Watchfulness is the path to immortality and thoughtlessness the path to death. The watchful do not die, but the thoughtless are already like the dead.
When we wake from a dream, we seem to leave a fantasy world and enter staid reality again. But we have merely exchanged one kind of story for another.
We feel we need those beginnings, middles and ends. We build a world in our minds, which is a copy of the real world and deal with that in preference to the original. And we only update it when something goes wrong and our copied version clearly does not fit. We need a landscape made of time to find our way round. Even our memories are constructed and edited all the time. When we go back to look at familiar things many years later, they don’t look the same. We change and adapt all the time, not only physically, but mentally and as we do so we alter all those monuments and memories to make them fit the things that are around us now, and the way we would like to remember things.
Perhaps more importantly, we gloss over the uncertainties in our lives—we skate over things—the story covers up a great deal. The deeps and the heights get written out of the plot, and we scarcely remember them. In the same way our lives are subsumed into the world around us, and what is unknown, unexpected, what we see as outside those simple parameters, those movements of time and familiarity, we try to avoid. The time before birth and after death, those things have no shape that we recognise so we edit them out, until we are forced to confront them. And then how do we do that? We try to make them part of the story. But they don’t fit properly. Death doesn’t fit properly; it’s the end of the story. So how do we deal with it? It just doesn’t go in. We are like children totally absorbed in the story, and when it ends, we do too. Unless we can wake up beforehand and realise that we and the story are not the same.
Kabir put it with grim directness:
If your bonds be not broken whilst living, what hope of deliverance in death?
It is but an empty dream that the soul shall have union with Him because it has passed from the body;
If He is found now, he is found then;
If not, we do but go to dwell in the City of Death.
Everything we do, we try and relate to what has gone before or what is to come, and we seldom see what is not part of the one or the other—the way things really are. We try to tailor the bits together whether or not they fit—they are the map taken as reality rather than as representations. But these beginnings and endings have their origin in the now. Where else could they start? Where else could they end?
So across this transient world, we build a web of likes and dislikes, demands and resistances to anchor our days, to make them subject to our wishes and to armour them against the very fears that these structures and barriers generate.
As we grow older, this net thickens until it becomes a second self, and in the end we believe it to be ourselves. The clouds of glory, of which Wordsworth spoke in the Intimations of Immortality, have given place to the prison house, and we feel trapped and helpless. The timeless moment, which once gave such joy, is submerged in the losses of yesterday and the fears of tomorrow—a tomorrow that is merely an uncertain projection of our past. We cling to the boat that is sinking, instead of learning to let go and swim.
If we look about us, we see the whole world blooming and fading ceaselessly, for this is its nature. Only to us is this unacceptable. Vast industries grow up to prolong life beyond its natural span, and even to make ourselves ‘Immortal’, cryogenically preserved until the dead or half dead can rise again, reconstructed and reprogrammed for a reprise of those very same miseries that aided their collapse. If this is wisdom, it is very short-sighted, as were those who left their loved ones to the tender mercies of a cryogenic company, which then neglected to pay its large electricity bill. The loved ones in question were discovered to be quite beyond either immortality or reconstruction. As the commentator said, ‘You’ve never lived ‘till you’ve died in California.’
Common sense suggests that happiness is quite different to this. Worry, preoccupation and fear are hardly worth living on for. We see everything as Jesus said: ‘Through a glass darkly,’ and not face to face. But we need to see things clearly and without fear to begin to deal with them. Fumbling in the dark because we are afraid to look conjures more demons than it hides, and it achieves nothing. Most of us are like Woody Allen, not minding dying, but not wanting to be there when it happens. And more importantly, as a friend said ‘The fear of dying prevents us living fully,’ because ‘death is part of the constitution of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world.’ Seen like this it is perhaps less frightening, or to be run away from. There is so much confusion and it is hard to make sense of it all. We don’t know where we are going, but think we ought to, despite good advice to the contrary: `Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for itself,’ Jesus said. But we know that beyond a certain point, and however nervous we are, we can’t take the usual comforters with us. The comfortable bank account, the Prozac and the last Hamlet cigar have to be left behind.
But we are afraid, even though we pretend to ourselves that we are not. And we do run from things without finding out what we are running from. Perhaps if we turned towards them and explored them, we might find out what we are really running from, and learn to deal with it, as Montaigne suggested: ‘To know how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.’
We look one way all the time and cannot account for how we came to be where we are; neither can we account for where we will be at the end of the story. We can only conceive of the one story being followed by another, in which we are also the protagonists, as if music ceased forever when the song was ended. ‘God made the senses turn outwards. Man therefore looks outwards, not into himself. But occasionally a daring soul, desiring immortality, has looked back and found himself.’(Katha Upanishad).
