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JNANA YOGA: ON DEATH AND PRESENCE.

It’s been a curious week.

My week started off with a newly killed skunk in the backyard, it had been attacked by a coyote or something when I discovered it. Of course I couldn’t leave it there because my dog is the kind of dog that loves to roll in all things fetid. I considered burying it but figured another animal would just dig it up. Bagging it in plastic for the garbage seemed sort of counter-intuitive to the death and rebirth cycle. I didn’t really want to look at it, but I also couldn’t seem to not. The skunk was snarling, teeth bared, still bleeding from the throat like it had been really fighting for its life when it died. Of course my daughter stood at the top of the back steps watching curiously as I tried to figured out what to do with this little furry lump of death. I decided to do what any good forest dweller might do – I grabbed a shovel and flung it as far as I could into the forest. I figured it was best for nature to just reclaim and recycle the body, because if the body nourished the bodies of others it wasn’t a death wasted. Afterward my eight year old daughter said she had felt scared seeing that the skunk was dead and seeing the blood on the shovel. She was worried a coyote or cougar might have killed it and that they might also kill our dog.

Despite my impulse to reassure her that it would never happen I decided to just sit and be with her in her fear. I’ll paraphrase our chat – it went something like this.

“I hear that you feel scared that our dog might die.” “Yeah I don’t want a coyote to kill her.” “I can understand that. I wouldn’t want her to suffer, but luckily nature is pretty good about stuff like that. When coyotes and cougars kill other animals they usually go for the throat and it’s very quick and the animal doesn’t suffer much.” She looked at me with big saucer eyes. I thought ‘shit, I should not have said that, it’s too gruesome.’ “Like on [the documentary series] Planet Earth?” “Yes, like on Planet Earth” “If the lions didn’t kill the zebras they would starve.” “Yes, they would. So it’s in their nature.” She sat quiet, pondering for a bit before continuing: “But the skunk wasn’t eaten, it didn’t help anything when it died.” “When I went over there, the flies were all over it, and they will lay eggs that turn into maggots. The maggots will eat the body. Other things will come to pick at it and eat it too.” “And birds will eat the bugs.” “Yes and birds will eat the bugs.” “…and snakes will eat the bird eggs?” “They might.” She sat quiet a bit longer and then started to cry. “But I don’t want [our dog] Ellie to get eaten” “I hear that this thought feels very scary. Death can be scary. You love Ellie very much, it’s hard to imagine her dying. Her body will die though, and so will this tree, and so will I, and so will you, and all of our bodies will go back into the Earth. We belong to the Earth. In that way, we don’t ever really ‘die’, you know.” “I'm not ready for her to die.” “Well good, because she’s behind you right now waiting for some pats, so in this moment you do not have to say goodbye.”

Needless to say it set me off into a week of processing death, and ultimately arriving again and again to this realization that all my fears are rooted in the mysteriousness and inevitability of death/change. Friday I noticed arthritis has returned in my hand, and as I did my yoga practice I noticed my body ached after. It scared me, I mean I’ve been building this practice, this community, this work. I felt afraid that if my body fails I will lose it. The thought terrifies me – that I will have carried a truth inside me that I was unable to share. And of course intellectually I know this is a lie – I could share my truth without practicing hatha yoga, I could lose my arm entirely and still maintain my meditation practice, but the fear was there, and it refused to be ignored.

It seems to be a recurring theme in my practice – acknowledging and accepting the reality of this changing, aging, dying body. From the constant influx of new grey hairs, to my memory beginning to fail me for the first time in my life I’m noticing all of these little changes as I cycle through my life. Some days I welcome the change, but some days it’s hard to not be resistant to it. I suppose all things living have an inborn desire to survive – so it’s not that what I feel is unreasonable or unnatural – it’s just that sometimes it seems to cause a lot of suffering in the way that it distracts me from being present in each moment.

Our society really preys on the discomfort of this reality. From skin tightening serums to hair dye and botox and spanx and wrinkle creams, to diets and workout plans so many of us run from age, from deterioration, from death…like it’s something that can be escaped, or at the very least, deferred. It’s like we comfort ourselves with the illusion of control. Like if I work out I’ll live longer – as if it would matter how much we worked out and how much botox we had if a bus hit us, or a cougar ate us. The idea of deferring or escaping change or death is purely illusionary.

By Saturday the skunk corpse had sat in the hot sun all day, and I temporarily regretted my choice of flinging it, because the whole neighborhood sort of stank like a dead body (whoops). There is nothing like the smell of death to force you into the present moment – it’s a nauseating smell that demands awareness of the senses, so every time I caught another revolting whiff I would repeat a little mantra “I am being reminded to let go of all ideas of a future self. I am here now.” Lord, it stunk, but all life can be a mantra, if we allow it to be. Change did come: The evening brought heavy rains, and by morning the foul smell was all but a memory.

Change is inevitable, even gross things, hard things, painful things cannot escape change. So often I get caught in this sense of urgency to fix long term issues – climate change; systemic oppression – it’s hard to not think of the constant future; to worry about what is coming next; to live in a constant state of fear. Yet the reality is I was never promised a “next”. Nothings which is born is promised that kind of luxury. The only thing I was promised was change. Change is coming, it can’t not be coming. One way or another, it will come. I am here now. I have always existed now. How could I have not? At some point, like the skunk, I simply won’t.

The reality is I can do is something in this moment. Trying to create anything more than something in this moment is futile. It’s as though I’m always just laying down the foundation for the thing I’m becoming, but I never actually become. There’s no arrival or destination- It’s just a perpetual state of becoming until it isn’t.

I’m learning to let go of the idea of arriving somewhere in my life; of reaching some final state of resolution. I’m learning to allow the past and future to be like the guard rail that keep me on track, but to not become something chased after because I’ll never catch them.

I think that’s the real work of meditation, to let go enough to move fully into the state of becoming, and just ride that wave until you are no longer becoming. The only things which are not becoming are dead things, so as long as I am alive I will be becoming, in the same way a tree just continuously becomes a bigger, greener, taller tree each season, until it doesn’t. In the same way the skunk was busy skunking it up until it wasn’t.

“In reality nouns don’t exist, only verbs. When you say, “This is a tree,” your statement is linguistically acceptable but existentially, because by the time you said “This is a tree,” it is no longer the same tree – one dead leaf has fallen, one new leaf has started coming up, the bud has opened. The bird that was singing on the tree is no longer singing. The sun that was shining on the tree is hidden behind a cloud. It is no longer the same tree, and it is growing, continuously growing. A tree to be true, should be called “treeing,” A river should be called “rivering,” not a river. Everything is growing, moving, everything is in a flux. Verbs are true, nouns are false. If some day we are going to create an existential language it will contain no nouns, it will only contain verbs. You are not the same person that had come this morning to listen to the discourse. When you leave you will be a totally different person – so much water has gone down the Ganges, so much has changed. You may have come very sad, and you may leave laughing. You may have come very serious and you may leave very playful. These changes are tremendously important.” Osho; The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha, Vol 3 Chapter 5: Freedom Contains All

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