"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Facing Death and Overcoming Ego

"Whatever be the means adopted, you must at last return to the Self, so why not abide as the Self here and now?"
Philosophers from all traditions have observed the irony that everyone has the knowledge that all things die, yet they manage to avoid an acceptance of their own mortality.

The ego does not want to face the inevitability of its death, and only in rare instances will an individual face the inevitability of death down by examining just what that means and what it will be like. The vast majority prefer to evade thinking about death's inevitability altogether, or to comfort themselves in their belief of an after-life described by their religious tradition. Yet facing death as an inevitable part of what life holds, in certain instances, may lead one to enlightenment in this lifetime.

If you ask, many people will tell you exactly where they were when they came to the realization that they too would die, and what their reaction was. In most instances, the reaction will be to avoid the fact, and to divert one's attention elsewhere. Yet, one of those rare individuals to face down the inevitability of their own death was the great Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi.

Ramana Maharshi
(1879-1950)
In the Introduction to the book, "Talks with Ramana Maharshi," we read how facing down the realization of his mortality propelled the then-teenaged "sage of Arunachala" (known, at that time, as Venkataraman) to a state of unitive consciousness which endured throughout the remainder of his life.
"After the death of his father," we read, "Venkataraman's family moved to the famous temple town of Madurai so that they could be under the watchful eye of a paternal uncle. It was here that the "Awakening" would take place, that waves of spiritual fervor would overtake him while reading the Periapuranam, the lives of sixty-three Tamil saints. From his childhood, there was a continual inner throbbing of "Arunachala, Arunachala," as if the Self - his real Being - was reminding him of his forgotten nature. Once, when a visiting relative recounted his recent pilgrimage to Tiruvannamalai (a temple town where the solitary, sacred hill Arunachala rises above the South Indian plains), young Venkataraman became astonished and overwhelmed that Arunachala was in fact a place on earth - a place one could actually go to."

"Shortly after this time, during a hot July day when Venkataraman was just sixteen," we read, "he faced his own mortality. One day, when everyone else was away from home, the young boy became completely overcome with the fear of death. Rather than panic or retreat into fear, Venkataraman had the remarkable presence of mind to face the situation, then and there. He dramatized the death occurrence to be able to help bring the experience to its ultimate conclusion, by holding his breath, stiffening his body, and allowing no sound to escape his lips."

"To die before death is to face the void; the emptiness in which the content of the mind has no ground on which to endure. It is rare for one to face the void without recoiling back into form. Venkataraman, like the Buddha, was determined to stay the course. Upon firm investigation into the nature of his "I-sense," his former self died, and the infinite Self, the Eternal "I," rose to take its place - the true resurrection."
Carl Jung
(1875-1961)
In an interview in his later life (embedded below), the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, himself a student of Ramana Maharshi's teachings, observed that: "I have treated many old people and it is quite interesting to watch what their unconscious is doing with the fact that it is apparently threatened with the complete end. It disregards it. It behaves as if it were going on."

"And, so," he suggests, "I think it is better for old people to live on, to look forward to the next day as if we had to spend centuries. Then we live properly. But when he is afraid, when he doesn't look forward, he looks back. It petrifies him. He gets stiff, and he dies before his time. But when he is living on, looking forward to the great adventure which is ahead, then he lives. And that is what the unconscious is intending to do."

"Of course," he notes, "it is quite obvious that we are all going to die and this is the sad finale of everything, but nevertheless there is something in us that doesn't believe it, apparently. But this is merely a fact. Does it mean to me that it proves something? It is simply so. . . . If you think along the lines of nature," he concludes, "then you live properly."

But what, in fact are "the lines of nature," that Jung speaks of?

"Ramana taught that we exist as Supreme Self at all times," we read in the Introduction to "Talks with Ramana Maharshi," and that, "(w)e need only awaken to this reality by seeking the source of the ego, or "I-thought," and abide in the Self that we always are."
"The path of Self liberates one from the never-ending fear and disorder resulting from taking the ego to be real. By becoming free of the ego-illusion, one experiences true freedom and supreme peace. It is a path that takes one from the apparent duality of the individual and the world to the bliss of one's true nature."
And, of course - as Ramana Maharshi, himself, demonstrated - it is in facing (and facing down) the fear of mortality that the ego projects that we are freed from the small "self" and emerge into the greater consciousness and reality of the eternal Self.

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