You get opportunities to hit reset every once in a while. All the major life stages give you that—marriage, childbirth, a job loss, a death in the family. These are events that have in them the potential to make you pause, rethink who you are, rework things that need redoing, and move forward on a new base. Sometimes you need to create a totally new foundation, sometimes just some tinkering is enough. A big shift in who you are is not the easiest to transition through, but all the popular stories we remember are stories of great personal transformation: of battling something within or without and emerging stronger or changed in some way.
This was the year when death came closer to us than ever before, whether we thought about it, saw images of it, or experienced loss firsthand. Each of us is aware of the possibility that this here may be my last day in this body, but we rarely think about it. In the drama of life, this consciousness of death recedes. And it is a pity, because it is the awareness that this embodied life is not permanent that has in it the power to make everyday life much easier to bear.
2020 was the year when this awareness did dawn on a number of us. Those who, at some point in the year, did not have at least a few moments of pure panic about the fragility of life, would be exceptions. Who would not have worried about their children, ageing parents, spouses or beloved pets being left without anyone to care for them? Headlines about rising covid-19 case numbers and mortality rates caused more anxiety. And in these moments of worry, we understood that the fear of death is not about the fear of pain or distress to the body, but fear for the wellbeing of those left behind.
Most Indians grow up with lessons from religion. Many grow up with stories from the Bhagavad Gita, and many of those lessons got reaffirmed this year. The shloka explaining that the soul cannot die, it is just the body that changes its clothes, seemed to come to life. Along with the eternal nature of the soul comes the message that we should not grieve for that which cannot be burnt, slain or otherwise harmed. As Shri Krishna says to Arjuna: “Death is inevitable for one who is born and birth is inevitable for one who dies. Therefore, because this is inevitable, you should not grieve.”(The Bhagvad Gita, translated by Bibek Debroy, Chapter II, Verse 27)
But reconciling metaphysics and philosophy with our everyday lives has proved to be a challenge. When somebody you love very much and is a part of who you are dies, it is difficult to remember the centuries-old advice and stop the shaking sobs that come from deep within. The dry words just don’t soak up the tears—but they do provide you a mental and emotional landing slide out of the emotional wreck.
The pure physical grief passes and those who emerge stronger speak of a very important learning—let not the passing of a loved one leave you with regret of what could have been while that person was alive. People who have been through Vipassana speak of similar reactions, of rushing out of the 10 days of silence to untangle relationships. 2020 and its enforced lockdown gave us that vipassana opportunity.
Living in the moment
At a primordial level we all fear death. The desire to live is hard-coded into our genes. But when the mind begins to conflate the instinct to live with a safety of a material kind, it’s the start of living death. When we get attached to being ‘safe’ rather than living life, making compromises with our core beliefs, a certain kind of death happens. We find meaning in a designation, a position in society, in money and power, and anything that risks this manifestation of life must be avoided. Sri Aurobindo discusses this in his essay from the early 1900s, ‘The Bourgeois and the Samurai’, where he says that such a mindset of staying within your comfort zone makes you unfit for great adventures. "For great adventures, tremendous enterprises, lofty achievements, the storm and stress of mighty and eventful periods in national activity, he is unfit."
More recently, in his new book, ‘Death: An Inside Story’, Sadhguru writes “People think that death is a tragedy. It is not. People living their entire lives without experiencing life is a tragedy.”
Over the last few years, a version of this advice—of living life to the fullest— that sages through the ages across religions, geographies and spiritual disciplines have given became popular as a form of “living in the moment”. The deeper insight of living everyday knowing that it can be your last was translated into an excuse to indulge every whim and desire. When spiritually evolved people preached living life to the fullest, they perhaps were not thinking of stuffing yourself with chocolate cake against the advice of your doctor.
The year gone by has forced some of us to realise this, to ask ourselves what we really want to do. Of trying to translate this awareness of mortality into living more meaningfully, of trying to answer that question 'What is it all about' and finding our own answers to it.
Monika Halan is Consulting Editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation.