In issue 9, Chaitanya Vihara highlights the value and fragility of human life in part one of “Crunch Time.” Part two of this series includes an extraordinary story told from the perspective of Chaitanya Vihara’s friend, Lorenzo Posada. Lorenzo describes a number of tragedies, beginning with a hiking trip in the Colombian Andes, and deepens our meditation on the sanctity of life.
BASE CAMP: EL RANCHO
Waking at dawn, we realised that a dog had raided our food supplies. Our expedition was seemingly off to a bad start, but our enthusiasm to climb Nevado del Tolima, a 5,221 metre peak in the Colombian Andes, remained intact. It appeared the furry thief had taken only chocolate, milk, and lemons; nothing too essential.
From the second camp, elevated 4,000 metres above sea level, we would launch our assault on the summit. Upon reaching the camp, we realised that the dog had also eaten our pasta and nuts, far from ideal. At 2:45 the next morning, the alarm rang. Undeterred by rain, we set off. Unfortunately, conditions worsened over the next few hours. We had to deal with snow much earlier than expected. Drenched and frozen to the bone, the weather forced us to abort our adventure early.
After arriving back at the second camp at 8:00 a.m., we considered our options. There was certainly not much to do in a remote camp, where we were deprived even of drinking water, so we decided to return to base camp. Burdened with soaking wet, heavy backpacks, we walked all day in the mud. It was the hardest hike of my life; our thighs burned as we pushed on. By 4:00 p.m., we could see base camp in the distance. But we were so hungry and exhausted that although we were now close, we didn’t feel very encouraged. Time was of the essence. As such, despite plummeting energy levels, we didn’t want to stop to cook what little food was left.
Finally, we reached base camp. Analysing the options, we reasoned that although it was late and conditions were rough, if we hiked for another hour, we could make it home and spend the night in our beds. That idea was so tempting that we decided to go the extra mile. Little did I know that this final stage of our epic hike would turn into the worst experience of my life. Over the remaining distance, we had to cross a river twice. It had rained so much that the level of the river water had risen to the same height as the first bridge. Still, we managed to cross it, regardless of the danger. Arriving at the second crossing, however, we discovered that the bridge had disappeared! We would not get home that night. We would have to go back to base camp and sleep there.
By the time we got back to the first bridge, the water level had risen further. Now the bridge was submerged by the surging river water, making it impassable. Determined to push onwards, my friend Jairo tried to cross it. Since he was a little way ahead, I did not see exactly what happened to Jairo, nor did I have the chance to stop him.
All I remember is hearing a terrifying cry and seeing Jairo clinging to the bridge. He was trapped at the centre of the bridge as the water gushed around him. The bridge creaked and groaned as gallons of water surged past. Desperately trying to rescue Jairo, we reached out by making a human chain, extending our trekking poles as far as possible. Agonisingly, we always fell short by a few centimetres. Suddenly, the bridge’s supporting column snapped in an almighty crash, making it impossible for us to even try to reach him. There was only so long anyone could have held on for. Moments later, Jairo lost his battle against the river and was swept away to his death.
This was not the first time I saw a friend die. Neither would it be the last.
Four years earlier, I was leading a cycling expedition from Bogota to Quibdo. As usual, drivers overtook us and we overtook other cyclists as we proceeded calmly along the flat wide road. We regularly checked the time, our speed (aiming to cruise at 25 kilometres per hour), and heart rates. Everything was going to plan.
Seeing a slower cyclist up ahead, I flagged those who were following me to move to the left, preparing to overtake. But Sergio, an old friend I had known since the age of five, was distracted, and failed to see my command. Continuing to ride straight ahead, he crashed into the slower cyclist and fell onto the road. By itself, this would have been little more than a funny incident we would have teased him about later. However, at that very moment a truck was also passing by on the road. All I could do was watch as Sergio was run over and killed.
An accident can happen to anyone. Although I was leading the cycling party, I don’t feel any guilt about Sergio’s death; too many circumstantial factors coincided for any individual to be blamed. In Jairo’s case, poor weather, fatigue, the desire to return home and bad decision making all contributed to his demise.
Inconceivably, since Sergio’s and Jairo’s deaths, another two of my friends have also died. After having eaten lunch together, another friend suddenly dropped dead from a brain stroke, right before my eyes. And recently, another friend, who was also one of the four of us who embarked on the ill-fated Nevado del Tolima mission, fell to his death in a freak climbing accident. That means that in a span of just eight months, two out of four Team Tolima comrades have died.
When you experience the deaths of not one, two or three, but four friends, it is difficult to simply blame “bad luck.” I started to question:
What am I doing wrong? Why are these things happening?
During the Tolima climb, we took one group photo. What really frightens me is that death is claiming us in exactly the order in which we appear in that photo, right to left. I am the third one in from the right, and can’t help but wonder:
When will it be my turn?
Even if I were the fourth one in, it wouldn’t reassure me. One of my realisations after Sergio’s accident was that although prudence may save us from avoidable accidents, death can, and will, still claim the remaining two of us at any time.
