And Then You Die...(Imagining the World Through the Eyes of Illness)
I began this blog with the first part of the title before I contacted an “industrial strength” flu, which then gave me illness eyes to emote through. Practically our entire community received this illness gift from a visiting sadhu, and many of us have been under the weather for 12 days or more. In any case, I have combined the two blog ideas since they are related. In other blogs (included in my book Give to Live) I have spoken about the positive and negative impetus for practicing bhakti. While today’s title emphasizes the negative, it is within the context of a positive, spiritual, worldview and an understanding of the blissful nature of the soul engaged in loving service to Krishna. Until we are self-realized devotees of Krishna, we have to continually be reminded about the shortcomings of the material world and the fallacy of trying to enjoy our senses. Why? Since we are all addicted to pleasuring our senses and material conceptions, we often have a difficult time breaking these bad habits. However, we can apply the adage, “Repetition is the mother of skill,” and gradually find our spiritual footing.
In this spirit, the statement, “and then you die,” can be added to any ordinary material activity or accomplishment in order to put life into a spiritual context. In other words, from the perspective of the eternality of the soul, how much value does a particular action or achievement have? Reading the obituary column is interesting from this perspective, since often the authors of the “accomplishments” of the so-called deceased, make quite a stretch in their praise, like looking for straws--at least it seems this way to me. If we were merely a temporary conglomeration of chemicals, then yeah, such narratives would be important, since that would be all there was to a person’s existence. One life and then you die—end of story! And even if, from a worldly or religious perspective, they are significant milestones, or extraordinary achievements, how much difference do they make spiritually? To me, that is the fundamental question to be asked in thinking of a person's, or our own, life. We all have things we feel compelled to do, and yet, as aspiring devotees, the art is to connect them to Krishna. As souls with a spiritual purpose to wake up from our conditioned dream, the only thing that truly matters is our real lasting enlightened self in a relationship of loving service to our Source, God, or Krishna.
Lying on our back with no motivation, going into coughing fits, feeling intense nausea, and in general having practically no energy really changes the appearance of the world. Even a liberated Vaishnava luminary like Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakur spoke of the importance of illness to temper our material enjoying spirit, or exploitive tendency. Hearing his perspective can help us have appreciation for those times we are very sick when we are obviously not the supreme controller on top of our game, or the fact that our body’s ability to provide enjoyment is very limited and depends on exacting conditions.
None of us like to be ill and out of commission to our life and service, and yet such times can be helpful for our spiritual journey if we always keep a philosophical perspective, looking for the pearl in the irritation, or the gem in misfortune. This is one reason that it is so essential to regularly read the Bhagavad Gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam and other such Vaishnava Vedic scriptures, as well as to chant the holy name in saintly company—in other words, to engage in the basics of bhakti. By gradually building our “bhakti heart muscles,” we begin to see spiritually, and develop an eager intensity in our spiritual practice as well as fixity of purpose. Within a seriousness to make progress in serving and loving Krishna, we will also have the joyousness of feeling closer to Krishna—even in our misery. Then everything we go through or experience can be grist for the mill of our ongoing spiritual journey toward Krishna.
When we make a commitment toward becoming Krishna consciousness, then Krishna consciousness—which is personal, and can be thought of as Shri Radharani and her associates—will be increasingly committed to helping us. There are many important quotes in the Vedas, and even in worldly circles about the power of commitment (the Scottish Himalayan expedition comes to mind)—that when we make a commitment to some ideal or goal, then life changes around that state of determined resolve. Success in any arena requires a fixed commitment, and spiritual life is no different.
Illness can also give us gratitude for when we do have health, reminding us of the temporary nature of having a material body, and how precious our time is. We learn from Chanakya Pandit that time is so valuable that it can’t be replaced by all the gold we could amass. What is valuable to anyone will be revealed by what we give our love, money, time, and attention to. This demonstrates the person we are, and the person we will become, or our ideal. Success, failure, or health and illness—all can be seen as spiritual tests, since in all situations we have to choose our focus and how we interpret our situation. Are we pulled down into a material selfish victim perspective, or do we rise up to take shelter of Krishna and feel the loving embrace of the holy name and the Vaishnava devotees? Attitude and intention are everything, and spiritual practice makes perfect. This is the goal of bhakti—to always remember Krishna in the mood of loving service. Then we will see that in a dedicated devotional life, everything can be favorable for our spiritual progress!