Learning to Die:
Death is not the end of life,
[In the Katha Upanishad] Yama taught Nachiketa that it is necessary to understand death to understand life, and likewise life must be understood in order to understand death. Nachiketa learned that death is not the end of life, but simply a pause in a continuing story. Death is merely a station stop like Grand Central Station in New York City—just a place to get off a particular train and prepare for another.
This is not to diminish the meaning of life or death. How life is led, in other words the train we choose on the way to Grand Central, determines what state of mind we will be in when we arrive and how prepared we will be for the next transition in our journey. We could pick a disorderly, poorly run train, or a neat clean one. We could pick one with all sorts of attractions and distractions, dancing girls and video games, and opportunities for wealth and fame. It would be difficult to leave that train once we were hooked on all the distractions and sensual gratifications. We could alternatively pick a train in which we learned to enjoy the natural sights along the way, so that when it comes time to leave the train at Grand Central, we could do so effortlessly and joyfully.
Nachiketa is an example of someone who picked the right train. He would have no other train than the train of knowledge. Nothing else interested him. Long life, wealth, the opposite gender, and children paled against his desire for the knowledge of Reality and the secrets of life and death. To Nachiketa only those secrets were worth having.
The eternal nature of the Atman who dwells within is the central theme of the Upanishads. This is the secret of the mystery of death, and the key to understanding life: God pervades all, and God is the Atman animating our soul, the life of our life. Atman is everlasting, unchangeable, and therefore not subject to death. Only that which is perishable is subject to death, the perishable is there only to serve as a tool in the discovery of what is imperishable.
It is the body that dies, the garment that provides the covering for the soul on its visit to the worldly plane. The inner Self remains unaffected. It does not and cannot die because it is eternal.
As the Bhagavad Gita states: “He is unmanifest, is not the subject of thought, and is said to be incorruptible; therefore, knowing Him, it does not behoove you to grieve after anyone.”
It is sad to lose what we care about in life. When someone we love dies, it is sad. Grief for that loss is appropriate but that grief should not be prolonged. Excessive mourning is unhealthy. Grief should not consume a person, because loss and death are inevitable. That is why in some cultures and religious systems a time limit is put on grief. For instance, observant Jews follow stages of mourning. After the burial of a loved one, close family members remain in mourning seven days. During this time they do not leave the house except for emergencies and do not shave or cut their hair, or put on new clothes. They are not allowed even to sit on chairs or wear shoes. Their grief is allowed to be concentrated and their mourning focused. A less intense twenty-three-day mourning period follows. For some Jews an eleven-month moderate mourning is observed.
We grieve the deaths of those close to us, and fear our own passing. There is a period for mourning, and a time to let go. This is why cultures around the globe and throughout history have devised customs of letting go, of mourning, and of putting death into perspective. These customs help people to go on with their lives and prepare for their own deaths. Human life is a cycle of coming and going, birth and death. The death of the body is not the end of the soul. The Self is unchangeable. Therefore, grief beyond the limits of its own time is unwise.
If what matters to a person is that which is passing, death looms large and horrible. Death means the end to what was central and meaningful to that person. The pain in that philosophy is profound. If, however, a person learns to let go of what is passing, whether that means letting go of objects or relationships, and seeks only that which is eternal, death is not frightening. It is just a turning, a change of clothing. So grieve, but not for too long. The same advice applies to anything that is lost—a marriage, a job, friends, a home, a dream. Grieve for it, and then move on.
The fear of death and the pain associated with death are intrinsically linked with attachment to the passing world of names and forms. As ironic as it is tragic, people seek objects and relationships in the world in a way to deny death, to comfort the reality that their worldly lives are temporary. The treatment is worse than the ailment. It is just these attachments to objects and relationships and the belief in the need for them that strengthens the fear of death. The changes inherent in objects and relationship make their loss certain. Instead of comforting their owners, these changing, decaying, and dying objects remind people of the death they fear—death of their attachments to their bodies, thoughts, habits, objects, and relationships. These attachments create, recreate and reinforce the fears of recurrent loss and death. They make life miserable and death frightening. The key to freedom from misery and fright lies with undoing the attachments.
All of life’s events try to teach that out of death comes life. In the process there is an urge to know and feel something that cannot die. Jesus taught that “whosoever will save his life shall lose it, but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall save it.” In the next sentence Jesus asked, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Jesus meant that whoever is attached to the wordly life and this earthly body will lose them in death. But whoever lets go of attachments to this worldly life and this earthly body and identifies with the permanence or God-consciousness that Jesus represented, will never die. What good will it do to have all the riches of the world and all the world’s pleasures? They will all disappear in the flash we call a human lifetime. Focusing on the pleasures of the world keeps the mind too distracted to search for the inner Self.
Buddha’s four noble truths state that life is suffering, the suffering has a cause, there is a cessation of suffering, and there is a means to that cessation: a solution. Buddha’ s solution was to live life correctly and to travel through life productively and enjoyably. This path requires dealing with the desires and attachments that are the cause of suffering.
