In the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, August 8, 2023, my mom died. I started writing this less than a week after her death. In the Pitṛpakṣa course, Kavithaji teaches us that when someone we know dies, it is an opportunity for us to contemplate our own death, something many of us would rather avoid. I took this teaching to heart and began to contemplate my own mortality, and what emerged was a life review that included regrets, missed opportunities, and past experiences. While I couldn’t locate a fear of death, there was fear of suffering on the way to death, particularly physical pain. None of us knows for certain what will happen at the time of our death, what it will feel like, what (if anything) exists on the “other side.” This is an experience that we will navigate alone.
In reality, we navigate all experiences alone, as experience exists inside of us. As Kavithaji teaches us, if experience existed outside of us, then we would all have the same reaction to the same stimulus, and as we know that is not the case. In my experience, when I listen to someone recount an experience that we were both a part of, I sometimes wonder how it could be so different from my own. This is even more pronounced when it comes to death, when what we believe happens is strongly influenced by what gives us peace. I don’t want to think that my mom is still suffering at this moment. I want to believe that she is better and at rest somewhere. These ideas are all colored by my own preferences, crafted to ease my suffering that she is gone, and our relationship will never be what it was when she was here in the flesh. I have been struck in recent years by listening to others recount their loss of a loved one and how they navigate it through creating stories. I find it useful to help me recognize that I too am creating a narrative for my own peace of mind, not for the other person.
To move beyond my narratives, I turn to Kavithaji’s teaching about the cyclical nature of life and my direct experience bound in time and space. For example, every step I take is only made possible through relinquishing the last step. I don’t need to surrender the last step actively, it just happens. If I actively resist that surrender, I can’t move anywhere. I am frozen in space. This freezing also takes place with my thoughts and patterns. If I am tied to what I think or believe, it freezes me into one perspective which sends me down a predictable road getting to the same destination again and again. These patterns are cyclical even if they seem to occur in linear time. Every moment, every thought, every idea arises, stays awhile, and subsides. There is no permanence even amongst things that seem solid, as all objects are made up of more space than anything else.
So what does any of this mean from the standpoint of contemplating my own mortality? If I can live knowing that each moment contains its own birth and death cycle that is being repeated throughout my day and my lifetime, there are infinite opportunities to understand the impermanence of myself, and my relationships. There is nothing to hold onto. I can never go back and repeat the same action and get the same outcome. On the surface it may appear similar, so similar in fact that it seems to be a repeat performance. However, each time, I am different, the environment is different and everything is new. This can be a source of great comfort when I am experiencing something difficult; the old adage, “This too shall pass.” But what about those experiences I want to recreate again and again? They cause me suffering as well because I can never get that exact moment back. Can I allow something new to be born and can I derive pleasure and curiosity for what each step holds? I am living my mortality moment to moment, and do I have the eyes to see what a gift this is, and to take the blessings that are offered to me? Can I use the steps of my day as a meditation on mortality, both stepping into and leaving behind, over and over and over again, allowing this to lead me to a greater understanding of life?