Have you ever asked, what’s the most amazing thing in the world?
Is it the beauty of nature, a meaningful connection, Egyptian pyramids, or simply the miracle of life itself?
Once, a great king was asked this very question. Closing his eyes in deep contemplation, the king responded:
“The most amazing thing is that although at every moment countless living beings meet with death, everyone still believes that they will never die.”
This illusion is so powerful that indeed many people never stop to seriously consider the facts: our bodies take birth, age, suffer disease, and ultimately die.
Given this reality, is it really intelligent to strive for happiness through material manipulation?
Even the few who achieve their material dreams, excel in meaningful careers, and enjoy economic success and family life ultimately only set themselves up for incredible suffering. Ironically, the more attached we become to our material acquisitions, the more anguish we will experience. Imagine the pain of being ripped away from all the objects of our affection at death . . .
Careful now, we don’t want you thinking about life too deeply!
If everyone stopped to ponder these essential topics, who would be left to continue the vital activities of modern life? Who would be left to waste money in malls, cheer on sports teams, or pursue alcohol-fuelled hook-ups in seedy nightclubs?
By concealing many of life’s miseries from public view, society expertly maintains the illusion that everything is okay. For example, because New Zealand’s healthcare system is relatively robust, most medical emergencies are treated in hospitals. As such, rarely does anyone, except medical staff, confront life and death scenarios capable of stimulating deep reflection.
I’m not suggesting that we turf sick patients onto the streets for general inspection. But since so many unpleasant events are minimised or removed from the public domain, so easily are we lulled to sleep. Complacently smug, we slumber in false confidence. Slurping down a mochaccino, we muse that life’s just fine. When asked how we are, we confidently reply with Kiwi classics such as “All good, bro,” “A box of birds,” “Sweet as,” and “She’ll be right, mate.”
But will she?
By indulging in such artificial optimism, we set ourselves up for a very rude awakening. When the curtains of illusion are suddenly pulled back, what will we do then?
Accident and Emergency
One Sunday afternoon an elderly lady arrives at the hospital, followed by a stream of concerned relatives. Painkillers haven’t helped the mild lower back pain she has suffered for 24 hours.
Picking up her notes, I call Mrs. Brown in for consultation. I take a careful history, perform a thorough physical examination, and order initial investigations. I arrive at a provisional diagnosis of renal colic (pain due to kidney stones). Satisfied with the initial management of the case, I order a confirmatory CT scan and confidently head to the canteen.
It’s been a long shift and I’m looking forward to a bite to eat. Unpacking my rucksack, I take out my lunchbox filled with tasty Krishna food. Lunchtime at last! Better late than never! But as soon as I sit down and lift my fork, the inevitable happens. My pager goes off:
“Beep, beep, beep! Emergency! Emergency! Report to resuscitation immediately!”
Abandoning my lunchbox, I race back to the department. A nurse meets me. “You won’t believe what that scan showed, doctor. Please come quickly!”
Arriving in the resuscitation suite, I bring up the CT image on the computer. The scan shows that Mrs. Brown does not have a kidney stone. She has a rapidly rupturing abdominal aortic aneurysm, commonly referred to as a “Triple A” in medical circles.
The large artery that curves down from the heart and supplies most of the body with blood is called the aorta. After passing through the thorax, the artery traverses the abdominal region, supplying essential organs with oxygen-rich blood. Although still a primary artery, at this point, the diameter of the abdominal aorta typically measures about 2cm in an average adult. But Mrs. Brown’s measured 10cm and was about to rupture! Needless to say, the odds of surviving a ruptured aorta are next to nil.
We were in a race against the clock. At any moment the vessel could burst leading to circulatory collapse (shock) and imminent cardiac arrest. Preparing Mrs. Brown for resuscitation, my colleagues inserted drips, suspended bags of fluids, and drew up adrenaline injections while I called the surgical team. The patient’s only chance of survival now lay in prompt surgical intervention.
Moments later, the doors swung open and in strode Mr. Jones—a tall, middle-aged Scot with piercing blue eyes. Shaking my hand, he thanked me for the referral before approaching Mrs. Brown and her family. Expressionless, Mr. Jones spoke as follows:
“Hello Mrs. Brown. My name is Mr. Jones and I’m the consultant vascular surgeon on call today. Your scan shows that your aorta is rupturing and could burst at any moment. In some cases we can repair or replace the damaged vessel but your case is so severe that even if we had a prosthetic long enough to replace the aneurysm (which we don’t) the operation would take at least ten hours. Given your age and general health, you would never survive such an operation. As such, there is no question of us attempting to intervene surgically today. You probably have only minutes left to live. I’m sorry we can’t help you. Goodbye.”
