Fear of death can be an obstacle to enlightenment if we mistakenly believe we can’t “get there” without dying. The body is home for our time on earth and we enjoy life through our bodily senses. No wonder we don’t want to give that up. The good news, as many enlightened masters have demonstrated, is that we don’t have to.
After we’ve faced down our fear of death and fully accepted that our bodies don’t last, we can become even happier in our bodies during our lifetime. Recognizing that any day might be our last brings a beautiful poignancy and depth to our experience of life, an appreciation of each passing moment.
Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was an enlightened master who spent his life teaching, mostly by silent transmission, from his ashram at the base of the holy hill Arunachala in southern India. At age 16 he so vividly imagined his own death that he immediately became enlightened. He taught that liberation is possible not only for humans but also for animals and even plants.
Like other wise masters, he explained to his students that the world we see isn’t a real one, but rather a projection of our own minds and desires. If we can eliminate the little self -- the one who sees and projects the false world – then the Big Self (aka God) alone remains. When we look out on the world from the Big Self, we no longer see the world around us as an uncaused, transient appearance within the Self. Instead, we feel the world as an expression and manifestation of love and wisdom.
Ramana said that self-realization could be brought about, as it was for him, merely by giving up the idea that there’s an individual self that functions through the body and mind; but because few of his followers could readily do this, he usually recommended the method of “self-enquiry” (continually asking “Who am I?”), along with mental contact with the “One Teacher Within" – the Great Self.
He said that what we experience as the outside world is only a “bundle of thoughts,” and what we experience as “I” (our identity) is just one of those thoughts. When we ask, “Who is having this thought?,” inquiring deeper into where this thought arises from, we come to the ground of being, our Greater Self, which is also God.
We are the Greater (God) Self. We are the Greater Self having a thought that it’s a separate person. What most of us call “I” is a thought about being a “little I” that the Greater Self is having — which is not at all a separate thing. Understanding this allows us to give up the fear and guilt and selfishness that comes with the mistaken belief that we’re separate.
If we stop indulging in the “I” thought, total understanding, bliss, love, peace, and consciousness well up in us, and we realize that everything that we’ve been taking so seriously from our “illusory” perspective as a separate self isn’t separate at all. (Many have likened our ordinary life as separate humans to a theatrical production the Greater Self puts on to amuse itself.)
The “illusory” part of our sense of “I” is the belief (thought) that the “I” is separate. But the experience of a separate “I,” and the idea of an individual destiny, which enlightened masters call “illusion,” have a reality in the same way as a movie has a reality. It’s just not the ultimate reality.
When we become enlightened we realize this. We understand that the truth of being is the Great Self. Our sense of self doesn’t disappear with enlightenment; rather it expands. We still have a sense of being present as a self but we notice that this Self that we are is greater than we ever imagined.
Ramana was led to self-inquiry through an experience he had as a schoolboy of sixteen in an upstairs room of his uncle’s house when he was suddenly overtaken by an intense fear of death. Six weeks later (leaving a note for his parents without telling them where he was going) he left home to take up residence on Holy Mount Arunachala, where he spent the rest of his life meditating and teaching.
Ramana explained that his fear of death dropped away because he understood that his “I” was actually a subtle current (i.e., not his body) so that there was no death to fear. At first he didn’t connect the “current” with a personal God. He was only feeling that “everything was being done by the current and not by me,” a feeling that continued after he left home to take up residence at Arunachala. He did not think this current was his narrow ‘I,” but rather his greater Self.
Self-inquiry is thus not a mere mental exercise. It also has an energy component. My take on self-inquiry is that the sense of “I” that we all have (the little “I”) is a real experience. There’s really something there. But what we’re sensing as the “something there” is actually the existence of the Greater Self.
That current that Ramana experienced is a powerful flow of life force in our body. When we ask, “Who am I,” we can identify with it rather than with our material body.
Have you ever had to accomplish something really hard, such as lifting a heavy car off your child, controlling a sudden surge of anger, climbing a difficult rock face, or holding on to a thrashing, screaming two-year-old in a public area with no safe place to put her down? I’m talking about an experience that required more strength of will and body than you ever thought you had. Can you remember a time when you had to reach deep inside yourself to the source of that strength? How the force of it moved through your body like an unstoppable current?
