I’ve been thinking about death a lot this month. Not in a morose way (no one likes a sad-faced yogi!) but in an uplifting sort of way. What might it mean to look upon death in an uplifting way? And what in the world does death have to do with the practice of yoga?
For Catholics like myself, this is Holy Week, the most sacred time of the liturgical year. As Lent comes to a close, we prepare ourselves for Easter by drawing inward to reflect on the lives we are presently living but also by stepping outside of ourselves to serve those who are most in need. It is a very meaningful and beautiful time of the year for many of us. Of course, Holy Week is also a somewhat dark time—quite literally—in the Church, a time when we reflect on the death of Christ, what it meant then and what it means for us today.
As many of you know, the Focus of the Month is Sickness, Disease, and Death. “What a downer!” many of us have said to ourselves (or, if you’re me, out loud!), as we have struggled to deepen our understanding of how these unpleasant aspects of human life relate to our practice of yoga. One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a Jivamukti teacher is getting the opportunity to thoughtfully engage my holy teachers’ ideas in the focus of the month on a deep philosophical level, as I absorb and then interpret and transmit their teachings in my own classes. But this month has been, in a word, hard. It is hard to think and talk about sickness and death. It is harder still to do so in a way that makes clear why we should look upon these things with a loving eye and an open heart. Isn’t it in our very nature to recoil from our own end? Well, I guess it’s no surprise that with only two days left in the month, I am finally putting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—on the focus of the month.
My dear friend Nicole wrote earlier this month about yoga and faith. I’d like to continue that conversation here and begin to organize some thoughts on Easter, death, and yoga around faith. In her blog post, Nicole tells us that over time her yoga practice has helped her to trust that the universe really is, as she says, unfolding exactly as it should. She may not always know what is coming, but she knows that if she keeps doing her sadhana, as Patthabi Jois used to say, “all will come.” All that is meant to be will become manifest in her life, and that is something that gives Nicole peace, something to believe in when there is darkness.
The Church enters a kind of mourning during Holy Week, as we are called to reflect on the death of Christ, his entombment, and his resurrection. Things literally become quiet and dark—the sanctuary unadorned, the altar bare, no bells tolling or instruments playing. This darkness is meant to be both a reminder of suffering, as well as a glimpse at how dark our lives might be without Faith. Yet, as we participate in the liturgy on Good Friday, pray for the world, venerate the cross, and partake in Communion, we don’t despair, because we know how the story ends. We know that this is but a moment (a very important one!) in a much larger story, one that is still being told, and we can rest easy in the knowledge that through sorrow, and even death, new life comes.
Of course, faith in the holiness of Christ is not exactly the same sort of faith that Nicole wrote about. But there are at least three ways in which the Church’s contemplation of death at Easter time is related to some of yoga’s most important teachings on death.
First, it is called Good Friday for a reason! It’s true that many scholars and even the catechism suggest that the word “good” is perhaps better understood as holy. But it is also appropriate to understand the word just as it is. Why? Because this death reveals something very beautiful about the depth and nature of love itself. Christians understand this moment as the one in which they come to truly know that they are loved by Christ. And, even better, they take this as their starting point for living a life of love directed toward others. Now, many yogis are non-believers, and that’s fine. But we all know that many spiritual teachers have stressed the practice of devotion—of faith in a particular deity—because it is said to be the easiest path to enlightenment, or God-realization (Yoga Sutra, 1.23). What is so beautiful about this path is that, contrary to the belief of many and overmuch talk of non-attachment, we actually don’t have to suppress our emotions and desires, we must only strive to intensify them and direct them toward something higher. Father James Martin writes that desire in the human heart is the desire to love and be loved, and it is just one way that God (or the Divine, if you prefer) reveals himself to us. Human love, as we all know, is somewhat imperfect, but it is still a reflection of and a striving for something like, “the real thing.” The Upanishads teach us this:
“It is not for the sake of the wife that the wife is dear, but for the sake of the Self. It is not for the sake of the husband that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the Self. It is not for the sake of the children that the children are dear, but for the sake of the Self….It is not for the safe of the itself that anything whatever is esteemed, but for the sake of the Self.” (Katha Upanishad)
If we want to find fulfillment in the desire for love, we might start by turning our love towards something higher, towards Love itself. Now Swami Prabhavananda assures us that we would be erring to think that human love is a sad second best. Rather, he reminds us that it is in and through human love that the virtues of compassion and unselfishness are cultivated, and experiences which are necessary for spiritual unfolding are acquired. “Human affection need not be forcibly renounced; it becomes spiritualized when it is given unselfishly, without possessiveness or bargaining for return,” (76). This kind of unconditional love is surely at the heart of Easter, too.
Here is another central teaching of yoga: you are the great I Am. You are not your body and you are not your mind. When the body falls away, the spirit endures. Yoga teachers are always reminding their students of this, so that they can put some distance between themselves and utkatasana (!), but also so that they might come to move through any suffering in their lives with the deep knowledge that they are more than whatever unpleasantness they might be experiencing. Indeed, faith in this fact of existence has brought much comfort and peace to those who have ever struggled with sickness, disease, or death. And who among us has not? This central tenet of yoga philosophy is embedded in Easter, too, for we learn that death actually conquers all and does not merely mark the end of something, though it does this too, but is rather the beginning of renewed life.
Finally, Easter is a time in the Church of a tremendous deepening of faith. We come to the Cross with all of our burdens and sorrows and we give them over and then turn around and go back out into the world to the live the lives we are called to live—lives dedicated to serving and loving others. (Note: I said we are supposed to do this, not that we always manage to do so!) This brings me to the final way in which Easter is not unlike yoga’s teachings on death. Sickness, disease and death can be some of our greatest teachers, the times in our lives when we discern things about ourselves that we didn’t know or had forgotten. We learn to move through sorrow with grace and faith, faith that life truly does go on. Yesterday I had a conversation in my office with a dear woman who has recently lost her daughter. It has been a long struggle, years of battling cancer. When I asked her how she was doing, she looked at me with eyes that are still so sad and said, “You know, Hollie, the thing about life is, it just goes on.” And though there was, of course, a tone of resignation in her voice, she absolutely has hope. She has faith, that all is unfolding as it should, and though she may not know why, she takes comfort in knowing that life itself continues and the deep love she has for her daughter only grows with each passing day. Tragedy can be our greatest teacher, and indeed this is the message of the Guru Mantra: Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara, Guru sakshat, param Brahma, tasmai shri guravay namah. My Jivamukti teachers offer the following translation of this mantra: Our creation is that guru (Brahma-the force of creation); the duration of our lives is that guru (Vishnu-the force of preservation); our trials, tribulations, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru (devo Maheshwara-the force of destruction or transformation). There is a guru nearby (Guru Sakshat) and a guru that is beyond the beyond (param Brahma). I make my offering (tasmai) to the beautiful (shri) remover of my darkness, my ignorance; (Guru) it is to you I bow and lay down my life (namah).
This is a joyful time, a time when we all, regardless of our faith, beliefs, or sadhana, should “live as children of the light, performing actions good, just, and true.” (Ephesians 5: 1-9)
Happy Easter, everyone.
Prabhavananda, Swami. The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta, Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1963.