The topic of death is a taboo in the modern world. We refrain from bringing it up, and the people that do are considered morbid. The internet likes to call jokes about death and suffering ‘dark humor’.
We want to believe that if we don’t talk about dying, it won’t happen.
We live under the illusion that everyone is going to live to see their grandkids get married, and that dying will be easy when it happens to us. But very few are actually that privileged. Then how has that even become a standard?
In spite of all these notions, with some unpleasant twists of fate, most of us have faced a close encounter with death. Either for ourselves, or for a loved one.
Recently, one of my clients lost her parent, and reached out to me from a place of heartbreak and confusion.
She had been spiritually inclined throughout her adult life, and was a wonderful yoga teacher that had religiously taught the very self-soothing practices that were no longer helping her anymore.
You see, no matter how spiritual we become, we are not enlightened (yet). And as every enlightened master has taught us, the way to lasting peace is only through the acceptance of death.
Not just in the literal and obvious sense, of course. But also in observing the dying of a breath, for instance.
Our breath comes and goes – it has a start point, a lifecycle and an end point. Similarly, being able to observe the dying of simpler life forms like flowers and fishes. Gracefully learning to let relationships die too, when the time comes.
So and so forth, we must keep observing and accept the impermanent nature of everything around us.
We haven’t mastered any of that yet. And unfortunately, it’s not our fault. Because we’ve been raised in a world where talking about death is NOT common.
This post has been sitting as a draft for months for the very same reason, that I don’t think my audience would enjoy reading it. But, as I do for all things, I am stepping out of my comfort zone and shedding some light on these morbid topics which nobody likes to talk about.
Through a series of questions, let’s acknowledge the duality and embrace the confusion.
Why Is It So Tough To Talk About Suffering & Death?
Death is the yang of life. That dark, shadow aspect which we’re unwilling to face.
But, reading, writing and talking about death is crucial for all of us. Because, the underlying emotions which reveal themselves to us during such morbid conversations make us uncomfortable.
Nobody teaches us how to handle crying, or how to deal with anger when it arises, which are emotions that come as a byproduct of any kind of loss. We’ve been taught that these are ‘bad things’ to feel.
In fact, many children are raised with terrifying parenting practices, such as being told not to cry or they’d be beaten up. Or being shamed for crying. In the same way, parents practice grounding or admonishing their kids for expressing anger.
This is why so many people from this generation, and even the ones from before need to learn reparenting and healing these subconscious wounds that come from long periods of locking in their emotions.
You may have noticed how shaken people around you (and maybe yourself too) get for days on end, when they hear news of someone’s demise under “unforeseen circumstances”. For the same reason, so many of us stay away from the news because we don’t want to be that in tune with reality.
We don’t want to deepen our suffering.
When you don’t know how to feel sad, you definitely won’t know what to do when sadness becomes grief.
You step into the unknown, experiencing this volcano of emotions ready to erupt! But because you don’t channel it properly, it leads to all sorts of physical reactions within, like your gut tightening, chest hurting, or even a nervous breakdown.
Overtime, many people build anxiety and chronic stress from the emotions they took on but didn’t release.
It is difficult to talk about these things, because we haven’t been taught how to. Which leads me to the next question.
How do you normalize talking about such grim topics? And with who?
I have two tips for you.
One, is what I mentioned in the onset of this article. You don’t have to emphasize on the actual dying of a person.
You can have conversations around the impermanence of say, a flower bouquet and why gifting it could become an opportunity for the receiver to realize the nature of living and dying.
Similarly, you can talk about how interconnected everything is, how karma works to bring things full circle, for instance.
Second, start with your safety net.
At some point, I discussed the elephant in the room, the “organ donation” conversation with my family and then, with my husband.
With gentle and continuous reflection on this, we have been slowly cultivating the awareness and making it more acceptable to talk about such things. Even if it was unpleasant at first.
Such topics can appear as shock-value at first. So be gentle, but be deliberate. Find ways to have general discussions, instead of making it personal right off the bat.
If you don’t have somebody to talk to, you can always reach out to me.
How Can You Make Sense of Death? Especially Life After Dying?
Where’s the proof? And there are so many conflicting theories out there. Which one do you believe?
There are a couple of takeaways as an answer to this question.
#1 – Spirituality doesn’t always make sense.
That might sound less reassuring.
But it is your call to come forth with the attitude of bhakti yoga, of surrender, and to not come from a place of mistrust.
The ego-mind wants us to believe that we are entitled to the answers. But think of it from a different perspective.
If you read a really complex book for a subject that you have limited knowledge of, would you understand it? Unlikely. It would take a lot of time to get used to the terminology, understand even the smallest inferences and grasp what’s being shared.
How many times have you gone back to a book that you’ve already read and discovered something new? The information was always there, but it only made sense when you were ready for it. In many cases, we may never be fully ready.
And that’s not a limitation that we need to feel bad about – it’s the truth that we need to come to terms with to keep our ego-mind in check.
The fact is, nothing is hidden from us. But sometimes, we are incapable of comprehending the bigger truths of life because we aren’t prepared to understand them yet.
As a consequence, we face frustration, and other strange emotions. However, there is a way to educate ourselves and to tap into this knowledge. I will be sharing a list of resources in the next section, to help you make more sense of the suffering, and death.
#2- Just because we can’t see it or remember it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
The logical mind is limiting – we’ve already established that.
But just look around you. Look at the restaurant you go to, or a movie you watch. You see the end result. You don’t sit with every chef and prepare the meals, or assist the crew in their giant production? And yet, you are able to experience the outcome and reap the rewards.
You are served on a golden platter, metaphorically speaking. But there is a LOT that goes on behind the scenes.
