Monday, March 11, 2019

The Life of Death: Finding the Eternal in the Temporary

Lee Krasner, Untitled (from Little Image series), 1949 
By Jivana Heyman

My mother died almost two years ago and ever since then I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about my own eventual death. Her death has somehow lifted the veil on my own mortality and frayed my tether to this world. Soon after she died, I started experiencing a string of minor medical issues, and I can’t help feeling like they are part of this process of greater awareness of the limits of my physical body. I find myself weaving between the worlds of life and death, between nature and spirit, trying to understand what it is that survives after we die. How is it that death reveals the essence of life?

I lost so many friends to AIDS when I was in my twenties, and that led me to immerse myself in the spiritual teachings of yoga. But three decades later I was becoming complacent (assuming that when I went to bed at night I would wake up the next morning). Now, once again, death has become my greatest teacher, cutting to the heart of the matter. Death is asking me to live consciously, and asking me to search for the permanent in the temporary.

In the Bhagavad Gita the protagonist, Arjuna, tries to reconcile his earthly role as a warrior with the spiritual truth that he longs to understand. After arguing with his teacher, Krishna, Arjuna finally surrenders and admits that he doesn’t know how to come to terms with these two parts of himself. He says, “I am weighed down with weak-mindedness: I am confused and cannot understand my duty. I beg of you to say for sure what is right for me to do. I am your disciple. Please teach me, for I have taken refuge in you.” (Satchidananda, Swami. The Living Gita. Chapter 2, number 7.)

Then Krishna smiles and begins to teach him about yoga. He starts his instruction with a key lesson about the immortality of the spirit. He explains, “It is not born and it does not die. Unborn, eternal, and ancient, the Self is not killed when the body is killed.” (Satchidananda, Swami. The Living Gita. Chapter 2, number 20.)

As my mother got very sick, I kept thinking that I needed to talk to her about death and how she felt about dying. I had this idea that talking it through would somehow make it easier for her and for me. So, a number of times I tried to broach the subject with her. And each time, she would either ignore me or quickly change the subject. I eventually gave up, concluding that she wasn’t ready to talk about her impending death and that she was in denial about it.

As she got weaker it became harder for her to speak, and for the last few weeks she could barely open her eyes. I thought I had lost my chance to help her. But I began to notice something interesting. Every time someone she loved was near her, she would struggle to open her eyes and summon just enough energy to say, “I love you. I love you so much.” This became a mantra for her in those final days: “I love you. I love you so much,” whispered through dry lips.

One day, my kids came with me to see her for what would be their final visit with their grandmother. I could see her struggling to wake up for them, and I heard her tell them how much she loved them with so much conviction that it made me cry. In that moment, it dawned on me that she was answering all my questions about death. Rather than have an intellectual conversation with me about it, she was teaching me that love is the answer to all the questions, and that loving is the purpose of life.

I know my mother’s love is still with me even though she is gone, but sometimes I forget and feel lost. So now I’m trying to find ways to unearth that love for myself, which can be surprisingly hard. Those of us who never had a loving parent are used to that struggle, but for me it’s still new.

I know that is the ultimate purpose of yoga and meditation, to expose my heart. I can use my time in meditation to examine where I’ve gotten caught up in the world. It’s amazing how confused my ego gets—convincing me that love will come from outside of me when I get something or do something. It’s only through practice that I can remind myself that it’s safe to be love instead of constantly trying to get love. Here’s a practice that helps me:

I Love You Meditation

Sit comfortably, and notice the breath without changing it. Bring to mind someone that you love. It can be someone who has died or is no longer in your life. Try to picture them clearly in your mind’s eye. Begin to notice how you feel when you think of them. In your mind say, “I love you” a few times. If your mind wanders just notice it and then come back to their image and say, “I love you.” After a few minutes sit quietly and notice how you feel.

Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone. Accessible Yoga has grown into an international advocacy and education organization, and now offers two Conferences per year, trainings around the world, an ambassador program and online Network. Jivana has taught with the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over 40 Yoga teacher training programs over the past 16 years, and created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. On December 3rd, 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Jivana’s strengths are sharing esoteric and complex teaching in a readily accessible way, and applying the ancient teachings of Yoga to our day-to-day lives.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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  1. Thank You Jivana for posting this. It is timely for my as I too am grieving loss.

  2. Very beautiful share. It is so important for us to lift the taboo around this subject and start talking openly about death... Thank you!

  3. Thank you for your sharing. I to lost my mother 2 years in August. It was a very overwhelming lesson in impermanence.