In Vipassana meditation courses we often hear the following example: a neem seed will bear a bitter neem tree with more neem seeds of the same kind. A mango seed on the other hand will give rise to sweet mangoes, and thus more mango seeds of the same kind. This should explain something about the quality of seeds we should use our heart to sow.

The truth is that we are blissfully ignorant about our own state of mind most of the time. We are very caught up in the chains of action and reaction with our egoistic self making most decisions for us. In all the confusion and suffering mind creates, we forget to express love and compassion towards all other living beings, pretending that we are separate from everything and everyone. The wise ones have long before said that the opposite is the real truth. According to them, a person who cultivates compassion for all instead of a self-centred ego lives a calm and connected life, as opposed to a confused and a lost one. 

We should try and cultivate compassion towards one and all as a matter of daily routine and not as a temporary ritual that we are made to perform after the death of someone close. For instance, this continuous feeling of gratitude and humility comes when we perform more and more sewa or anonymous selfless service say in a Gurudwara (temple) every weekend to begin with. We should try and volunteer to do as much social work as possible, without expecting anything in return, including recognition. As many would testify, this is a matter of practice, not empty talking. 
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Quality of life
In the words of a spiritual Master, quality of a person’s life can be adequately summed up as “the moments spent joyously giving away whatever you think you possess! The more you give away, the higher is the quality of your life. The higher the quality of life, even better would be the quality of death!”

This idea would sound ridiculous to rationalists as they believe that one lives to work hard and party harder. That one goes to office with the purpose of getting a handsome salary and a superior designation, better than what was offered in the last job. A person aspires for eventual promotion while simultaneously craving and accumulating all kinds of worldly assets like homes, gold, cars, gizmos & gadgets, clothes, shoes, cosmetics… the list is endless. But where does one stop, or 'draw the line'? Well, initially it is wherever the neighbor or relative draws it (!) but later on, consuming more than our needs becomes a habit or another addiction without which we cannot do.

So ‘purchasing’, ‘shopping’, ‘buying’, ‘indulging’, ‘consuming’, 'competing' become keywords that define life choices during present times. Giving away some of whatever  you think ‘you possess forever’, is not something one does unless forced to do so through bills, fines, credit card interest, EMIs and so on. No one wants to give away in his or her right mind. Everyone wants to accumulate more and more, over and above what is needed for leading a dignified life. 

Bravely resisting the temptation of accumulating more and more, if a person slowly and steadily cultivates the ‘art of giving away’ instead, while s/he is still alive (after detaching from the act itself), one ends up receiving a lot of good will and blessings, yes, by default. Such acts of kindness and 'selfless' generosity induce a strange calmness and a deep satisfaction inside, many times beyond the scope of the very limited logical mind.

Try it. 

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