People find many different ways of dealing with the fear of dying. In my case, I’ve found that yoga has changed the way I look at things. Its lifestyle and philosophy has helped me to find a way of learning to understand the joy in living in the present moment and to understand my fears.
Yoga philosophy recognises that we all suffer. This suffering can be categorised under five headings, the klesas.
The five klesas are:
avidya — not seeing things as they are
raga — attachment
dvesa — aversion
asmita — the story of I, me and mine
abhinivesa — the thirst for further existence
The five klesas enable suffering to keep tormenting us, because they create loops in the mind-body that reinforce the way we behave. The term klesa comes from the verbal root kliss, which means "to make suffer, torment, or distress".
It is the abhinivesa klesa that is most often thought of as the fear of death. When you contemplate death, what you think about is not so much what happens to the physical body at the end of your life; it’s that "I" am going to die. The story of "me" will come to an end. And the question we ask ourselves and what we are most scared of is: what happens next?
Abhinivesa is not literally the fear of death, but the fear of being forced to let go of the story of "me".
Being home alone — something which felt very real for me last week, after the return of my daughter to university — caused me to go into a bit of a cleaning frenzy! Keeping busy is my avoidance strategy, my way of pushing back the feelings of boredom and sadness. I actually think I entered a bit of a twilight phase: I felt sad and lonely, but didn't really want to be with anyone else and didn't feel comfortable with the idea of talking about how I was feeling. Who’s interested in meeting up with a friend for lunch who only wants to talk about how miserable they are 10 years after their mum died?! Most people want to avoid talking about death and facing up to their own mortality. Unless they have experienced the shift in the universe of losing someone truly special, it’s so hard to comprehend the depth of feelings that still exist 10 years down the line!
So it’s clear I have issues with grief!
Fortunately, the philosophy of yoga is always there for me and I will often sit down and read through my favourite books to find passages which, although I may have read them dozens of times before, still help me to find new answers. A truly brilliant book called “The Inner Tradition of Yoga” by Michael Stone has this passage:
What would happen if, instead of undertaking whichever activity you turn to when experiencing the growing or even acute feelings of sadness and loneliness, we sat down and paid attention to our breath? Yoga asks us to stay with feelings without seeking to avoid them. This does not mean dwelling in or indulging feelings indefinitely, rather it means that we stay patiently and with an acceptance of whatever is occurring in the present moment as it arises, unfolds and passes away.
Believe me, this is easier said than done! But in order to move on, we have to accept that good things don’t last forever and sometimes bad things happen, and we have to make the most of every moment, of every breath.
Here’s another quotation from a strange and cynical book about grief, “Grief is the Thing with Feathers”, by Max Porter:
It changes all the time.
It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic. It shares mathematical characteristics with many natural forms.
In one of his last poems, "Late Fragment", Raymond Carver offered this truth in concise terms:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth