LIBERATION AND THE ART OF DYING
Is dying an art? Most if not all people are afraid of death. Yet, there are many ‘death’ moments in life. Little deaths like divorce, loss of business, failing a task or duty etc. If we could open our minds and seek solutions in other cultures (outside the Western), we can find that they have developed a “form” of understanding what it is the meaning of going beyond this life. For this purpose, we can define this form as an Art Form.
In this article or reflection, I examine the various ancient ‘forms’ or beliefs that point the way to the journey of no return back here but a return to THE ONE. That is the place, the wise sages say: It is the place that all Nature is destined to return. Those cultures that have developed the Art Form of dying point this journey as one of joy and pleasure that each individual may find on this path to the Ultimate.
We are familiar about death in the “West” and feel it as a way of non-being and afraid of our eventual end. We feel a great deal of anxiety and try to avoid thinking of death. Even sexual orgasm has been identified as “the little death” in our culture.
However, in India and Tibet, the whole concept of death is quite different. The Indian culture follows the great wisdom of elders or gurus like Ramana Maharshi. He spoke often about the confusion we experience between the Ego or the controlling aspect of our being and the Self that is infinite.
Ramana states that there is nothing beyond Self nor apart from it. Knowing (understanding) this, we will not be afraid nor desire anything. The Self brings contentment and therefore inner peace.
The Self is always REALISED (Aware). We cannot deny our Being as consciousness – the Self. Admitting that we exist as the Self, we are already Realised or Aware.
In gestalt therapy we are taught about the Self – that it is the centre of the transformed heart. We are at the centre of our true Nature and our knowledge is not complete unless we act in the here and now and understand the experience of the here and now.
To define our concept of death as a transformation of Being, we need to examine other cultures and how they interpret this deep idea. We will examine, briefly the Sufi tradition, the Hindu tradition and the Tibetan tradition.
The Sufi masters consider the centre of the Self as located in the heart. They note four ‘layers’ of the heart:
- The first layer is the Breast or the Locus of Action. It is the interaction between our Ego (personality) and our Soul.
- The second layer is the heart proper. It is the centre of deeper knowledge and awareness.
- The third layer is the inner heart that is closely related to the Heart proper. It is the place of deep and sacred knowledge. Here we feel the presence of Soul.
- The fourth layer is the realm of the infinite Soul. It is beyond words, ideas, concepts, theories etc.
We may say that gestalt therapy works with all four layers while working with the Cycle of Awareness.
Hinduism is an Indian religion and dharma, or a way of life, widely practised in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and some practitioners and scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal tradition", or the "eternal way", beyond human history. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions with diverse roots and no founder. This "Hindu synthesis" started to develop between 500 BCE and 300 CE following the Vedic period (1500 BCE to 500 BCE).
Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include (but are not restricted to) Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (the continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action, intent and consequences), Moksha (liberation from samsara or liberation in this life), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).
Purusharthas (objectives of human life) - Classical Hindu thought accepts four proper goals or aims of human life: Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.
- Dharma is considered the foremost goal of a human being in Hinduism. The concept Dharma includes behaviours that are in accord with the order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and "right way of living". Hindu Dharma includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of everyone, as well as behaviours that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous.
Artha (livelihood, wealth)
Artha is objective and virtuous pursuit of wealth for livelihood, obligations and economic prosperity. It is inclusive of political life, diplomacy and material well-being. The Artha concept includes all "means of life", activities and resources that enables one to be in a state one wants to be in, wealth, career and financial security. The proper pursuit of Artha is considered an important aim of human life in Hinduism.
Kāma (sensual pleasure)
Kāma means desire, wish, passion, longing, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love, with or without sexual connotations. In Hinduism, Kama is considered an essential and healthy goal of human life when pursued without sacrificing the other three.
Mokṣa (liberation, freedom from samsara)
Moksha is the ultimate, most important goal in Hinduism. In one sense, Moksha is a concept associated with liberation from sorrow, suffering and saṃsāra (birth-rebirth cycle). A release from this eschatological cycle, in after life, particularly in theistic schools of Hinduism is called Moksha. In other schools of Hinduism, such as monistic, Moksha is a goal achievable in current life, as a state of bliss through self-realization, of comprehending the nature of one's soul, of freedom and of "realizing the whole universe as the Self".