There is no dearth of learning opportunities for us here, on Earth, and every time we learn something new, we surprise ourselves by our own talent and potential.
Then why do we question the existence of spirituality – something that explains the very existence of all things, going on since eternity, towards eternity?
Isn’t it likely that ALL of this is not random, rather carefully scoped and divinely planned?
The spiritual realm is like an iceberg, where we only see the tip (that too, if only we look carefully). Most of the wonder is carefully masked away, accessible only for those that are willing to work towards the sacredness.
How can you begin to work towards this sacredness and experience the deeper truths for yourself? To answer that question, let me take you to the next reflection.
#3- The Truth doesn’t need to be searched for. It is already there within you (and me).
We know when we are not giving our best in life. We can sense when somebody is lying. And we intuitively know many things that we can’t explain why.
Related read: Differentiating between ego and intuition
In the same fashion, the very essence of who we are does not need to be learned from a book. We are not meant to ‘become’ spiritual. We are merely meant to unlearn everything that has gotten in the way of us experiencing our spirituality.
Here are three solid tips to help you find your spiritual truth.
- Practice quietude.
- Talk to the Universe.
- Take a moment, or two, to pause at the wonder of the cosmos and to dwell on its mystical laws.
Just because you haven’t experienced something yet, or because you can’t remember that you signed up for this human experience, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. You need to work to believe in it- not deny it.
And most importantly, do what you can to embrace death.
NOT run away from it.
NOT call it a taboo.
And definitely not let your logic tell you that you’re too young to bother.
That is the only true way we can embrace life and create a distance from this suffering.
Resources To Help You Embrace Life
I have spent the past decade reading through books that emphasize the need to accept suffering and death. Here are the ones that really stood out for me, and how they will help you too.
#1 – Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This is a phenomenal and practical approach to the preparation of dying. Written by a renowned doctor, this book takes you into the deeper truths about suffering and death, teaching you how to look at it as a part of the process of human life, and not as something you should be ignoring.
There is no age at which you need to read this book, but read it you must. It will not only help you live a better thought-of life, but help you treat every life with much more respect and preparedness.
It also talks deeply about building mental strength to support the dying of loved ones, and how we can make it easier for everyone to come to terms with the cycle. Profound, and eye-opening reading material, for sure.
#2 – The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Within the first few chapters, you are understanding the significance of this conversation through stories like a student learning to mourn the loss of his guru, and a daughter shedding her body before her father, leaving him to grieve as he worked towards his own enlightenment.
The book beautifully takes you deeper into accepting death as a part of life, and ways you can detach yourself from the experience, regardless of who it is happening to.
This book is especially meaningful and a guide for those that resonate deeply with the Tibetan beliefs and ways of being.
#3 – Death by Sadhguru
This has to be my favorite book by Sadhguru, because of its metaphysical complexity. He isn’t beating around the bush with this subject, and he isn’t holding back from talking to you about things like the afterlife, karmic debts, restless spirits, reincarnation and so forth.
He also extensively talks about the myths and actual science for funeral ceremonies, and why certain practices can help a dying person to be more at ease.
The truth is, that when you acclimatize yourself to such texts, it becomes easier to look at death, not as a taboo but as a fact. And the more you look at it as such, you are able to come to terms with it without shock.
#4 – Kathopanisad by Swami Chinmayananda
If we went back in time and glimpsed at what ancient scriptures teach us from the Eastern side of the world, we would realize how off-track we have come from the truth. Kathopanisad is a dialogue with death, and a fascinating reflection on the meaning of life.
This is one of the simpler Upanishads, which helps us explore the different metaphysical questions about the soul, afterlife, karma, enlightenment and so on, through a gentle conversation between a young boy, Naciket and the God of Death, Yama.
This is a meaningful text, explaining the fundamentals of a soul’s journey with a story.
#5 – When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
The most recent reads, I enjoyed this book for the modern and no-BS ways in which Pema Chodron brings our shadow self to the Light. I spent weeks reading through her different practices, and some of them have become a part of my weekly silent retreats.
This is an essential book which talks about all kinds of suffering, loss and death from a Buddhist philosophy. While other books are theoretical in many ways, this one gives you the meditations, mindfulness practices and other self-reflection tools to start shifting your whole experience around pain.
#6 – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Latest to my reading recommendations has been this witty yet humbling non-fiction read about the author, Caitlin and her experiences as a mortuary worker. You learn some of the strangest things about dead bodies, allowing you to take a step back and reevaluate many of the superficial things we give importance to when we’re alive.
I find this an important read to also help you understand how death has evolved in our society, and the different customs and rituals around the world that are practiced to say our goodbyes to deceased loved ones.
Some Things to watch and learn from
There are two movies which approach death in a deeply philosophical and spiritual way. Surprisingly, they are made for kids, but they hold just as much relevance for adults.
First, I highly recommend watching the movie Coco, which beautifully animates the way ancestors move onto the afterlife and await their connection with us in the real world. It helps you look at the concepts more visually, and gently. This is a heartwarming movie and will really make death seem more like a journey passing over than a full stop.
And second, I encourage you to watch the movie, Soul. This is a brilliant introspection that occurs as a man falls down a gutter and ends up in “heaven”. There are a lot of interesting theories like reincarnation and soul contracts that are probed with subtlety.
I haven’t fully accepted these things about death and suffering myself, which is why I am sharing more resources to deepen your journey as I go through them myself. One thing is clear though – we need to unlearn many ideas about life and death.
The limiting and restricting ideas are making us delusional, disconnected and causing us to live in denial.
As soon as we start looking at our belief system as our own devil’s advocate, we will heal more rapidly and realize the Truth. By closing our eyes to the truths around us, we are closing ourselves from the ultimate Truth about life.
Happy healing, dear one!
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