“Gate gate paragate parasangate bodhi swaha,” we chanted slowly in a December yoga class in New York City. The Heart Sutra. It translates:
‘Gone gone real gone beyond even the most gone, only in going that gone is there awakening.’
The focus of the month was Presence. I remember lying on my mat during shavasana (final relaxation), learning that this was really a practice of dying. Going. Going. Gone.
My teacher shared how:
“Our beloved teacher Swami Nirmalananda often reminded us to ‘Practice dying every day of your life and when the time for your death arrives you will be ready for the great samadhi.’”
Samadhi is the state of bliss that all the other steps of yoga lead to. How can preparing for death lead to bliss, I wondered.
Next thing I knew, I found myself with my mentor. I was worried about my family in India’s expectations for me. I confided how nervous I felt about visiting them. She simply replied,
“What if this were your last time seeing your family?”
The question rang in my mind as I departed New York’s snow-covered John F. Kennedy Airport until I set foot in Ahmedabad.
My days spent teaching yoga in Ahmedabad’s slums began before the break of dawn and ended as the sun set majestically, indicating the natural conclusion of another day going. Going. Gone.
I practiced my prostrations to the sun at sunrise. Moving through the dynamic series of movements matched the marvelous hope I experienced teaching yoga to the poorest children, who always made the most of everything. As I moved into standing poses, there was a sense of stability.
The sequence involved slowly moving to the floor, similar to the way old age sets in: gradually, and yet far more quickly than we ever imagine it would.
Finally, time for shavasana. I practiced with the conscious intention of preparing for death. Going. Going. Gone.
After serving many people at the beginning of their life cycle, it was time to meet my family. “What if it’s the last time?” I remembered.
I went with Baa (my maternal grandmother) to visit my paternal grandparents as the sun rose one day. Many elderly relatives greeted us, in what felt like a procession of people soon approaching the end of this life cycle.
Though his illness was apparent, when my Dada (grandfather, recently diagnosed with cancer) greeted me, the joy that overcame him upon seeing me was so beautiful it nearly brought me to tears.
Then, one particular Phabaa (in her late 90s), who I oft met growing up, arrived in an ambulance. I was sure it would be the last time I would be graced with her presence.
All my preparation for facing death paid off as I slowly, carefully stepped inside the ambulance. I prostrated on my knees, with my great-grandmother’s hands in mine. As I looked into her eyes, a brilliant radiance reflected back a deep inner peace. I realized that even though while viewing her beautiful face, I was seeing death, I understood, finally, that I was also looking into the eyes of life.
I made a silent prayer of gratitude, thanking her for this lesson. I understood how we are all, in fact, always in a state of going. Going. Gone.
Upon re-entering the house, I sat with my Khaka (uncle), Khaki (aunt), Baas, Dada and my Dada’s Khakas and Khakis. There we were: four generations of family, simply eating and enjoying each other’s presence. Cultivating the constant recognition that it could be the last time we’d share a meal made me enjoy every morsel.
I was even able to laugh off the dreaded question about whether my relatives could marry me off in India. “I’m only 21,” I laughed. “I know by the time you were 21, you had been married with children, but these days we’re waiting a little longer…”
I was surprised how little their pestering bothered me. How I cherished instead the laughter we shared!
The energy calmed and we all laid down. We had arrived, talked, tired, and as it is with life, soon started going. Going. Gone.
I was eager to meet one remaining relative as we drove away in the setting sun before the dawn of my departure. Vinodmasa’s wife and son both died many years ago. To him, they are eternally present. Vinodmasa never remarried, or even considered it. Every time he eats, he first offers food before the bright images of his deceased loved ones. Every time someone takes a photo of him, he brings out images of his wife and son.
A spiritual role model, Apurv (Vinodmasa’s son who died at 17) had shared how intense his headaches were from brain cancer. Even so, he taught me how important it is to look beyond our own suffering to see how we can serve others. Until his last days, Apurv himself served the poor and fed the hungry.
His mother, Tarumasi, was a doctor: an amazing achievement unto itself, but she did not stop there. Tarumasi provided medical services to local poor from her home clinic.
Sitting there, I was inspired to ask Vinodmasa to sing Apurv’s favorite song. Vinodmasa (missing teeth in his old age) responded to my request in such a beautiful way I started crying halfway through the song, understanding now its deeper meaning.
The song describes how life is like a ferris wheel. Sometimes we are full of bliss. At others, we feel great sorrow, which Vinodmasa likened to losing his wife and son.
“Both joy and sorrow play an important role in life,” he imparted. “We must live with equanimity, knowing that even in the darkest depths of despair, joy is certain to come, just as the sun rises after the darkest night. Be like the poor child who gives all he has (just two cents) for one ride on the ferris wheel, never knowing what will come tomorrow. Face the circumstances of your life bravely, and leave everything to almighty God.”
A beautiful passage called “Meditation: Sitting in the Seat of the Soul” describes how in Sanskrit, the center of a wheel is called sukha. Sukha also means happiness. A happy axle runs smoothly at the center of the wheel. One must stop identifying with the endless ups and downs of life to reside in this sukha, the good center, where nothing changes and everything is real.
“The source of all that moves is that which is unmoving.”
To dwell in the sukha is to dwell in the eternal happiness of one’s own soul.
To listen to Vinodmasa sing the song was to be reminded of so many beautiful spiritual lessons I first learned from Apurv and Tarumasi, in the way they lived their lives. He sang with such love. I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this, Vinodmasa’s devotion to his wife and son and his great faith in God. I am forever grateful for his inspiration, the joy he sings with, and for, in a matter of such little time, sharing so much of himself.
Far from being depressing, my meditation on death opened my heart and awakened me to the preciousness and beauty of life – here and now.