Q&A: A Yogic Perspective on Dying
What happens at the time of death?
We stop breathing, and the game is over. But before breathing ceases, certain signs and symptoms of impending death manifest in the breath. When a person dies suddenly as the result of an accident or an abrupt failure of the vital organs, we don’t get a chance to observe subtle changes in the breathing pattern. But when death is the result of a lingering illness or old age, the breath gradually becomes shallow, and the pause between inhalation and exhalation lengthens. Then, as lack of oxygen causes the thinking process to deteriorate, conscious and linear thinking gradually vanishes, and awareness begins to shift between the conscious and unconscious states. The conscious mind, which always works in coordination with the brain, nervous system, and senses, begins to lose its grip, and the unconscious mind takes over. This is a jumbled state—the dying person is neither fully conscious nor completely unconscious.
In this confused state we are no longer capable of employing the senses and brain to gather data from the external world and process it in a systematic and structured manner, nor can we consciously and systematically retrieve data from the unconscious mind. Clarity is gone, and confusion dominates both the conscious and unconscious minds. Clarity is knowledge and confusion is maya (the veil of ignorance), and as the veil of ignorance thickens in the dying process, mastery over the self disappears and our sense of self-identity becomes muddled. In this disjointed state the unconscious mind takes over and creates an entirely new world of impressions.
If at this juncture we can somehow maintain conscious control over ourselves and exercise the powers of will and determination, we can fill our entire inner realm with the train of thought of our choice. When we realize that death is upon us, that the body, breath, and conscious mind are about to fall apart, we can use this chosen train of thought as a vehicle in which to migrate voluntarily from the conscious to the unconscious mind, allowing us to enter the unconscious not as a slave, but as a master.
If the train of thought we use as a vehicle is imbued with divine awareness, it can illuminate the realm of the unconscious, and we will not fall victim to an apparently random stream of unconscious contents. But if we cannot maintain conscious control, we will be totally dependent on the nature of the unconscious contents of our mind. It could be heavenly, hellish, or a mixture of both. That is why the scriptures say, “Your train of thought at the time of death determines where you will go.”
How can we maintain conscious control over our unconscious during the time of death?
The yogis say that we are the makers of our own destiny. They tell us that if we unfold our potential and make the best use of the possibilities life offers, we are certain to live joyfully and leave the body gracefully.
The body is like a rented apartment, and nature is the landlord. We dwell in our apartment until our lease is over. During our tenancy we must follow the laws set by nature—violating them causes debility and disease, and this results in eviction. On the other hand, compliance with nature’s laws—including nonviolence, truthfulness, compassion, nonattachment, and nonpossessiveness—engenders an environment in which we can live joyfully. But we must always maintain the awareness that nothing in this world, including the body, is ours. While we live in this body we must discover the purpose of life, and when the lease has expired, we must graciously hand the keys of breath over to the landlord or we will be evicted.
Attachment to the objects of the world creates a deep sense of fear and insecurity at the time of death because throughout our life we have continuously filled our mind with the idea that the objects of the world and the people we love are integral to our existence, that life without them will be empty. But there comes a time when we must continue our journey without our family, friends, and possessions. At that moment, we find ourselves at a loss, and even though we know that parting is inevitable, we still attempt to hold on. We fail and are overwhelmed by insecurity, frustration, fear, and grief, which cloud the mindfield and become the train of thought on which we are swept into the next realm.
The alternative is to approach the next realm in full awareness that this entire world has come from the divine, exists in the divine, and ultimately returns to the divine. We can do this by cultivating the understanding: “In this world I own nothing—all the objects of the world are gifts from the divine, which I must use to accomplish the higher purpose of life. When the time comes I must leave them behind without clinging to them.” If we are established in this awareness, it will grant us a great sense of freedom at the time of death. Then we can leave this body gracefully, and our unconscious mind will be fully illuminated.
So it is possible to maintain conscious control over ourselves at the time of death, but only if we have practiced maintaining awareness of the divine throughout our life. At the moment of death there is usually so much pulling and pushing going on in different levels of our being that there is no time to think about philosophy. Only if the conviction that nothing in this world is ours is a part of our normal awareness will it be possible for us to effortlessly and peacefully drop all our desires and attachments, hand over the keys of breath to nature, and walk out of this body before maya throws the blanket of confusion over us. The scriptures constantly remind us that we gain firm ground in awareness through prolonged, uninterrupted meditative practice, and that practice must be accompanied with love and faith.
Is there a way of knowing whether we will be successful in creating the train of thought of our choice while we are dying?
How clear and deep the grooves of a specific train of thought are determines how effortlessly we can hold to that thought during the time of departure. And the depth and clarity of the grooves depend on how profoundly that thought has pervaded every aspect of our life. For example, if the grooves related to mantra awareness are deeper than all other thought constructs, and if love and faith in the mantra has pervaded our awareness more profoundly than anything else, then we can predict with certainty that mantra awareness will be maintained during the time of death.
The Bible says, “You cannot serve two masters.” To ensure that your mantra will come forward to illumine your path during the time of death, you must channel all your thoughts and emotions toward it, not only during meditation but also during your daily activities. (You may not need to remember the words of the mantra, but its feeling should be maintained day and night.) To test whether or not every moment of your life is filled with mantra awareness, watch your mind when it is not actively engaged in a task you have set for it, and see if it wanders or broods instead of resting in your mantra.
If mantra awareness has become your strongest habit, then it will come forward automatically during the time of transition. Such a habit is an eternal friend, one that wards off all unconscious habits and the confusion created by them.
A graceful departure is the fruit of long preparation, and in yogic terms, this preparation consists of consciously training the unconscious mind. The techniques of meditation help us to do this and thus we develop the ability to let go of that which is unwanted and retain the memory of that which is illuminating. When we can do this we can maintain conscious control over our unconscious mind during the time of death. Death is then neither frightening nor confusing.
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>