The wise grieve neither for the dead, nor for the living.
—Bhagavad Gita, 2:11
We are all born in fear. We sense the vulnerability of a body made of soft flesh, obsess about all the things that could bring harm to it, and know that our lives are uncertain. How long will I live? How will my life end? How much pain will I need to endure? To document all the things that make us fearful would require a super computer, but perhaps the biggest fear we have is the end of “me.”
Most of us cope with this unresolvable fear by thinking our demise will happen “someday” (just not today). As a society, we don’t like to talk much about death. We mostly choose to ignore it by means of creating the illusion of a never-ending youth. But what you choose to ignore will always find other means to get your attention. Another grey hair, another wrinkle, another “senior moment” might be all it takes to remind you that your time is coming and will soon be up. Or perhaps it’s a debilitating illness or an accident that shows you how temporary and passing good health can be. Death waits patiently for each one of us knowing that it always wins.
If we look closely at the source of our fear, we find beliefs and stories we tell ourselves. These stories are really just thoughts. If I believe I am the body and the ego, death becomes a thought I cannot bare. Vedanta shows us there is no death, only change. Because that which you aren’t (the body) just gets recycled and that which you are (the Self) never dies.
The body is constantly changing. Where is the body you had when you were a baby? That body had to die so a new one could come forth. When we’re young we welcome the change of the body, we don’t regret no longer having our baby body. In fact, we’re anxious to be rid of it—just ask any kid on a playground who will proudly tell you with chest puffed out, “I’m all grown up!” It’s not until we’re past our prime that we wish the body would never change. Nonetheless, change it must.
The body is constantly modifying itself, throwing away old cells and generating new ones. The body you currently have isn’t even the same body you had 7 years ago! Nothing is kept for very long. As we get older, we even lose our physical appearance so that old friends from high school may barely recognize us.
The body is an insentient aggregate of what Vedanta refers to as the basic elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth. We come from the earth via ingestion of food—hence Vedanta’s name for the gross body, annamaya kosha or “food sheath.” When we die, our body returns back to the earth and is recycled, as is everything else in the Field of Experience. Nothing is actually born or dies. Everything that constitutes a body is simply taken out of the environment, borrowed for some time, and then returned before becoming something else. Like fruit on a fruit tree, the Earth literally grows us (and perhaps, later, uses us for fertilizer).
What about the mind, intellect and ego or what Vedanta collectively refers to as the subtle body? Vedanta shows us that we cannot be that either. Like the physical gross body, the subtle body is constantly changing and ingesting content also. The subtle body, as Vedanta teacher James Swartz says, is a consumer of experience: “the mind constantly chews emotion, the intellect eats ideas and the ego gobbles any experience it believes it will make it feel adequate and happy.” The subtle body holds memories, but is mostly occupied with whatever it has most recently consumed. The reason for this is because everything we experience leaves an impression. The mind is constantly being conditioned by what it experiences and by the lasting effects of those experiences.
We cannot be the mind because if we were, we would be able to control our thoughts and always know what our next thought is. We cannot be the intellect—the rational, discriminating power of intelligence—because if we were, it would be consistent and reliable. Instead, the intellect is like the moon—sometimes bright, sometimes dim.
That leaves us with the ego, the doer and enjoyer of actions. The ego is just a story we tell ourselves, a thought that arises out of consciousness. For the most part, the ego is just a bundle of memories and likes and dislikes, and because we identify with these memories and preferences we believe ourselves to be a distinct and separate entity. The death of the gross body is also the death of the ego. Why? Because the ego was never real in the first place.
We can’t help but wonder what happens after death. But in reality, we experience death every night after falling asleep. Where are your body, mind and ego when you’re in deep sleep? Vedanta explains that when we are in deep sleep, the subtle body resides in the causal body or seed state (the third of three bodies). When you are in deep sleep, there is no “you.” This also helps support the argument that you cannot be the subtle body, because if you were it would always be present and would never change (in Vedanta that which is real is defined as that which stays constant and never changes). Almost a third of our life is spent outside the waking state without a subtle body operating! So, if we aren’t the body-mind (because it’s constantly changing and becoming something else) then what are we? What survives death?
We are that which makes the body-mind possible. Because I am experiencing this life I must exist. So then, what am I? I am awareness, the witness of experience. And here’s the tricky part, unlike the body or mind, awareness is not an object. In other words, it’s not a “thing.” Awareness is attributeless and yet, we know it is essential to making what was previously just a ball of flesh floating in a mother’s womb, grow legs and walk on the surface of the Earth. In other words, we know that awareness is a requirement for the operation of life. Just like from electricity a toaster produces heat or an audio speaker produces sound, awareness shining through a subtle body produces life. This “light” that animates us is never born and never dies. It is that which is beyond time and space, limitless and unchanging. Because the light is without attributes and is impersonal, the light that shines through me is the same light that shines through you. Each of us is a reflection of the original light, like raindrops reflecting the sun.
Once actualized, this knowledge clears up a whole assortment of problems. I am no longer threatened by illness or the stories I tell myself about my impending death, because I know that death is ultimately just a thought—another object projected onto the screen of awareness. I honor the person I appear to be and see to its needs, but I ultimately know that I am not the doer. The doer exists within me but is not who I am. It’s the ability to see with such non-dual vision that liberates me and releases me from the haunting story of my imminent death.
Life’s apparent contract with life is that the body-mind is born into this world and will someday die...and nobody comes here without signing on the dotted line! However, we know that death is not the end. After this life has ended, the light that brought us into the world must go somewhere else. The only options are for it to find another form to occupy or to just be the light. Thus, birth brings death and death brings birth.
As Vedanta teacher Swami Dayananda proposes to ask us:
The question, then, is what is there to lament about? If there is something that is always there and that thing has a problem, then it can be lamented about. However, what ‘is’ is not subject to lamentation. It is reality, the truth, satya, and it is limitless, ananda. Therefore, it is not subject to lamentation at all. Whatever else may be there is also not worth lamenting about.
In other words, we can take it easy.