The phrase, “Come on, it won’t kill you!” is used so commonly for everything from pressuring a friend to try tasting fried crickets sold by a street vendor in Bangkok, to convincing a 14 year old to stop text messaging during dinner.
We say it to encourage ourselves to take a bold action, or to shame ourselves to stop being scared of something ‘silly,’ or to snap a situation back into some realistic perspective.
After attending Acharya Shunya’s Vedic Spiritual Studies program series on Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I learned a new way to use this phrase that transcends all the petty uses of day to day life and reset myself on a path toward the deepest Self.
As Acharya Shunya taught, Sage Patanjali outlined a series of root causes of suffering that exist in the human mind. When we become aware of the deeply planted mental seeds that grow into all the colors and flavors of suffering we encounter in our lives, we are able to use the mind-management tools from the Yoga Sutras and Advaita Vedanta to prune back these bushes of suffering that seem to have taken over all our thoughts, and burn out the seeds of that suffering. In this cleared out mind, suffering ceases and clarity prevails.
One of the seeds outlined by Sage Patanjali and elaborated upon by Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies class has a Sanskrit name – Abhinivesha, which simply means ‘fear of death.’ Of course we know that all living beings have a will to live – even an ant will frantically struggle to get out of a puddle of water to avoid drowning. So it seems reasonable and widely accepted that a fear of death is an inseparable companion to being alive.
Yet we sometimes encounter people, who seem to not fear death. These are the folks who accept terminal illnesses with grace, or show appropriate grief without totally losing their sanity when a loved one passes away, or the elderly who accept their body’s aging and decay without resistance or depression. These are the admirable people who have started to chip away at their fear of death and are experiencing more and more internal calm and peace because of it.
But I am in my 30s and healthy, so impending death isn’t on my mind very often. Sure, my heart rate goes up when I am standing on the side of the road and have a close-call as a bus almost grazes my shoulder. But is a fear of death really a root cause of whatever mental suffering I have?
I decided to experiment with this concept to find out if it applied to me. Whenever I noticed I was resisting something – be it taking on a new work project, or helping someone else with a task that I had no personal interest in doing, I asked myself, “Is it because you think it is going to kill you?” This sounds dramatic, I know. But that simple dramatic question immediately made me laugh to myself, because it reminded me not only that the actual task was not very likely to cause the death of my body, but also that I have a Soul that is a source of unlimited energy, abundance and creativity which does not age and die. Then once that spell of irrational resistance was broken by this silly question and reminder of my eternal nature, I could come at the task at hand with more detachment and objectively consider what action I wanted to take without the nagging feeling of unexamined resistance.
To continue to engage my fear of death and see how facing it could improve my mind, I made conscious time to meditate on the eternal Soul within. As the sages so rightly point out, only if we are identified with the body will we be afraid of its inevitable death and decay. If we are aware that there is a Self that is untouched by time and always existing, then the body can be understood, as Acharya Shunya describes, as similar to the skin a snake sheds without effort or discomfort at the right time. Remarkably, this attention to the undying Soul settled down a subtle background hum of discomfort or anxiety, which I only noticed had been there once it was gone. Remembering there is a part of me that is unaffected by the body’s death gave me greater composure in life situations that may be anxiety provoking, even if they weren’t actually a direct threat to my life.
A real test of this idea came up recently. Our community experienced a tragedy of the accidental death of a 4 year old child who was in my daughter’s class. While we were all reeling from the news, I became aware of the default thought pattern: the wave of panic that comes up when we imagine how another person must be feeling in a painful situation, the paralyzing fear of imagining that it could happen to us some day, the ignorant self-soothing thoughts that had it been us we would have been able to avoid such an accident…
As our collective world shook while grieving this death, Acharya Shunya’s teaching came to mind. Amidst the mind-boggling incomprehensibility of the death of a child by sheer accident, can we see this as proof of the Soul’s eternal existence? Can I as a mother, radically release the fear of my own children’s death by seeing them as souls encased in a temporary body? Can I pray that the other parents will not spend their prayers looking for answers as to why this accident happened, rather can I send wishes of peace that the departed child’s soul will lead them to understand that there is an eternal light they can connect to that is independent of the beloved body that no longer breathes?
I still don’t know how I will handle my own death or the loss of loved ones when those days come. But I know that as I train my mind to think this way, beyond a reactive fear of death, steadily every other corner of my life becomes more stable, peaceful and happy in the here and now.
The author Ishani Naidu is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as Editor of the Hamsa magazine, which is an offering of Acharya Shunya's Vedic Spiritual Studies program.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta, Yoga and Ayurveda with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.