It’s a heavy subject and one most Americans don’t feel comfortable contemplating.
And yet, it’s the only ultimate truth in the world. And one we have very little control over.
So it’s funny that we spend most of our lives trying to control everything around us.
For peace. For happiness. For health. These are the reasons we often cite for why we do what we do. Why we believe what we believe.
I’ve often thought about why, really why, I make so many of the life choices I do. Why do I choose to eat healthy foods or not. Why do I choose to pursue a yogic lifestyle? Why? For a long time, it was so that I could live a long, happy life, but then I had to ask myself if I ultimately was trying to prolong my life. Is my goal to live as long as I can? Or is my goal to live?
The body and the soul
In yogic philosophy, there is the idea of reincarnation. That the body and the soul are separate entities; at death, the soul leaves the body to find its next home and its next adventure. The body, as matter, dissolves to be recycled into the Earth. The soul, as spirit, also indestructible, continues on to give life to a new form.
Yogis developed the practice of yoga to achieve immortality of the soul, not the body. The cycle of the life of the soul is such that our spirit will continue to return until we transcend the cycle itself. This is enlightenment. Enlightenment can take many lifetimes. The world inherently offers suffering. To break the chain of suffering, we must break the chain of the soul returning. Ultimately the soul dissolves into everything, becomes omnipresent. It does not take physical form again. Instead it permeates all beings.
How to live a long life
Knowing this, I come back to the argument about the goal of prolonging life. I had this conversation with some of my fellow teacher trainees in a recent advanced teacher training program in which I am currently enrolled.
We debated about the fact that the oldest people in the world often give contradictory advice about the secrets to a long life. I remember clearly a newspaper article I read once in which one woman cited bacon as the reason she had lived 100+ years. For someone who does not believe that bacon is the most healthy food choice on the planet, this was understandably disappointing.
It brings up a point of difference that I think is worth mentioning though. We spend so much time in our lives trying to control external factors and much less time working on our mind and our mindset, something that we do in fact have complete control over.
The newspapers are looking for the “Bacon leads to long life” headlines and are much less likely to report on how keeping a positive outlook and being adaptable to change will help you live longer. Those traits seem to be frustratingly pulled straight out of a folktale that we’ve been hearing since elementary school.
The secrets of life are simple and plain and yet so hard to achieve in a world that pulls us outside of ourselves almost constantly.
Will you live longer if you go inside? Maybe not. We can’t really say. But you may find more peace of mind then if you worry about chasing external distractions.
Yoga and tantra on life and death
In classical yoga philosophy, the soul is separate from the body. The soul is individualistic even as it is part of the whole universe. In Tantric philosophy, an offshoot of yoga philosophy, the soul and the universe are one. We are all one. Thus, death is just as much a part of life as life is a part of death. As one of my mentor’s likes to say, same same.
In life all we can do is live and work on discovering and knowing our soul and our spirit. In death, all the living can do is celebrate the soul. The soul itself will be reborn, take form once again, and live on.
I was so struck watching the Walking Dead this past week. I know, it seems like we just went from something incredibly philosophical and academic right into something extremely inconsequential and external in a popular television show, but as human beings we live in this world and so the best we can do is embrace it all.
Glen says something really profound and inspirational to Enid. Enid is struggling to find meaning in her life as the world appears to be more and more hopeless. Glen pleads that Enid connect with everything that was meaningful to her in her life before it changed. He reminds her that the spirit of her parents are alive in her because she is alive. That she carries their spirit with her as long as she stays alive and that is why it’s worth fighting for a better world. To honor those she loves. To prolong their spirit and carry their soul with her.
Everyone’s soul always remains a part of us if we believe that we are all connected and that we are all one. We carry the spirit of everyone and that is why we live. To honor life. To set an example for those around us to honor life so that when our souls leave our bodies, we will be carried on too.
My own personal experience with celebrating the soul
Yesterday morning, I woke up to a text message from my mother-in-law letting me and my husband know that my husband’s grandfather had just passed away.
It was expected and unexpected at the same time. A perfect representation of the paradox of yoga.
His death was as peaceful as it could be. He was surrounded by family.
My husband and I got a on a plane to be with our family and got the chance to be with his grandfather and say goodbye one more time. Say goodbye to the physical representation of a spirit that lives so fully within all of us. The words we shared as a family in remembrance of his life were special and precious.
He didn’t want a funeral. We celebrated his life privately as a family and it was perfect. My mother-in-law insisted that we not wear black, so I showed up in purple and pink, his son showed up in a Hawaiian shirt, and many other family members wore blues and greens.
The only other death of someone close to me that I remember was my grandfather in 2007. My grandfather owned a German restaurant that was relatively well-known where he lived. For his funeral, friends and family came together to share a meal of traditional German food in celebration of my Ota’s life.
Different cultures have different rituals around death. In America, as with everything, it seems much more individualistic. And yet, regardless of religion, culture, or beliefs, death brings us together to celebrate spirit.
Let us celebrate spirit every day. Our own spirit. The spirit of our loved ones. The spirit of the strangers on the street. And the spirit of those we’ll never meet.
We are all one within the universe and the universe is within us.