Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Religious Wisdom For Facing Death

The latest article from my good friend, fellow monk, and Bhakti Center (Manhattan) president and CEO Ramnath Subramanian (Rasanath Dasa) on the Huffington Post

The silent tears at the other end said it all. "Is everything alright?" I asked Priya. I have known Dr. Priya Venkat, a pediatrician, for nine years. I was a witness to her strength and determination as she fought through many challenges in her college years. I felt a sense of satisfaction to have personally contributed to her welfare and finally see her settled in a happy married life. That is why her call was tough. Priya, who was six-months pregnant, barely managed to utter the words: "Miscarriage."

Two conspicuous emotions emerged simultaneously -- helplessness and shock. Helplessness because I could not even find the words to console her or myself, and shock because two minutes before I received that phone call, I was talking to my roommate Ari about the fragility of our life and the constant, undercover companionship of our death. Little did I realize that the conversation was just the beginning of a series of deathly events in the span of one week. The news of the miscarriage was followed by a suicide of the 17-year-old son of a good friend, the demise of my 23-year-old student who was suffering from cancer, and finally a fatal heart attack that consumed my 60-year-old cousin.

Thousands of people die every day, and the world still moves on. We read and hear about deaths and tragedies almost everyday in the news. It may grab our attention for a moment, but the sports section seems more interesting. Is death really that trivial? Or have we unconsciously or consciously tranquilized ourselves from its impact?

The topic of death has the wondrous potential of concentrating the mind. It opens up a deeper sense of inquiry into our true nature and makes us question the very purpose of our existence. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that the real education of mankind means facing up to death. In most spiritual traditions, especially those from the East, the problem of death seems to open up the doorway to deeper spiritual inquiry.

The Buddha renounced his wealth and riches to seek enlightenment when he saw the unpleasant sights of disease and death and realized that he had to go through the same. Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gita, which is India's classic text on yoga and spiritual wisdom, prince Arjuna faces a similar existential crisis as he is called upon to fight a gruesome war against his own kinsmen, led by his wily and unrighteous cousin Duryodhana. Although Arjuna was a veteran of many wars, he confronted death like never before because on the opposing side were members of his own family that he deeply loved and respected, but he was forced to fight them because of political intrigue.

The first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is called "The Yoga of Arjuna's Crisis" -- an appropriate title because the word "yoga" means "to link" or "to connect". In this chapter, Arjuna's crisis makes him connect through deep inquiry to his own identity. What follows is a beautifully composed and spiritually profound dialogue between Arjuna and his charioteer and dear friend Krishna. Although I grew up with three different editions of the Bhagavad Gita at home, this text made a much deeper impact on me after my own encounter with death.

My spiritual journey began when I first confronted the problem of death at the age of 17. After securing admission to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, I faced deep insecurity about the fact that all achievements in my life will be invariably stripped from me at the time of death.

The issue was like a thorn in my side until one day, during dinner, I expressed it to my mother. Very affectionately, she mentioned that I was letting such thoughts rob away my real joys of life. It is important to live in the moment and experience life to the fullest. Her affection touched my heart, but her response left me dissatisfied. I felt that her response was urging me to be in denial of the terror of death. It was like trying to enjoy a delicious, elaborate feast on the eve of a really tough exam for which I have not prepared one bit.

Although I pursued the thought for some time, the intensity waned -- helped by my own "confidence" of being able to "manage" the world. I invested myself in "hero projects" that I hoped would leave a mark in this world. It was not until my second date with death that I realized that the human brain just does not have the capacity to comprehend the magnitude of the terror.

The rendezvous occurred when I was a first year MBA student at Cornell University in September 2005. I had just finished a major exam in accounting and was one of few students in the class to secure full marks. My performance gave me complete confidence and security that I would ace my MBA program and secure a top job as an investment banker. That same afternoon I proceeded to Cornell University's medical center for a regular blood test. After the doctor obtained the required samples, I was sitting in the reception area scouring the Wall Street Journal. Suddenly, I saw darkness in front of me.

When I came to external consciousness, I heard screams all around. I was on a stretcher surrounded by a whole bunch of medical personnel frantically rushing me to the emergency room. I felt excruciating pain in my hands and feet. They were twisted in an awkward fashion and to my greatest shock I could not move them. Then I felt numbness creeping up my body from my feet. I could barely speak and my eyes were getting heavier. Much to my horror, I realized that this could well be the end. Every moment seemed dilated. My entire life began to play out in front of me like a movie. All the people that I loved and all the things that I felt deeply attached to filled up my thoughts. The pain of sudden separation from all of them was intense and tears welled up in my eyes. A distinct feeling enveloped me -- a state a despair resulting from an inevitable contradiction -- the strong desire for immortality in a situation that had mortality written all over it.