The ancient Tibetan concept of life and death is called the BARDO.
Buddhism existed in Tibet at least from the time of king Thothori Nyantsen (.173-300? CE), especially in the eastern regions. The reign of Songtsen Gampo (ca.617-649/50) saw an expansion of Tibetan power, the adoption of a writing system and promotion of Buddhism.
Bardo is a concept of a transitional state of Ego to Self - in Buddhism three are three Bardos:
The chikhai bardo or "bardo of the moment of death", which features the experience of the "clear light of reality", or at least the nearest approximation of which one is spiritually capable.
The chonyid bardo or "bardo of the experiencing of reality", which features the experience of visions of various Buddha forms, or the nearest approximations of which one is capable.
The sidpa bardo or "bardo of rebirth", which features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth, typically yab-yum imagery of men and women passionately entwined.
In the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State also mentions three other Bardos:
- "Life", or ordinary waking consciousness
- "Dhyana" (meditation)
- "Dream", the dream state during normal sleep.
Together these "six Bardos" form a classification of states of consciousness into six broad types. Any state of consciousness can form a type of "intermediate state", that is, intermediate between other states of consciousness. Indeed, one can consider any momentary state of consciousness a Bardo, since it lies between our past and future existences; it provides us with the opportunity to experience reality, which is always present but obscured by the projections and confusions that are due to our previous unskilful actions.
Used loosely, Bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one's previous unskilful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals, the Bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality; for others, it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth.
Metaphorically, Bardo can describe times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, during a period of illness or during a meditation retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress because external constraints diminish.
Death and Rebirth
The concept of antarabhāva, an intervening state between death and rebirth, was brought into Buddhism from the Vedic-Upanishadic philosophical tradition which later developed into Hinduism.
Historically, Christian mysticism has taught that for Christians, the major emphasis of mysticism concerns is a spiritual transformation of the egoic self, the following of a path designed to produce more fully realized human persons, "created in the Image and Likeness of God" and as such, living in harmonious communion with God, the Church, the rest of world, and all creation, including oneself.
For Christians, this human potential is realized most perfectly in Jesus, precisely because he is both God and human, and is manifested in others through their association with him, whether conscious, as in the case of Christian mystics, or unconscious, about spiritual persons who follow other traditions, such as Gandhi. The Eastern Christian tradition speaks of this transformation in terms of theosis or divinization, perhaps best summed up by an ancient aphorism usually attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria: "God became human so that man might become god."
Going back to Evagrius Ponticus, Christian mystics have been described as pursuing a threefold path of purification, illumination and unification, corresponding to body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma). In 869, the 8th Ecumenical Council reduced the image of the human to only body and soul but within mystics a model of three aspects continued. A short description of the three paths will give us an idea of the support the Christian mystics have in dealing with death issues.
The first, purification is where aspiring traditionally Christian mystics start. This aspect focuses on discipline, particularly in terms of the human body; thus, it emphasizes prayer at certain times, either alone or with others, and in certain postures, often standing or kneeling. It also emphasizes the other disciplines of fasting and alms-giving, the latter including those activities called "the works of mercy," both spiritual and corporal, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.
The second phase, the path of illumination, has to do with the activity of the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind, giving insights into truths not only explicit in scripture and the rest of the Christian tradition, but also those implicit in nature, not in the scientific sense, but rather in terms of an illumination of the "depth" aspects of reality and natural happenings, such that the working of God is perceived in all that one experiences.
The third phase, usually called infused or higher contemplation (or Mystical Contemplative Prayer). In the Western tradition, it refers to the experience of oneself as in some way united with God. The experience of union varies, but it is first and foremost always associated with a reuniting with Divine love, the underlying theme being that God, the perfect goodness is known or experienced at least as much by the heart as by the intellect since, in the words 1 John 4:16: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him."
