There are many amazing things in this world, but what would you think is the most amazing?
How about the latest iPhone? Or the recent US presidential victory? The invention of synthetic marijuana? Or perhaps humanity becoming the only species in recorded history to destroy its own habitat? These are all genuine jaw-droppers, but consider this eye-opening answer found in the bhakti-yoga texts of ancient India:
“As a mass of clouds does not know the powerful influence of the wind, a person engaged in material consciousness does not know the powerful strength of the time factor, by which he is being carried.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.30.1)
Let me illustrate this phenomenon by recounting a short history. Once, a king was asked one hundred questions with the stipulation that he must answer every question correctly in order to save his life and that of his four brothers. How did he do? Amazingly, he gave the right answer to all the questions and both he and his brothers were saved. But his answer to the above question – just one of the ton – was so striking that it could transform our life and even save the planet.
“The most amazing thing in the world is that although everyone understands that time will catch them in the form of death, they don’t act on that understanding.”
The king observed that although we all know that we will die, and in fact could die at any moment, we don’t lead our lives in light of that reality. Of course, we’ll say “Hey buddy, I’m no fool. I know I’m going to die!”
But do we?
Are you experienced?
This title to my favourite Jimi Hendrix album reminds me of the king’s observation.
Have you ever been on a flight when the turbulence got really bad? If so, I’m sure you noticed a striking contrast in passenger behaviour before and after. Before the drama, it’s business as usual: passengers flick through an in-flight magazine, watch a movie, take a nap, order a drink or a meal, sure that in a few short minutes or hours, they will touch down safely and be on their way. But once the turbulence begins, that feeling of solace is quickly replaced with anxiety, and on really bad flights, terror.
I’m sure if you have been on one of those flights, you felt the intense stab of fear in the pit of your stomach as the plane lurched up and down, side to side. Not knowing how long the frightening episode was going to last, or even if it was going to end safely, you may, along with others, have started to cry, or even pray and desperately told your dear ones, “I love you.” But why the change in your emotional state now?
After all, we all know we are going to die. Right?
This example illustrates what is, according to the bhakti-yoga wisdom, the world’s most truly amazing phenomenon: Every human being understands theoretically that his or her life will end. History has shown us a 100 percent fatality rate, yet we live our lives as if “It won’t happen to me,” or at least, “Not now.”
It is only when we are forced by circumstances outside of our control to face our own mortality that we actually start to comprehend that death is a reality and we begin to behave accordingly.
No time to kill time
Have you ever considered that, besides our birth, death is the single most significant experience we will have in this life. The demise of our present body means an abrupt and complete disconnection from all the relationships, assets, skills, prestige and learning that we have struggled to acquire. It means an end to all that we associate with our bodily identity. It also means, for most, a journey into an unknown future. This begs the obvious question: “Why, unless we are forced to confront it, are we not concerned about our own death?”
One reason is that we have no time to be. The high priests of consumerism preach with gusto from widescreen pulpits their message of peace and happiness to humanity at large: make money, climb the ladder of success, and struggle to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of relationships and possessions. This is what all our time is meant for.
Overwhelmed by the deluge of work-buy-consume propaganda, bamboozled by the YOLO philosophy; the one body, one life, one opportunity doctrine, most of us are far too busy to consider that everything we try so hard to achieve will be taken away by time. Charged up on social networking and mobile mania, we just have no time to kill time.
Living for the now
Another enemy of deep thinking today is the superficially tasty “Just be in the moment” pill. It would be rare to find an individual brave enough to challenge this one. At the same time, there are many situations in life in which it obviously does not apply, even to its most die-hard proponent.
Let’s take the example of renting a house. When our landlord gives us notice that we will have to move on, do we simply wait for the inevitable eviction because we don’t want to disturb “living for the now”? No. We make plans for where we are going before it happens because we understand that planning for the future is in our own self-interest.
For the same reason, we may give up the late Friday night thrills to study for that big exam or work overtime to show our boss we’re serious about upward mobility in our career. Assembling an earthquake kit, putting oil in our car, adding to a savings account and brushing our teeth are a few more everyday examples of how we sensibly make plans today for tomorrow. But why is our prudent forward planning capacity limited to just this life?
Shouldn’t we also plan for the ultimate eviction: death?
You only live once
A less overt reason that we’re not concerned about time’s effect is that we, as non-material sparks of consciousness, never actually expire. This we intuitively understand, and, therefore, we live as if we are not going to die because, well, we actually never do. Prime bhakti-yoga journal Bhagavad Gita explains:
“For the soul, there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bhagavad Gita 2.20)
In other words, we never die. Awesome! So why sweat it? The catch is that although the real self, because of its nonmaterial constitution, is never actually affected by time, the body it temporarily resides in, animates and identifies with, is.
And, because we misunderstand the body to be the self and the material realm as one’s home, the spirit soul, known in Sanskrit as the atma, although unborn and immortal, experiences the unnatural phenomenon of birth and death and in this way suffers unnecessarily, life after life.
Time to spend
What is the most amazing thing in the world? How about winning the lottery? Wouldn’t that be great? We could have whatever we want, right? Actually, statistics show that most lottery winners, although peaking the happiness metre just after their big win, end up back where they were on happiness indicators within the span of around three months. Some even end up more miserable than before they got lucky and curse the day the wealth entered their lives.
Stats aside, even if we had all the money in the world, we could not buy back one second of our lives. In other words, our time in this human body, the only truly priceless asset we have, is by far our most valuable resource. How we utilise that resource is of course up to us. Concerned with our welfare, however, the wise urge us to begin by asking ourselves the following question:
“Am I killing time or is it the other way around?”
It’s a good question, isn’t it?