I was given heavy dosage of painkillers and other medicines and woke up 14 hours later feeling like I had run a marathon on my hands. I was relieved to be alive. Nothing else mattered at that moment. The doctors described the episode to be an extreme case of a vasovagal reaction or neurocardiogenic syncope -- an abnormal reflex to wounds or punctures that results in a blood pressure drop leading to decreased blood flow to the brain. Amazing what a harmless blood test can cause!

This experience opened my eyes to the fact that death could come at any time -- even when it is least expected. It only takes a moment for life to change by 180 degrees, and when it does, the first reaction is shock. I say shock because the built-in narcissist in the human psyche believes that he will never die; he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud's explanation for this was that in man's inner organic recesses he feels immortal.

I once read a story in the Mahabharata, a text on India's ancient history that resonates well with this. The great king Yudhisthira, who was very famous for his wisdom and unwavering sense of integrity, was once put to a test. He had to answer 100 questions that tested his intellect and wisdom, and his success was a matter of life and death for his dear brothers. Yudhisthira impressed his interrogator with the first 99 questions. The last and the most open-ended question of the test was, "What is the most wondrous thing in this world?" To this, the king deeply pondered and responded, "Every person sees many others around him or her die everyday, but refuses to believe that he or she will ever have to go through it. On the contrary, they make plans for a permanent settlement in this world. To me, this is the greatest wonder and the biggest irony!" Of course Yudhisthira won the contest.

Confronting the fragile nature of my existence was a very humbling experience. I realized that at the time of death, the physical body that I so carefully nurture, the adoration and distinction that I strive for and treasure as fortifications of my greatness can all get uprooted and scattered like trees in a tornado. I was forced to re-examine the reliability of social, political and financial power-linkages that gave me the sense of being grounded. Facing the truth of this situation opened up spiritual inquiry yet again. For the first time, the concepts from the Bhagavad Gita made deep and logical sense.

This experience also helped me realize that treating death in a trivial fashion may close doors to deep realizations about our very existence. Life escapes us when we huddle within the defended fortress of our invulnerability. It's not that we should be paralyzed and depressed at the thought of death and renounce enjoying the precious and deep moments that life has bestowed upon us, but not taking death seriously enough may be as good as not taking life seriously enough. It may very well rob us of the opportunity to develop the humility and gratitude to appreciate the abundant gifts of life.

One bit of profound advice that Socrates gave to his disciples was to practice dying everyday. Although this may sound impractical, the undertone to this insight is very useful -- to cultivate awareness of and face our deep-rooted insecurities, the epitome of which is death itself. Such awareness, when dealt with in a healthy and honest fashion, leads to a deliberate dismantling of our defense mechanisms of denial and repression. It makes us take life seriously enough to deliberate on our actions and makes routine activity impossible. It increases the discovery of new possibilities of choice and action and new forms of courage and endurance. It gives rise to a new and more meaningful way of life.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In The Monastic Community by Thomas Merton

Thanks to our friend Caitanya Mangala

From The Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas O'Donnell (1965)