If you pause and feel into it, you’ll notice the presence of this same current each time you move your body, though it won’t be as strong as when you called on it to respond to an emergency. It powers your breathing and your heartbeat and sends thoughts streaming through your brain and down your nerves. It circulates in your body and the surrounding environment. It is energy with consciousness. It holds together the atoms that make up every rock and powers the winds and waters that tug them apart.
I once had a visionary insight that there are two kinds of energy in the Universe,, which I thought of us Sun Energy and Snake Energy. Sun Energy is light that radiates outward. Snake Energy is more like magnetic energy, heavier, darker, more self-contained, the kind that flows, finding ways to move, as a form, through space.
The Snake Energy has shown itself to me as Love Energy, a vibrating darkness so thick you could almost cut it with a knife. As I leaned over the bed where my favorite aunt lay dying, I felt it rise from her body like a heavy mist to envelop me, and wring from my throat an involuntary cry, “I love you so much.”
I detected the same energy in Nepal, filling the space between my shaman teacher, Jebi Bhandari, and his patient, as he performed his healing work. It feels like a species of the same force we call on when we need power to accomplish some great physical or emotional feat outside our normal capabilities. Sexual energy, too, seems to be a form of this energy.
When I read of Seventeenth Century Swedish scientist, theologian, philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s idea of two great forces in the Universe, which he identified as Love and Light, I equated the Snake energy of my vision with his Love Energy and the Sun Energy with his Light Energy.
Swedenborg equated Love with Good, Will, Heat, and Substance, and Light with Wisdom, Understanding, Truth, and Form. Today we might understand these categories as “Heart” and “Head.” Though they are separate, he taught, these two great forces need each other to function. They must act together in the body to accomplish work, and remain united after we die.
We make a mistake when we think we are nothing but a body, separate and alone, and when we let our egos take responsibility for everything that happens. The “I” as it imagines itself is simply a fleeting expression of these combined forces of Love and Light as looked at from a particular, shifting time and place — after we have decided to imagine that time and space exist. The “I,” as it really is, is one with that combined forces of love and consciousness.
If you let yourself think that you are not your body, and instead feel yourself as the conscious and loving energies of your body, and then imagine your body dropping away from these energies, you may get a sense of what Ramana suddenly understood when he so vividly imagined his own death.
As you go about your day in ordinary reality try to occasionally remember to think of yourself as an expression of the Greater Self -- God looking out through your eyes, God moving your arms and legs, God thinking through your mind. Inevitably, before long you will notice you’ve “fallen asleep” again, slipping into plans and schemes to enhance your ego. Remind yourself once more that these are only thoughts, and try to reconnect with the true Greater Self in which these thoughts are arising. Put your attention on the present moment, the passing show continuously happening before and around you, inviting your appreciation and love.
This will be an imaginal journey like Ramana’s to your own death, starting from right now in ordinary reality. Your intention will be to experience the circumstances and feelings of your death until your body is no longer alive and as long afterward as you are shown.
Your intention is to ask the Universe and any helping spirit guides you may have to give you an experience your death so you can find out what happens when you no longer have a body. Start from the moment you realize for sure that “I’m dying.” Know that this is something you must do alone — you must journey beyond form, to the emptiness where there is nothing but awareness of being, to discover what’s left when the body is gone.
These words and instructions are provided to stimulate your mind and being to think about your own death, but don’t expect your journey to be like anyone else’s or even to match the instructions given below. Whatever happens in your journey is designed specifically and uniquely for you at this point in time by All-That-Is. Whenever there’s a conflict between what you experience in this journey and what anyone else has told you, believe your own experience.
During the journey, as you vividly imagine your body dying, keep focusing on your sense of identity: “Who am I? Who am I now? Who am I here? Who is having this experience?
You might stay on earth for the entire journey, or after your body dies, as described in many near-death accounts, you might be taken up to a heaven or down to a place of the ancestors or a “happy hunting ground,” or to a place of limbo or purgatory for a “life review.” The “life review” typically involves seeing scenes from your life in the presence of a compassionate angel or spirit. These might be events where you hurt someone else and now get to experience the pain they felt, which usually causes compassion and repentance to arise.
