Death is all around me….
By Jeanne Heileman, Yoga Teacher Trainer
This is how I’ve been feeling lately. I’m so sorry if I’m sounding like a downer and don’t mean to upset anyone. Weeks ago a dear neighbor, whom I share a wall and a porch, passed away unexpectedly. A former theatre company member, whom I last saw at a dinner party two years ago thriving in her success at beating cancer, lost her battle just last week as it returned with full vengeance. Numerous students who have been working with me closely have lost their parents; we’ve been practicing with sincere intentions of healing and love for each of these departing souls. The family friend who taught me as a baby how to crawl when I started walking too soon, just let go last week. It goes on and on; it feels as if something is in the air.
I returned from India more vulnerable to everything and felt as if Lord Yama, the Lord of Death, was draping his shadow in every direction. I found myself fearful, heavy with sadness for the family of each departed soul I knew, and feeling as if I might be next.
Certainly I was in no shape to be invited to any dinner party, yoga-themed or otherwise. (!) And I knew I needed to figure out what this was all about. So, on Easter I returned to the Kadampa Meditation Center near me, which I attended regularly years ago, for their session entitled Meeting Death with Confidence. I figured that if Death was hovering around me and I allowed myself to feel threatened, then I had better get a better attitude to welcome it. The lovely monk said many things that I already knew and was practicing – What if everything were to end tonight at 10pm? Instead of becoming morose, this perspective can help us see that life is incredibly precious. With this preciousness comes accountability. Until death’s date is specified, and even when it is specified, we could benefit by living our life in a way that cultivates good characteristics.
The Importance Of Practicing Virtue
She and her teacher use the word, “virtue,” which could strike some of us negatively, inferring that one must refrain from “fun” and be prim and limited. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, virtue is defined as, “behavior showing high moral standards; a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person.” (It also includes the reference to chastity, but I’m not going there.) The lovely monk emphasized the importance of practicing virtue – being kind, refraining from reaction to disturbance, honoring our word – you fill in the blanks – as much as possible. We especially need to practice virtue in the face of adversity. By increasing our virtue, then when we meet Death, (and we will, it is a guarantee), we can do so with as much grace as possible. This is super, super HARD. I am trying it and it is really tough to choose to develop better qualities within myself instead of refraining to my negative tendencies.
This discipline to attend to our virtuous/good qualities is the practice of Tapas, what many current yogis refer to as “heat.” The “heat” comes from the focus of discipline towards a direction that makes the yogi so radiant that they shine. The heat comes from the passionate devotion of focus. Our Tapas is not necessarily about how much sweat we accumulated on our mat, nor how many hours we have accumulated on our cushion, nor how much vegan food we consume. It has to do with the choice in the mind to refrain from negativity, especially when fully justified, and build/contribute towards more positivity in the mind. It also includes the practice/choice of humility, receiving all that is granted with graciousness. What we build in the mind ripples into our speech and our actions. This ripples into our destiny and is shared within our community.
For those who have passed and are in the process of passing, she added that our prayers are more powerful than many of the physical actions that we do. If you know someone who is in the shadows of Lord Yama, offer your prayers or vibrations of goodness towards that soul and know that you are helping more than it is possible to see. I have been offering the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra to my students as a tool and in my own “prayers” for the souls recently passing. It is not the only answer. Anything that is sincere from the heart is the accurate answer.
Death Teaches Us So Much About Life
The lovely monk ended by saying that Death teaches us so much about life. Our remaining time in this body/on this planet may be short but it has the potential to be used in an extremely useful way. Life is precious, especially when it feels as if everything is falling apart. We need to pay more attention with what we are doing with our attention and our actions to improve our current vibrations, so that they build for a very beautiful finale. The Buddhists have many teachings on the Art of Living in order to die beautifully, in contrast to our Western perspective of living grand and acquiring everything until we die and “loose” it all. Personally, I choose the former, knowing that mastering the art of living honestly will bring more richness to each present moment, even the uncomfortable ones, which I would not otherwise see.
This new awareness has re-instilled my perspective on my practice, my teaching and how I am trying to conduct myself in my life. If you have any aspect of yoga in your life, keep with it. Use the practice to develop your greatest qualities. This is not selfish, it is Soul-full. And, strangely enough, as I welcomed my heavy darkness and went into it, learning more about this scary aspect of life, I noticed that I began to become a bit lighter. As the Katha Upanishad teaches, when we actually face death, sitting at his door even if he is not there for us yet, and become fully ready to let go of everything we have, we realize that we can face anything. This realization is liberating and strangely enough, increases the heart’s aspect of expansion and acceptance.
May my offerings inspire you to continue cultivating your own wonderful virtues and positive qualities of love and compassion.