One or two of the novices came up and smiled and clasped their hands together and made a kind of sign a prize fighter makes when he has just won a bout, to acknowledge the applause of his fans. It is the unofficial sign used at Gethsemani foe "Congratulations" and you won't find it in the List of Signs in the Book of Usages. So I smiled, and made one of the only signs I had found out how to make, which was "Thank you." It is easy to make and remember. You just kiss your hand. It goes back to the days when people used to kiss one another's hands out of politeness, and we make the same sign when we want to say "Please."
And so I too sank into the obscurity, the anonymity of this big Trappist family, hidden behind the walls of a monastery of which, until a couple of years before, I had never even heard.
With the white woollen habit on me, I had ceased to be a stranger - or at least a complete stranger. And that is the first thing you have to cease to be when you enter a Cistercian community. For there is no cohesion more close and more intense than that of a house full of Trappists. A Cistercian monastery is, in a very real sense, a family. And to live in it according to the Cistercian Rule and vocation, that is, according to God's will, you simply have to become one flesh, one undivided organism with all the rest of the people there.
There is no escaping the fact that monks have to live together as brothers. It is forced upon them by the rule. It is one of the most essential elements in Benedictine asceticism, and the Cistercian Fathers of the twelfth century, especially St. Bernard and St. Ailred of Rielvaux, seized upon it and emphasized it still more. In fact, so marked is the importance given to brotherly love in our monastic ideal that it occupies a crucial position in the structure of Cistercian mystical theology. The ascent of the individual soul to personal mystical union with God is made to depend, in our life, upon our ability to love one another.
We get up at two o'clock in the morning, and jostle one another in the dark trying to get a little water on our faces to wake ourselves up, and we hasten to choir bumping into one another all down the dark cloister. Then for the next two hours we have to stand next to someone who sings faster, or slower, or lower than we do. Or perhaps he has a cold, and we begin to catch it.
We kneel down, all together, to make our mental prayer. Just as you are getting settled, and beginning to get some fruit out of your prayer, your neighbor nudges you and you have to stand up and turn on the light for him so that he can consult a book.
In the canonical office you have someone next to you who turns the pages of the book too fast, and you miss half a line, and have to bend down and make the little satisfaction.
In the Scriptorium, you find a book in the Common Box that begins to interest you intensely: and then someone else gets interested in it too, and every time you want it, you find that he has got there first. Out at work you may be put to saw a log with someone who just puts his head down and closes his eyes in prayer and doesn't care how he pulls his end of the saw, so that it continually jams in the log and you have to do five times as much work as usual, with practically no result. Then you go to the refectory, and your bowl of potatoes is missing, and your neighbors do not notice it. The Usages forbid you to ask for it yourself, and so you go hungry.
All this becomes far more interesting when it happens that the same person is the person who coughs down your neck in the choir, and takes the book you want in the Scriptorium, and fails to get your portion for you at table: he may even make matters worse for you by proclaiming you in chapter for not turning on the light promptly when it is needed at meditation.
And yet it is precisely all this that is given us by God to make us solitaries, hermits, living at peace with Him within ourselves, even though we are constantly surrounded by all the others in the community.
But Cistercian life brings with it more than this negative peace. It is not merely a question of being able to live in the same house with people who might be naturally uncongenial tous: the fact is that the monks really do love one another. They really do enter into a kind of close and intimate cohesion that binds them together as true brothers. In fact, although many of them do not actually realize it explicitly, most Cistercians derive a profound consolation from the mere fact of being with the other monks. They seem not to pay any attention to one another, and yet there is a profound happiness in just being there together, sitting in the same room and reading or writing, in the presence of God Who is the only possible reason for their unity.
In a way, even the weaknesses and imperfections which we all have manage to fit in harmoniously to this picture, so that one even comes to like the habits of others that first appeared to be annoying and strange.
The Cistercians have carried communism to its ultimate limit. They not only hold their farm and monastery and all the things in it as common property, no one having a legitimate personal claim to anything so small as a handkerchief or a pin or a piece of paper, but they share all their failings and all their weaknesses and all their sicknesses of soul and body. Alter alterius onera portate: there are no people in the world who get be such experts at bearing one another's burdens as Cistercian monks. Watch a group of monks work together and see with what efficiency they take care of one another's blunders; if they are good monks, they will do it without a sign, without a change of expression, and so expeditiously that you will ask yourself if the mistake really happened after all.
The beauty of the process is in the lack of wasted motion and the absence of fake politeness. They are kind, indulgent, and gentle about it, but it is rare that you will see anybody make a big artificial fuss over the troubles of others. Those who like to have a great deal of attention paid to their woes are out of luck if they come looking for it in a Cistercian monastery. They must learn to be content with unfailing but unobtrusive assistance, kind, generous, and complete, but totally unadorned by flattery or any of the artificialities of the world.
