2018 dawned grey and dull for me. Cold and miserable as all cold, wet, grey winters in the UK are. It was an intense couple of weeks before then and I was on my way back to India after having said a real ‘goodbye’ to a dear, dear friend.
A year where it appears that I am facing death. Not my own, yet, but of people near me. So obviously I need to ‘man up’ and come face to face with my own mortality. A dear friend died of cancer soon after the New Year, another friend was found lying in her bedroom probably having had a stroke, another friend has very severe Alzheimer’s, my father is on his slooooooow way out and suddenly I am facing the inevitability of dying. Death and taxes, as is said, are both inevitable.
We are dying from the moment we are born, so say all ancient scriptures and mystics. But we don’t face it. I only have an intellectual understanding of this concept and have not really considered it or taken it in till now. Until a few years ago. It could be my age – mid fifties – or it could be that I am now ready to understand how life and death are two sides of the same coin. Or that suddenly all around me people that I know and care about are falling like nine-pins.
We all deal with death and dying differently. When we are young, we hardly consider this topic as we still have life stretching ahead of us into the horizon and beyond. And so it should be.
Birth and death are not in our hands. Coming from an Eastern tradition, I am conditioned to believe that death should be allowed to happen on its own, with no outside intervention or interference. But now Dignity in Dying, Dignitas, etc. are quite mainstream in the West. Organisations that believe in euthanasia or believe that we as human beings need, nay deserve, dignity and respect in dying, and that, like birth, the right to die at a time and place of our own choosing should be a fundamental right.
This is not just a medical or a judicial question, but an ethical question too. The Hippocratic oath doctors take means that they must see themselves as life-savers rather than death-enablers.
So consider this following conversation:
My ageing father: Shruti, I am very tired [of life] now.
Me: Yes I can see that. But what can we do? We come with a finite number of breaths (an ancient Hindu teaching) and once that quota is over, we breathe our last.
My father: But I cannot go on. I don’t want to go on.
Me: There is this organisation called Dignitas where we could take you for your final days. You, of course, have to fulfil certain criteria. There is a lot of form filling and ensuring that you are of sound mind. That your nears and dears are not wanting to finish you off for your amassed wealth!
This long discussion was only half in jest, where I explained how we could go to Switzerland and he could, if he so wished, end his life at a time of his choosing. Provided, of course, he was doing it of his own free will and he was still able to take decisions on his own (which he is) – yadda, yadda, yadda.
He seemed interested and asked all the right questions.
Some days later. My father again: Shruti, I have only another month and a half now. That’s it!
Me: Should I make that phone call? (Much laughter)
In India, the land of my birth, death is taken as a matter of course. It could perhaps be because of religion, the sheer number of people or that life is considered cheap. Or perhaps because of the belief in God and the theory of Karma.
Some communities invite professional wailers [Rudaalis] to cry at funerals. Dead bodies are taken to be cremated in a fairly open way, they are not whisked away surreptitiously, almost furtively, for no-one to see until they are mere ashes. It is all out in the open. Being a hot country, the swiftness with which the body is cremated is astounding. If a person dies in the morning, the body is cremated by the afternoon with the entire family, the village and the tribe gathered for the final rites! Death is not the great taboo that we face in the West.
And my spiritual guide, Osho, has also taught me to celebrate death – to take the body away singing and dancing. Yes there will be tears, anguish and other accompanying emotions, but to celebrate all those emotions. To celebrate in spite of those. We humans tend to believe that only the positive can and should be celebrated and the negative should not be. This creates deep divisions. If life and death are considered part of the same unity like night and day, then celebrating death hits that nail squarely on the head.
So while this year I am experiencing death all around me, this is also a wonderful opportunity for me to explore what death and dying means: how to approach it being as receptive and responsive as I possibly can. That is precisely why I decided to have my photograph taken with DEATH in Trafalgar Square recently!
So while some may consider this a morbid topic for a blog, I think it is important to have a conversation about it.
So what are your thoughts on this?
“There is nothing comparable to the death experience in life except deep meditation. So those who know meditation, they know something of death. That’s the only way to know before dying. If I am saying there is nothing more significant experience in life than death, I am saying not because I have died and come back to tell you but because ‘I know’.
In meditation you move into the same space as death. Because in meditation you are no more your physiology, no more your biology, no more your chemistry, no more your psychology. All those are left far away. You come to your innermost centre where there is only pure awareness. That pure awareness will be with you when you die. Because that cannot be taken away. All these things can be taken away which we take away with our hands in meditation.
So meditation is an experience of death in life.”
Relaxing Body Mind Meditation
This article was written in 2018.