“For him who is wholly free from attachment there is no grief, much less fear. From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear; for him who is wholly free from craving there is no grief, much less fear,” said the Buddha.
Another Buddhist text states: “Through the abandonment of desire the Deathless is realized.”
“Put to death what is earthly in you,” said St. Paul.
Commonly we get the message early in life that happiness is earned by acquiring things and getting something from relationships. Things are lost, relationships change, and pain is the consequence. We have a parade of emotions and thoughts that we identify with, and this brings pain. We think we are our bodies, and when our bodies are sick or they age, or we watch the bodies of others get sick or die, we experience pain.
Pain is an alarm system that indicates that something is not in balance. What is the pain of lost objects, changed relationships, shifting emotions and thoughts, and deteriorating bodies telling us? One possibility is that is simply how life is. We arrive here, strive to obtain whatever we think we need, and suffer pain in the process. End of story. That doesn’t make much sense though. If someone felt pain in his foot, and the pain alerted him to an infection, would the person simply say, “Well, that’s the way it goes—have a foot, get an infection.” The infection would spread through the leg and kill the person. That’s not ration-al. The person would use the pain to identify an issue in his body that needed attention. He would see it as a problem that needed a solution. Life’s pain is telling us that we are perceiving our relationship to things, people, feelings, thoughts, and bodies incorrectly.
We are dependent on those things, people, feelings, and bodies. We identify with them and are attached to them. When they go or change, we feel pain. These attachments, along with ignorance, are the source of the fear of death. The more we are attached, the greater is the fear we have of death. Those without any attachments—those who do not perceive themselves as owning anything in their lives and who know that their bodies are just instruments—they are free from fear.
What does it mean to be attached to or to identify with something? Attachment means we believe we need something for our existence. This is the ego operating. It says, “I am so important and I need to have this car. This car is mine, this car means I am successful, this car helps identify me.” Or, “I need a relationship with this woman. Without her I cannot be happy. If she leaves me I will be forever broken, and life will be meaningless.” People get attached even to the idea of things. For example, in American culture people have been raised with certain images of what life ought to be. They see themselves from the time of childhood growing up to have wonderful marriages, living in white houses with picket fences and flowers, and having devoted children. They see themselves getting bigger houses, second cars, second homes in resort areas, and retiring early. These are the ideas the culture creates, and when these things don’t come about to match their ideas, they are miserable. They feel as if some bad trick has been played on them.
This is identifying with images. You see yourself, your identity, as this person in the white house with flowers and a perfect life. You think that is you. But that is not you. Don’t be attached to these images. Learn to flow with life and all of its ups and downs.
The same tendency works in the lower mind with emotions. We get angry, and we think, “I am angry.” Who is angry? To say “I am angry” is to identify with the emotion, to believe that the emotion is us. We cannot be an emotion. As humans we are capable of having anger and experiencing anger, but we are not anger or any other emotion.
Similarly, we are not our bodies. We have bodies. They are instruments for our use. We say, “I am 6’1“ and blond with blue eyes.” We are not that. Yet this is what we think. When someone criticizes our appearance we feel hurt. When we see our bodies getting older and slowing down, it scares us. Most of us remain in body consciousness and that is why we identify ourselves with the body. When one learns to separate the mortal self from the immortal Self, the faculty of discrimination dawns.
Death does not touch the real Self. That is difficult to believe only because we so strongly identify ourselves with our bodies and the world around us. Just because we are not conscious of something does not mean it doesn’t exist.
Yama says to Nachiketa, “When all desires and passions are removed, when perfect stillness prevails, the mortal becomes immortal.” That is the key. Death cannot mean an end because death has no effect on the Self. The cycle of life and death is not a random, unfortunate reality. It is an instructor. The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu stated:
“Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end. There is existence without limitation, there is continuity without a starting point. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing it, that is the portal of God.”
Life is an ongoing Upanishad that directs a person to search for the eternal and identify with what is permanent, not with that which is impermanent, and thereby overcome death.
According to Vedanta we exist not because of our bodies but because of our very being. The inner self creates the body. During sleep we are not conscious of our bodies, but still we exist. Materialistic thinkers turn it the other way around. They look to the body, declare it is evidence of our being, and assume if there is an inner being, it comes by way of the body. Vedanta says just the reverse. Consciousness makes our body appear to exist.
Death is not something to fear but its function in life should be understood. Accepting death is a reality that will help you to realize that this life here is temporary, that the world is only a platform, that you have come here on a journey to learn and grow, and then the journey ends.
St. Paul referred to life as a slight, momentary affliction that prepares a person for eternal glory. “Everything in human life,” he said, “is for spiritual work.” In somewhat darker imagery, but with a similar message, Chuang Tzu said to “look upon life as a swelling or tumor and upon death as the draining of a sore or the bursting of a boil.”
At the same time remember that God, or the eternal Reality, is within you. Death reminds you not to attach yourself to this world. Learn from the world and let it go. See your body as just an instrument. It serves a purpose and then its work is done.