Mr. Jones swept out as quickly as he had entered. Sometimes it is said that silence can be deafening or that you can cut an atmosphere with a knife. Never before had these clichés been so palpable. The devastating news had plunged everyone into an ocean of shock.
This was one of the most intense moments I had ever experienced. Medical staff, the patient, and her relatives were all absorbed in trying to comprehend the heavy, unpalatable truth.
We tottered on the brink of life and death. The veil of illusion had been raised, exposing the grim reality of this temporary, material world.
Normally, even in the most severe scenarios, at least some hope of medical cure exists. Regardless of how slim the chances of survival, intervention can still offer tremendous hope to both patients and clinical staff.
Yet, despite the best efforts of the medical team backed by state-of-the-art facilities, scanners, and drugs, imminent death was unavoidable.
Fact: Sooner or later we will all face the end of our current lifetime. The death rate is always 100 percent whether we can delay the inevitable or not. But why do people so rarely accept the implications of this reality?
Now, no one could do anything to prevent Mrs. Brown from leaving her body and everyone openly knew it. We were stunned, crushed by the ruthless brutality of nature. Time froze. Suspended in animation, no one moved or even breathed.
Finally, Mrs. Brown’s pitiful voice broke the long silence.
“But I don’t feel like I’m dying!”
What could anyone say?
A Cup of Tea
After another millennium of anguished silence, a young nurse stepped forward. Inspired to at least offer something and break the ice, she asked Mrs. Brown:
“Do you fancy a cup of tea, love?”
I couldn’t believe my ears . . .
This lady is about to die and all you can offer is a cup of tea? I thought, amazed to hear such a mundane suggestion at such a crucial moment.
As if the nurse’s question was the cue for the curtain of illusion to fall back down, another nurse then suggested “popping the radio on to hear some nice songs,” and suddenly everyone began acting as if nothing had happened and everything was fine. I felt the collective realisation we had just experienced shatter into a thousand pieces. Busying themselves with futile, routine tasks, the clinical team returned to normal activities, seemingly forgetting the powerful insights offered to them only moments before.
Mrs. Brown passed away over a cup of tea and biscuits a short while later.
Inwardly, the case continued to affect me deeply. What shocked me most was not the open admission of our inability to help Mrs. Brown physically, but the ignorance of how to help Mrs. Brown spiritually. The lack of medical options should have prompted an increased level of care for the soul, the eternal source of consciousness, who was still within the body of Mrs. Brown at that point. Instead, lacking knowledge of what actually happens at the time of death, everyone simply reverted to the superficial mode of “everything’s okay.”
Knowledge, Freedom, and Happiness
Without genuine spiritual knowledge and insight, most living beings leave this world miserable and afraid. People often ask me why a doctor would become a monk. In response, I have to explain that I have seen too many people leave their bodies in ignorance. Physical medical aid does not help the eternal soul within the body. Monks also care for people, but on a much deeper level. By helping and guiding people to understand who they are, what they are part of, and how to act in relation to the source of existence, Krishna, the disease of material existence is destroyed at its root.
As Krishna explains in his initial advice in Bhagavad Gita:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you . . . nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (2.12)
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this perishable body, from childhood to youth to old age, the eternal soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (2.13)
Death, the soul’s exit from the temporary material body, is sure to come. The particular disease or circumstance that forces us, the spirit soul within, to leave the physical body is, in the highest sense, irrelevant. What makes all the difference, however, is knowledge. Fear implies ignorance. Those who know their spiritual identity, scientifically convinced of their separate and continued existence apart from the body, do not lament at the time of death. Instead, advanced practitioners of Krishna consciousness see it as a time to rejoice. At long last, the qualified soul is liberated from the miserable conditions and limitations of material life. This is why Krishna confirms that the greatest wealth a person can achieve is not physical health or longevity, but spiritual understanding.
Krishna also states:
“In this world, there is nothing so sublime and pure as transcendental knowledge. Such knowledge is the mature fruit of all mysticism. And one who has become accomplished in the practice of Krishna consciousness enjoys this knowledge within himself in due course of time.” (Bhagavad Gita 4.38)
Real human culture should expose, rather than conceal, just how much unnecessary suffering the soul undergoes, imprisoned within the material body; individual and collective spiritual resuscitation is the greatest need of the day. Indeed, the ultimate medical intervention is that which revives our spiritual identity and eternal loving relationship with Krishna, the Supreme Soul. In this way, the expert spiritual doctor offers unlimited happiness to his patients.
What could be better than that?