STAGES OF DEALING WITH DEATH FEARS
In his book of talks, OSHO describes the way existence and life are formed and how we keep taking life as a given and forget the eternal Soul. Here is his quote:
“Existence is given to you. Existence is a gift. Life must be earned. When existence turns upon itself, it becomes life. Existence has been given by the whole, you have not done anything for it. It is simply there, a given fact. When existence becomes life… The moment you start existing in a conscious way, immediately existence becomes life. Existence lived consciously is life. Life is a great challenge, an adventure into the unknown, an adventure into oneself, an adventure into that which is. If you live an unconscious life, if you simply exist, you will always remain afraid of death. Death will always be just somewhere near the corner, hanging around you. Only life goes beyond death.
Existence comes, disappears. It is given to you, taken away. It is a wave in the ocean – arises, falls back, disappears. But life is eternal. Once you have it, you have it forever. Life knows no death. Life is not afraid of death. Once you know what life is, death disappears. If you are still afraid of death, know well you have not known life yet. Death exists only in ignorance – in the ignorance of what life is. One goes on living. One goes on moving from one moment to another, from one action to another, completely unaware what one is doing, why one is doing, why one is drifting from this point to that point.
The body is a flux, like a river – continuously changing, moving. It has nothing of the eternal in it. Each moment the body is changing. In fact, the body is dying every moment. It is not that after seventy years suddenly one day you die. The body dies every day. Death continues for seventy years (or more), it is a process. Death is not an event, it is a long process.
If you are identified with the body, of course the fear will be constantly there that death is approaching. You can live, but you can live only in fear. And what type of life is possible when one’s foundations are constantly shaking, and one is sitting on a volcano and death is possible any moment? Only one thing is certain – that death is coming – and everything else is uncertain. How can one live? How can one celebrate? How can one dance and sing and be? Impossible. Death won’t allow it. Death is too much and too close.
So, there are those who are identified with the body. These are the materialists. They cannot live. Desperately they try, of course, but they cannot live. A materialist only pretends that he is living, he cannot live. His life cannot be very deep; it can only be superficial, shallow – because he is trying to live through the body which is continuously dying. He is living in a house which is on fire.”
Osho. Nirvana: The Last Nightmare: Learning to Trust in Life (p. 163). Osho Media International. Kindle Edition.
Stages in dealing with fear of death
Today most people are living in their body and do not connect with the eternal soul. This creates fear of ending the body and then nothing is left. Pema Chodron has a very good advice, in four stages, about dealing with fear of death. Do this exercise every day:
First Stage – Put yourself in a state of stillness and openness. Sit still and just feel everything. Remember that you are not starting empty, you are currently feeling the emotions that are already in you.
Second Stage – Slowly, be aware of your breath and visualize yourself exhaling dark and heavy energy and inhaling it as white, light and cool energy. Imagine, as you inhale, the feeling of tight spaces and proceed with exhaling while visualizing open spaces. Feel your body open, as if the air gushes out from all the pores on your body.
Third Stage – Feel the ‘energy” materialize as you picture your daily experiences. Breathe in your worries, your pain, or your grief and breathe it out as relief and confidence.
Fourth Stage – Widen your visualization to include the world: all the nations who worry because of war, all beings who experience pain, and the world, which grieves for the loss and destruction that happens to it. It is in this stage where you acknowledge that the suffering of one is the suffering of all.
Pema Chodron: Lessons Learned from Pema Chodron Books
There are many roads to travel in this life and death issue. Many books, theories and teachings have been explaining about “the way”. However, we have not, (as yet), found anyone coming back from that dead place and giving us the real story. So, to end this reflection, I chose the poem of the great mystic and Sufi master, RUMI:
“If you want to learn theory
Talk with theoreticians. That way is oral.
When you learn a craft, practice it.
That learning comes through the hands.
If you want dervishhood (mysticism), spiritual poverty
And emptiness, you must be friends with a teacher.
Talking about it, reading books, and doing practices
Do not help. Soul receives from Soul that knowing.”