Just two days after his funeral, however, I went out on my bike again. I am convinced Sergio’s death was due to ill-fortune, a most unlikely combination of events. Fortunately, I haven’t had any accidents since then. But I still have unanswered questions:
How much should we rely on our own limited intelligence?
How can we be sure that we are making informed decisions?
Life hangs in the balance, it hangs by a thread. When you realise that thread can be cut at any time, life becomes very frightening.
Although my body seems to belong to me now, when I die, this body will no longer be mine. It will be claimed by those who bury it. On the other hand, before birth, my developing form was completely dependent on the shelter of my mother’s womb. Prior to that, this body only existed potentially, as an idea in my parents’ mind. Given this, I wonder:
Am I actually in control of my own life?
When my friend Lorenzo first shared these experiences with me, I was completely overwhelmed. In my teens, I had chuckled my way through Final Destination, a tongue-in-cheek comedy in which the grim reaper steadily claims the lives of a doomed group of young friends, in absurd and unlikely accidents. Yet, to hear of such events occurring in real life shook me to the core.
As we discussed in “Crunch Time,” part one, we tend to forget the true nature of reality. Distracted by the temporary, we fall asleep. Hypnotised by illusion, we reassure ourselves and others that this world is actually “all good.” But is it really?
How can a soldier traversing a minefield feel confident, what to speak of peaceful or happy?
As limited living entities, we can never have complete knowledge about anything. Given this, despite taking the utmost care, there is every chance of disaster at any moment. Formerly, when I was living as a monk, after a day filled with prayer, study and spiritual service, I would often have the opportunity to sing songs composed by great spiritual teachers in the evenings. In one such song, Govinda Dasa Kaviraja expresses:
“What assurance of real happiness is there in all one’s wealth, youth, sons, and relatives? This life totters like a drop of water on a lotus petal.”
In this sense, all living entities are in the same boat; at any moment, we can meet with death.
Now, although almost everyone will recognise this to be true, you might ask, what’s the point in discussing these morbid topics?
“Yeah, life is full of problems, but why dwell on the negative? Why waste precious time reflecting on something you can’t do anything about?” I hear you ask.
To answer these intelligent questions, we first need to understand the special potential human beings possess. The ancient yoga encyclopaedias explain that as humans, we have advanced intelligence. If our faculties are not misdirected, our intellect naturally detects the faults of material life. Identifying the horrors of old age, disease, and death, we should question why we are forced to suffer.
Understanding that our lives are short, real human beings develop a sense of urgency. Every businessman knows that precious resources should be carefully invested to ensure maximal profit. Similarly, we should all consider how to best use our human energy.
It is all too easy to assume that the presence of suffering indicates the nonexistence of a supreme, compassionate controller. Others even believe that the miseries of life reflect the twisted consciousness of a sadistic creator, who has nothing better to do than inflict pain.
But if we look at it from another angle, we could consider that perhaps this world has been deliberately created to be faulty? In other words, let us consider the possibility that the Supreme Sculptor has purposely designed a matrix of perfect imperfection to facilitate our growth and development. Knowing we will detect the conspicuous faults, could it be that God is actually acting as our supreme friend, by encouraging us to reflect deeply on our existential position, just as Lorenzo is doing?
THE QUEST BEGINS
As it is often said, every cloud has a silver lining. Interestingly, great achievers often emerge from the most adverse circumstances. In the same vein, seeing the problems in material life, a fortunate human being starts to thirst for higher knowledge. Indeed, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes how suffering often inspires us to actively embark on a spiritual journey.
TURNING THE TABLES: A CHANCE TO PREPARE
Could it be that life’s imperfection is actually the manifestation of supreme love, intended to inspire living entities to strive for higher levels of reality and understanding?
Whether death claims us prematurely or at a ripe old age, it will come. So how can we best prepare for this final exam?
In the most confidential chapters of Bhagavad Gita, Krishna reveals what happens at the time of death:
“One’s state of consciousness at the time of death determines one’s next situation.”
When faced with any test, sincere and intelligent students prepare very seriously. If we study and revise for relatively minor examinations, how much more seriously should we plan for death, the ultimate examination?
The ancient yoga encyclopaedias explain that whatever we do and experience in this life will generate a “mental aggregate” at the time of death. This may strike you as esoteric, yet we see that persons who have had neardeath experiences nearly always confirm this truth. I have several close friends who have had near-death experiences. They revealed to me that indeed “your life flashes before your eyes” at such crucial moments.
MAXIMISING OUR HUMAN POTENTIAL
The yoga encyclopaedias reveal that truly cultured human beings prepare for death and therefore achieve favourable destinations in their next life. Conversely, we are also cautioned that those who fritter away their valuable lifespans by neglecting spiritual affairs can hardly expect such a favourable result. As Srila Prabhupada shares in the second chapter of Bhagavad Gita As It Is:
“He is a miserly man who does not solve the problems of life as a human and thus quits this world like the cats and dogs, without understanding the science of self-realization.”
We should be ambitious to advance spiritually. Fortunately, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is making an attempt to widely distribute this essential knowledge. By taking advantage of such instructions, we can achieve transcendence and ultimately return to the spiritual world. All this is available to us, if we desire it, and why shouldn’t we? Let’s claim our birth right as human beings; it’s time to go home.