If you’re familiar with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, you may expect to enter the bardo, the gap between life and death, and have traditional visions of compassionate and wrathful deities, which, you are cautioned, are only your own projections. Perhaps you’ll feel a strong desire to be reborn, but don’t be distracted. Wait for the dawning of the clear light of liberation.
Other traditions of death and dying may also inform your journey. You might find yourself searching your pockets for a coin for Charon, the ferryman of the Greeks who conducted souls across the waters to Hades. Or if you’ve been exposed to Christianity, you may see Jesus or St. Peter. Let your experience be what it is, remembering to take it as a metaphor rather than literal truth. What you ultimately seek is beyond name and form.
This experience is not intended to be a prediction about your actual death. The future isn’t set in stone, and the very fact that you are vividly anticipating your death is likely to change how it actually happens. Think of this experience as a possible way it could happen. If you take this journey again, it will probably not be the same. When death actually comes to you, you will be different and so will it.
You may need to spend a little time coming back to ordinary consciousness. Don’t try to drive or do anything requiring careful attention until you’re completely sure that you’re back.
Now breathe normally as you scan your body, sending your attention from the top of your head down through your trunk and your arms and legs, imagining your attention flowing down through your body like a golden current of life, awakening each cell and organ it touches. . . .
When the river of attention — that golden river of life — reaches your toes, breathe in and let your mouth curve up into a little smile, then breathe out and imagine the river flooding outward to entirely fill your body and flow out through every pore of your skin to form a misty golden cloud around your whole body.
Now imagine yourself in a life-or-death situation — a situation in which you have to act quickly to escape or overcome the threat. Imagine your whole body tensing up to meet the threat. Perhaps you’re crossing a street holding your two-year old child’s hand when a car comes screaming around the corner headed straight for you. You have to save your child and yourself right NOW!
Without conscious thought, you reach way down inside yourself to find the place from which your instinctual force arises, . . . and you find it. You are flooded with will-power, strength and determination. You grab your child and leap out of the way of the car, and you both survive.
What was that feeling that took over your body? It was a great deal stronger than a golden river of attention — more like a cascading flood, sweeping aside big rocks and branches in its way, propelling you forward with unstoppable force.
Can you remember a time when you actually had to respond quickly to a threat that felt like life or death, when you had to reach deep inside yourself for the strength to do what had to be done? Maybe it was life-threatening like the example of the oncoming car. Or maybe it was moral strength you needed, and found within yourself — for example the strength to quit smoking or lose weight, the strength to suppress an angry impulse to hit or scream at someone, the strength to stand up for what was right when it might have cost you a friend, or your job.
Check your body. Where does it come from, that power? The base of your spine? Your heart? The center of your abdomen? Your arms and legs? What does it feel like when it comes?
It’s an unstoppable power, and not completely under the control of your ego, so for that reason you might be a bit reluctant to let yourself feel it. But you know it’s there, and will arise when you need it.
Now I’m going to ask you to imagine being in a situation where you do need that power — a situation in which you are about to die and you know it. It may be from a physical assault, an accident, a disease. Or, take your pick.
Hold your breath as long as you can until the moment comes when you can hold it no longer. Resistance is futile. Let it out, let it out completely and surrender. Let your whole body relax.
Now again, take a deep breath in, and as you breathe in imagine that you are breathing in a beautiful white light, down through the top of your head, breathing it in until it fills your whole head and extends into the tops of your shoulders.
Breathe out and while you’re breathing out, relax your jaw and let your chin drop and your mouth open to allow the white light to seep slowly downward into your chest, gently absorbing into the dense muscles of your heart.
Keeping your chin dropped and your mouth open, take another deep breath in as you intend for the breath and the beautiful white light flowing down into your body through the top of your head, to intensify and entirely fill your chest cavity.
Breathe out, and while you’re breathing out, keep your jaw relaxed and your mouth open, and relax your shoulders and upper back, . . . and your arms, . . . to allow the white light to expand downward into your stomach and abdomen.