The body is itself a story, full of memories, scars of battles mental as well as physical. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. We see this all around us in other people’s lives, and yet many of the memories the body has—posture, hurts and so on—are carried by cells that did not exist at that time. The body we have is only seven years old from a cellular point of view—every cell is replaced every seven years. So the scars are imitations, based on memory. They are simply a remembered copy. Even the cells that record memory are not the same cells that originally held it. Not only are the memories unreliable, but the cells that recorded them have been changed. And as in Chinese whispers, when the message is repeated through many separate persons, so the memory of the cells is repeated from one to another and mistakes in transcription occur. We are torn between mis-rememberings of the past and mis-assumptions about the future and none of these can be relied upon.
We seem to live on a horizontal track where everything recollects what has gone before and suggests what might come in the future. But every point on that horizontal track intersects with the timeless, the vertical, the infinite plane, and that has neither beginning nor end. It’s not a path that you can either enter or leave; it’s simply the background to everything that exists. It’s what Ramana Maharshi was referring to when his disciples begged him not to leave them: ‘Where would I go?’ he said. He was freed from the constraints of linear time, and was the timeless.
We, on the other hand, are so bound up with our bodies, that we automatically assume that we are this thing that appears to move in time, this vehicle with a beginning and an end. We see what is in front of us, we think, but attach to the parts; we cannot see the completeness. And we must remember that death only applies to the part and not the whole. If we see ourselves as a part, then death is the end of us. If we understand that we are the whole, then like Ramana Maharshi, where could we go? We are already the timeless everywhere.
So remind yourself diligently that you are not living in yesterday, or tomorrow, or next year, but now, in this moment, where the intuitive mind functions. It is the gate to a freedom over which death has no dominion, because that which knows, in its pure state, is the deathless, and all that you need to do is remember that, and remember, and remember, as simple as that may be and as hard as that may be.
When sati (awareness) is truly functioning, there is no more entanglement. All these things begin to drop away. All that is left is Vinnanam anidassanam anantam sabbato pabham (consciousness, signless, timeless and everywhere brightly shining). Instead of awareness being absorbed into the usual pursuits and attachments, and burning itself out in them, all those and the world they constitute are absorbed back into that timeless nature. And when this happens, there is neither samsara (the mortal), nor is there paramarta (the absolute). All distinctions cease—life, death, beginning, end—and there is no need to talk about birth and death any more.
‘To be a living being is not the ultimate state. There is something beyond, much more wonderful, which is neither living nor not-living. It is a state of pure awareness, beyond the limitations of space and time. Once the illusion that the body-mind is oneself is abandoned, death loses its terror, it becomes a part of living.’(Nisargadatta)
We live by what seems to be reality and demands our attention. Firstly, the body with its own history; every scar and ache tells a story of its own. But this body which was given us by our parents, has changed so much over even the last ten years, that not a single cell is the same. So is it us or ours? It did not begin as ours, and will not end as ours. And in the middle it is continually becoming something and someone else. So there is no permanence there. How can there be a fear of losing what was not ours in the first place and is constantly dying? That would be a pointless worry indeed. And as for the mind, when we are aware of it at all—that is to say aware of ourselves at all—it is of a mass of ever changing emotions, thoughts, perceptions and fears, with no overriding entity involved. If that stops—which it does in sleep—does someone die? clearly not.
So there is nothing permanent at all, nothing really left to die, just the memory of something that never existed, like the golden age—so vague, romantic and nebulous. How, in fact, could we fear the loss of something that never existed in the first place? We only do so because memory bolts all the bits together and presents them as a ‘Me’. But amidst the teeming, shifting turbulence of the world, nothing stays the same for even a moment, A river flows by; it has apparent life and movement, and takes colour and even shape and form from the banks and the winds that ruffle its surface. And yet is one atom of it the same a few minutes later?
Only that which binds itself to time and permanence knows death. By accepting and understanding that, and letting go of it all, ‘Perhaps a door will open into the unknown,’ said Krishnamurti.
We are so attached to the mortal ‘someone’ in our imagination, that we miss the truly wonderful and immortal. As Ajahn Chah said to the old lady, ‘There’s no one here—no owner, no one to be old, to be young. Just this, that’s all; various elements of nature playing themselves out, all empty. No one born and no one to die. Those who speak of death are speaking the language of ignorant children. In the language of the heart, there’s no such thing.’
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