Death. The elephant in the room.
I'm interested in death. What happens to us when we die? What's it going to feel like to die? How am I going to feel when I'm older, like (God willing) 70 or 80 and I am face to face with the reality that not only AM I going to die, it is going to happen SOONER rather than later? I remember being maybe 11, thinking about how I was going to die, that even if I was reincarnated I would never come back as the exact same me, and crying. I don't cry anymore, but I think about it.
I don't think my interest in death is odd, but when I try to talk about it in my yoga classes, things always get sort of, um, uncomfortable. To me, death is a topic that says, "Pay attention. This is serious." and when people talk about death I get focussed. Maybe not animated, but my ears prick up for sure, because I do believe that profound lessons may be gained from contemplation and experience of death. When I use death or darker themes in yoga class, I'm never sure if my students are pricking up their ears or thinking, "Darkness again--what a drag!", or "Jeez, can't she do a class on lila?" I wish I were more into teaching about lila and shri, but I'm not. As meditation teacher Paul Muller-Ortega says, "we've all walked in darkness", and that's what I tend to think about and teach about.
So now it's April. Easter. The Resurrection! What does a person seriously interested in contemplating darkness contemplate in the season of Triumphant Uprising? The roots.
My thoughts go a little something like this:
"Green buds on all the trees. Look at those flowering shrubs! New Jersey looks best in the springtime. Everyone looks good under a magnolia tree. Gee, where does all the beautiful abundance come from? From the earth! What's in the earth? Well, soil. What's soil made of? Well, minerals, and rocks, and, um, dirt, I guess. Yeah, but soil feels ALIVE. What's in it that makes it so potent? Well, THE BONES OF OUR ANCESTORS! And the ancestors of all the other plants and critters who have walked the earth before us!"
The potency of the soil is actually the terrible, overwhelming potency of death; the potency of death to create new life. I find this line of thinking delightful, reassuring, and interesting. Here's part of why: because I know intellectually, and perhaps now after many years of yoga and study, kinetically, that life always rises anew. Not in the same form; as my colleague and friend Christina Sell says, "we can be sure if we are walking a path that invokes Consciousness, we are not going to stay the same." This is what is scary. Maybe we're still around, but we sure as hell aren't the same. And change is scary enough when it involves technology, or the passing of time, or the change of administration, or moving, or transitions of life; it is even scarier when it involves THE BIG transition, from a human perspective. (One of the Big Two: 1. Enter Stage Left, and 2. Exit Stage Right.)
Recently I was describing the five acts of Shiva to my students. For brevity's sake, I'll stick to three of them: creation, maintenance, and destruction. I recently learned that "creation" and "destruction" do not quite give the right flavor of the words in their original Sanskrit. The word that often gets translated as "creation", shrishti, is more accurately translated as "letting go" or "casting out". The word "emanation" is also probably closer. The actual root of shrishti is "srj", to let go, to pour forth, to cast out, and I can't help noticing that if i were to pronounce "srj" it would sound a lot like "surge".
Similarly, the word for "destruction", samhara, is better translated as "withdrawal", or "reabsorbtion". Nothing gets destroyed--it is withdrawn. The mental picture I get is of a very talented yo-yoer. Have you ever seen a really talented yo-yo artist? I can't think of what else to call them (yoyotheletes? yoyokers? yoyartists? whatever.)
Shiva sends the yoyo out: shrishti. He pulls it back: samhara. He's not only a yogi, not only the erotic ascetic, not only the trickster and the gambler and the dancer, he's the yoyo master. Good times!
Things pulsate, right? We take that as a fundamental premise of yoga. Things pulsate between up and down, in and out, birth and death. In the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche points out that the only thing we really have is NOW. Because in the next second, whatever was NOW is gone, is different. Our human idea of temporality is a human idea, it is an idea that creates our reality. Time is a creation of Shiva; his essential nature is eternal, but he creates, he emanates space and time and all of us who occupy it. We spend a lot of time mulling over the past and rushing toward the future. This focus on past and future creates anxiety. When you're truly in the moment, you're not worried about the past or the future.
Let's turn to another great sage: the Dog Whisperer. Cesar Millan is a man of many insights into the nature of reality. It just goes to show that if you penetrate anything deeply enough, you end up a yogi. Cesar recently had a rescue dog on his show named Howie. Howie's original owner had put a cord around his neck when he was a puppy and had not removed the cord as he grew. By the time Howie arrived at the Animal Hospital, he had a two-inch gash all around his neck where the cord has eaten away his flesh.
The lovely ladies who ran the animal hospital told Cesar that Howie was a real sweetie, but that he had a loud bark and tended to use it around strangers. He was also obviously a skittish dog. Cesar asked the ladies about Howie's behavior on walks and they said they were afraid to walk him for fear that his bark would get him into trouble. Cesar explained that even though Howie had been scarred by his past, he was capable of enjoying a walk in the present! Cesar got a leash on him, walked him in the park, and Howie immedately perked up and had a wonderful time. Animals are better than humans at living in the moment, so they don't suffer from existential angst about the inevitability of death.
Joseph Campbell relates a fantastic story of an Indian sage sitting by a river. As he watches the water, a beautiful pregnant woman emerges and steps onto the bank. Time seems to speed up, and he watches her deliver her child on the bank, put it to her bosom, and begin to nurse it. Suddenly her face grows horrible and congested, she sprouts fangs, and she devours her baby. Whoa!
I think the story is saying that life and death are entwined, that fertility is the ground of decay is the ground of fertility, that nature is red in tooth and claw. Red equals blood equals violence, but red equals blood equals LIFE. One of Shiva's earliest names is Rudra, the Howler. According to Professor Douglas Brooks, there's actually a very dim, far-off linguistic association between our word "red" and the name Rudra. The deity known as Rudra, the Howler, the Ruddy One, the Ferocious One, came to be known as Shiva, whose very name means "auspicious", "benevolent", "kind", "blissful".
All of which is to say: this Universe is Loving beyond all dualities of love/hate, Good beyond all dualities of good/bad, and Alive beyond all dualities of life/death. Death is coming, and the more we get comfortable with it, the more adept we get at savoring Life's juiciness in every moment.