And now, with your jaw relaxed, your mouth open, your shoulders down and relaxed, and your stomach and abdomen relaxed . . . (No need to hold your stomach in trying to look slim and fit. None of that matters any more) . . . take another deep breath in and visualize the current of beautiful white light continuing to flow into the top of your head from above, down through your shoulders, your chest, your stomach and abdomen, intensifying the light that’s already there and filtering into each organ. . . .
And, breathe out. And while you’re breathing out, keep your jaw relaxed and your mouth open, with your shoulders and upper back and stomach and abdomen relaxed, and let the white light expand down into your pelvis. Relax your buttocks. Let them spread.
Take another deep breath in and feel your diaphragm moving downward as your lungs expand, pressing down on the organs in your abdomen and pelvis that lie above your pelvic floor. . . . Hold the breath. . . .
And breathe out and feel the diaphragm move up, releasing the pressure on the organs in your abdomen, so that your pelvic floor (the muscle responsible for contracting your anus, your urethra, and if you are a woman, your vaginal opening), relaxes, allowing the white light to spread downward through your pelvis and into your thighs.
Staying relaxed, breathe in again, with an intention to allow the breath and the light that goes with it to flow from the top of your head, down through your legs, and spread past your knees and ankles to your feet.
Breathe out deliberately, with the intent of pushing the breath, and with it the light, all the way down to the bottom of your feet. Feel the energy tingling in your toes and the soles of your feet.
And, breathe naturally, feeling the relaxation in your body. Relax your eyes and the muscles of your head. Imagine a divine hand pressing on your forehead, as though checking for fever, and stroking up your forehead, around the top of your head with a smoothing motion, and down and around the back of your head to where your skull projects over the top of your spine, and moving gently down to lightly encircle your neck, . . . causing the muscles of your head and neck to relax, and the chakra there at the base of your skull to gently stretch wide open, and let your breath move through it, gently, in and out.
Let your thoughts float. No need to concentrate or focus. Your thoughts arise naturally like waves in the ocean and, just as naturally, subside. No need to hold on to any one of them. They’re not your personal property. They belong to the Universe. There’s no extra credit for capturing a thought. Don’t try to hold them. Let them flow.
You may begin to notice that your feet don’t need you to hold onto the thought that they exist. Nor do your legs need to keep on signaling their presence to your consciousness. Your buttocks and abdomen and chest and back no longer care to keep on reminding you of their existence. They just want to relax and rest. If your mind needs something to focus on, focus on the white light that fills your body. . . .
Now take a deep breath in and again find that deep power you felt before, the force you call upon in an emergency when you need a strength beyond your normal capabilities. Where in your body do you feel it? At the base of your spine? Below your body in the earth? In the center of your abdomen? In your heart? Feel its vibration. Feel how it moves and spreads, merging with the white light in your body, both forces moving upward together and spreading — outward, downward, and upward.
In that merged white light and vibration of your life force, you feel a strong sense of your own presence. You are knowing . . . and love. Hold on an inbreath . . . and notice that every part of your body, from your toes to your feet and legs to your pelvis, your trunk, your neck and head, can feel the presence of its own true being within that light and life force. . . .
And breathe out gently, noticing that you, your very essence, along with the essence of each and every part of your body, within and as that life force, are dissolving, spreading out, through and beyond your skin, expanding out beyond your aura, beyond any walls that surround you, passing easily through all barriers into the oneness of nature, mingling with the air.
How marvelous that you are still conscious of being present in this expanded state! You can feel the movement of the trees, the winds, the clouds, the waters. The bodies of living creatures stir within your expanded awareness and you can feel their movements like a dance full of meaning and ecstasy. The dark peace of outer space, pierced with the intelligent life of stars, is you, your very Self.
No need to remember this. No need to capture it in thought. It isn’t going anywhere. Because it’s all you . . . your small self merged with that Greater Life Force, that Greater You, that we call God.
Ramana Maharshi had many students and followers who practiced and taught his method of self-inquiry, asking “Who am I?,” including Swami Poonja Ji, also called Papaji, [1910-1997], who lived and taught in Lucknow, India, and spent the early part of his life as a “householder,” holding down a job and supporting his wife and children. Other notable students were British theosophist and author Paul Brunton (1898-1981), and contemporary British author David Godman, author of numerous books on Ramana and his students. Other contemporary teachers of the method of self-inquiry include Poonja Ji’s student, GangaJi, an American woman whose writings and videos are easily accessible, for example on YouTube and through her books and website, and another of Poonja Ji’s students, Mooji, a Jamaican-born artist and teacher whose joyous, loving, and playful style has made his satsangs (spiritual discourses) popular among Western seekers around the world.
