The Yoga of Dying

Ponce, Puerto Rico 1973 © Minor White Archive

Ponce, Puerto Rico 1973 © Minor White archive. When Minor White made this photograph of a grave site, I remember being deeply touched by the image and by what it represented to me: death and rebirth, the rich luminosity of letting go and opening to new life.

If we want to be reborn—to be open to truth, to experience greater wholeness, and to awaken to the fullness of life—we must die to the known and the familiar, everything that keeps us enslaved in our present condition.  As many of us find ourselves unwilling to let go and even cherish who we think we are, one of our teachers use to say that you cannot make an omelette without first scrambling the eggs. In hearing her words, we saw and knew that our current identity was an uncooked egg, brittle within its fragile protective layer. What keeps us confined to our imagined identity? Can we let go?

As I have gotten older the reality of death and dying has started to show itself more and more. Many of my elders have passed, many relationships have ended, and all of my relationships have in some way changed form. As we get older the reality of death becomes constant, both literally and figuratively. In my short time here, I’ve had to redefine myself again and again.

Humans collectively fear this level of cathartic transformation. We long for permanence. Our societies and governments are primarily concerned with the preservation of our current standards of living, even if that standard jeopardizes the world we live in. I see this reflected in my own life. I hold on to a known chaos out of fear of the unknown, even if the unknown holds the possibility of peace. Ironically, we must know what we hold on to in order to begin to let it go. Ken Wilber has stated that the ego is unique in that it must participate in its own destruction.

The desire for continuance and the preservation of the status quo

Coming to terms with our literal and figurative death completes the cycle of the klesha, or afflictions in the yoga sutras. Abhinivesha, the last of the five klesha is described as “the automatic tendency for continuity” or “desire for the preservation of the status quo.” The most challenging of all the kleshas, abhinivesha underlies our corporeal existence. Patanjali says that this “overcomes even the wise.” (R. Ravindra)

In attempting to release my own tendencies for continuance and perpetuation of the status quo, I ask myself, what is the status quo? If we rewind to our discussion of the first of the five kleshas, we remember avidya, ignorance of our true nature. Giving rise to the other afflictions, ignorance supports our primordial attachment to the way things are. I have seen that my ignorance prevents me from seeing things as they really are and stands in the way of my own self-understanding.I usually find myself caught in an outward current, which drives me to seek the approval of others. The outer world offers me many mirrors – the media, popular culture, political and religious groups, and my friends and acquaintances. In doing this, I allow the outer world to define who I am. My life, then, lacks any intrinsic value. Life becomes about fitting in while simultaneously trying to be superior. This way of living leaves me with no inner awareness or inner direction. If I go with the outer flow, I go where I am told, do what is expected, and am a slave to what people of think of me and of my own lower nature.

Somewhere in this performance it becomes imperative to question the status quo, what it supports, and what it’s real purpose is. A shallow examination of what’s popular affirms that paths well trodden are the best and that what is popular is good. We all remember high school –how many of us would say that the popular kids were the smartest kids, or the kindest kids, or the ones most prone to altruism? I remember the popular kids as those who were the best looking, the best at fitting in, wearing the right clothes, in the best clubs, and invited to the coolest parties. Sadly, not much changes as we get older. The adult world still values being first in line, and keeping up with the Jones’s.

“the child wants to have, while the adult wants to be.”
—Jeanne de Salzmann

Perhaps the social order (or disorder) is merely a reflection of my own lack of inner resonance. It’s easy to get confused between holding on and actually being. Jeanne de Salzmann writes, “The child wants to have, while the adult wants to be.”  Out of a fear of not-being I want to hold on. I hold on to things, people, and most prominently my ideas about who I think I am. But in seeing that what I hold on to is exactly what causes me the most suffering, why do I hold on? How and when do I learn to let go, or give up?

What’s true isn’t always popular and usually isn’t found in the outer world. 

“Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself…. His task was to discover his own destiny – not an arbitrary one – and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.” -Herman Hesse, from The Magister Ludi

One more reason to close the computer and turn off the television. As time passes, I notice that inner silence has nothing to do with clothing or looks or fitting in. Often my inner awareness has arisen in conflicting circumstances. Jesus represented a truth that existed in opposition to what was popular. Whether or not Jesus was human or divine cannot be determined, but we can say with assurance that he was one heck of a revolutionary. Even so, Jesus had 12 apostles (sans Judas Iscariot), not 100,000. His message of peace and love took a while to spread and, for better or worse, was adapted to fit the needs of subsequent generations and millennia.

Giving up anything is hard, which is exactly why I must do it. Great positive change is born on the backs of those who have had the courage to stand apart from the status quo: Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Martin Luther king Jr. In all of these examples what is common is that the changes that these men underwent occurred in conjunction with great sacrifice and profound suffering. In all of the above cases, they were killed or assassinated. This isn’t to say that we need to face such clear and present danger in the active pursuit of being. But it seems that all transformation involves a death of some kind, and, as with any death, it will not be something willingly endured without proper practice and preparation.

I have seen that life will enact suffering upon me. I cannot escape this. I can suffer actively or passively. I can choose to go with the outward flow, which values popular opinion and a “me first” attitude. Or I can go against the grain in an effort to follow the current that flows inward. This is the tension needed for my work to progess. I don’t struggle against something or someone when I flow with my inner current; rather, I strive for something.

Dying daily 

 “Can I die while I am living? Can I die to all my collections—material, psychological, religious?” –Krishnamurti

 If I go inward enough – beyond my manifestations, beneath my need to be right, first, perfect, and desired—I may one day get a taste of who I really am. When I can begin to see a truer quality of my own being, I can then understand my real place in the world. I can start to understand the meaning and purpose of my existence. Why am I here? What is my dharma? In this way I hope to conquer death, but not by way of my petty self-interested concerns. In fact, such pettiness will hasten the death of my real self. I must work arduously to build a bridge between my inner and outer worlds in order to make a mark upon the world that will in some small way contribute to the prevalence of a more compassionate world for the generations that follow. It is in this way I hope to know eternal life.