Now that I had become a child of this Trappist family, I looked around the room to see my home, and my brothers sitting in it. It was a fairly large room, with six large windows opening out in three directions. On one side was a three-sided court dominated by the apse of the church and the steeple and some tall cedar trees. From this side the sun slanted into the novices' Scriptorium, bathing the two big tables with warmth and light. The novices in their white cloaks sat mostly along the walls, on the low seats under which were their private boxes. A few were at the tables, writing diligent and mysterious notes on bits of scrap paper - on dissected pieces of used envelopes and the blank backs of written pages, letters they had received, and so on.
They were a varied assortment, these novices. Some were young and tall and thin, others were middle-aged. Most of them were young. All of them looked intensely happy although their noses were red with colds, and the knuckles of the fingers which held their books were cracked wide open and bleeding with the cold.
It was wonderful, the silence, and peace, and happiness that pervaded this sunny room, where so many men were together without speaking. Far from there being any sense of restraint, of awkwardness, of strain, you felt flooded with a deep sense of ease and quiet and restful well-being. There was absolutely no kind of tension between those who sat together in silence: they were all absorbed in their books or their thoughts or their writing. And their very activities were marked by a kind of restful quality: they were not imprisoned by any fierce concentration, not driven before the face of some storm of hurry and anxiety. Their eyes rested on the page with a quiet, detached attention; or else they looked away from the book, in thought, or they entered into themselves, or wrote something down.
They were diligent, yet peaceful: busy, yet at ease, at rest. They were together, yet they were alone. They were silent, yet full of occupation: occupied, but without a trace of confusion. They were recollected, without any evidence of special concentration or strain - or at least that was the norm.
There might be two anomalies, in the midst of such peace and modesty and unaffected recollection: on the one hand, your attention might be struck by someone who appeared to be working too hard to be a saint - as if it all depended on him. On the other hand, there might be one or two who were perhaps not working hard enough, as if nothing depended on them. The former would hide himself in a corner in such a way that it made him completely obvious. And the others would have a way of standing around and making signs that still smacked of "the world" - a way of holding their head up, and staring around with their mouth open, and perhaps laughing out loud.
But most of these faces had lost all the toughness and tenseness and bitterness of the world, as well as the world's flabbiness and sensuality and conceit. The corners of these mouths were not drawn down by sarcasm or obscure, nervous antagonisms and fears. These brows were not plowed with angry or anxious lines. These eyes were perfectly clear. They did not evade your gaze, or reply to it with anything but the candor of skies, of lakes: they were unfathomable in their simplicity, and flickered with none of those lights that make men unhappy and afraid.
And yet these were perfectly ordinary men - all the usual types you find on the street of any American town. You could pick out the ones who had probably been high school football players, those who had worked delivering groceries, or perhaps had worked in garages or soda fountains. One of them, I knew, had come to the monastery out of the Marines - he was my "guardian angel," appointed to teach me how to work the big choirbooks, and to keep me from wandering into parts of the monastery where novices were not allowed to go. One or two others had been soldiers. Some of them had been to colleges and universities. Some had come from the secular priesthood, but now the accidents of their past were being effectively ironed out of them, and they were becoming simple Cistercians, dwelling in the ample folds of their white and hooded cloaks.
Yet nothing was lost that was of any value. No natural gift was lost, no natural quality was destroyed, nothing they had brought with them that could count as a talent would have to be buried here. No, everything they had was sublimated and fused into the big, vital unity of a life concentrated on the highest, the only good, in Whom all other goods are eminently contained and ultimately perfected.
I realized all this in my own case, with a kind of surprise - realized that all the things I might have given up I had really retained, in so far as they were implicit in a higher good: and the wonder of it was, that in this form they continued to give me a joy that I could no longer get out of them in the world.
I could no longer travel around in the countries of the world as I pleased; but a far vaster supernatural geography was to be opened up to me, in not so many days, that would make the whole world look cheap and small. I had left all my friends and the ruins that remained of my family; but I already knew that in Christ I had them all, and loved them all far more perfectly and effectively than I could by any human affection. And the point is: human affection was not destroyed, not rooted out of me, and it did not have to be, except in a metaphorical sense. My human affection for all the people I ever loved has lost none of its reality in the monastery, but it is submerged in a higher and more vital reality, in the unity of a vaster and deeper and more incomprehensible love, the love of God, in Whom I love them, and in Whom, paradoxicaly, I am much more closely united with them than I could be if I had stayed in the world, preferring their company to His.
And I had given up writing.
Or had I? That was the question. Everything else I had given up I retained, implicit in the higher good for which I had renounced it. Was one thing going to follow me in its proper form, or would this also follow the same way as the rest? Would I give up writing and find again all of the joy of the work which, all in all, was probably the greatest joy I had ever had short of prayer and serving God directly?
As far as I was concerned, that was my intention.
But I was wondering if God had asked it of me. I would see.
Unpublished, from the Original Manuscript of
The Seven Storey Mountain