Gangaji website, https://gangaji.org/ accessed December 20, 2014; Gangaji. You are That. Sounds True; Exp Col edition. 2007; and Gangaji, “The Heart Can Bear it All,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49gB8r2W17E. Accessed August 22, 2019.
Godman, David, “Arunachala and Sri Ramana Maharshi. “Baghavan’s death experience,” http://sri-ramana-maharshi.blogspot.com/2008/05/bhagavans-death-experience.html, accessed August 22, 2019.
Nagama, Suri Letters from Sri Ramanasramam Volumes I, Ii &Letters from and Recollections of Sri Ramanasramam. V.S. Ramanan, President, Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai. 2006. http://selfdefinition.org/ramana/Letters-from-Sri-Ramanasramam-vols-1-and-2.pdf, accessed August 22, 2019.
Narasimha Swami, B.V., Self-Realization, Life & Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Fifth Edition, T.N. Venkataraman, Publisher, 1943, https://ia801205.us.archive.org/33/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.162298/2015.162298.Self-Realisation.pdf, accessed August 22, 2019.
Swedenborg, Emanuel, Angelic Wisdom concerning Divine Love and Wisdom, Ager, John C., translator from the original Latin, (Standard Edition), Swedenborg Foundation 2009, swedenborg.com website, https://swedenborg.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/swedenborg_foundation_divine_love_and_wisdom.pdf, accessed August 22, 2019.
Vasundhara, “Ramana Maharshi and Cow Lakshmi,” https://sriramanamaharishi.com/animals-birds/ramana-maharshi-and-cow-lakshmi/?fbclid=IwAR0EbT-oXwUApr7oU2IZryurDGlIsAZU3WtHsP3n_5f3QUWtyKBiRBp8eZQ, accessed August 22, 2019.
I did not even think of the mind. I thought of the gross physical body when I used the term body, and I came to the conclusion that when it was dead and rigid (then it seemed to me that my body had actually become rigid as I stretched myself like a corpse with rigor mortis upstairs, thinking this out) I was not dead. I was, on the other hand, conscious of being alive, in existence. So the question arose in me, ‘What was this “I”? Is it the body? Who called himself the “I”?’
So I held my mouth shut, determined not to allow it to pronounce ‘I’ or any other syllable. Still I felt within myself, the ‘I’ was there, and the thing calling or feeling itself to be ‘I’ was there. What was that? I felt that there was a force or current, a centre of energy playing on the body, continuing regardless of the rigidity or activity of the body, though existing in connection with it. It was that current, force or centre that constituted my Self, that kept me acting and moving, but this was the first time I came to know it. I had no idea of my Self before that. From that time on, I was spending my time absorbed in contemplation of that current.
Once I reached that conclusion (as I said, on the first day of the six weeks, the day of my awakening into my new life) the fear of death dropped off. It had no place in my thoughts. ‘I’, being a subtle current, it had no death to fear. So, further development or activity was issuing from the new life and not from any fear. I had no idea at that time of the identity of that current with the personal God, or Iswara as I used to call him. As for Brahman, the impersonal absolute, I had no idea then. I had not even heard the name then. I had not read the Bhagavad Gita or any other religious works except the Periyapuranam and in Bible class the four Gospels and the Psalms from the Bible. . . .
I had no notions of religious philosophy except the current notions of God, that He is an infinitely powerful person, present everywhere, though worshipped in special places in the images representing Him. This I knew in addition to a few other similar ideas which I picked up from the Bible and the Periyapuranam. Later, when I was in the Arunachala Temple, I learned of the identity of myself with Brahman, which I had heard in the Ribhu Gita as underlying all.
I was only feeling that everything was being done by the current and not by me, a feeling I had had ever since I wrote my parting note and left home. I had ceased to regard the current as my narrow ‘I’. This current, or avesam [lit. possessing spirit] now felt as if it was my Self, not a superimposition. [Emphasis added.]
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