The art of dying is knowing how to live

(The following article was posted in the “Meditations” column of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest English language daily newspapers, on 4 June 2003.) `HOW ARE you?’ ‘Fine, thanks’. (Translation: ‘Nothing horrible has happened to me today’, or ‘I feel dreadful but who wants to know’?) Soren Kirkegaard said that people lead lives of ‘quiet desperation’. This existential thinking indicates that happiness is only skin deep, and fun is but a passing frisson — a glimmer, a shiver, an instant high, and that our real situation is one of ongoing anguish. As soon as a tooth is fixed, a computer glitch repaired, a disease cured, we feel ecstatic. But surely there is a pleasure that is more than the absence of pain. I? eyes are the index of the mind or windows to the soul, then we can see from each person’s face, the state of his or her consciousness. Look around. What do you see? Against today’s marketeering push for instant everything from transportation to breakfast cereal, the Gita proposes a different kind of happiness (5.24), more to do with contentedness and satisfaction, instead of the excitement generated by drugs, sex, dancing, racing, gaming, sports and romance. All these have a beginning and an end. Transcendental happiness, subtler but deeper and permanent, doesn’t depend on external stimuli. Ancient wisdom holds that such happiness is an inner part of us. Some neuro-scientists call it ‘the God spot’ in the human brain – yet to artificially activate it leads only to temporary intoxication. This ‘inner happiness’ is regarded by some as a hallucination or self-absorbed escapism (Gita 2.69). On the other hand, aspiring transcendentalists think that rationalism or the mechanistic-reductionist vision is an exclusively earthbound creation. In spite of the many scientific and technological advances that have enlarged our range of creature comforts, upward consumer mobility adds unlimited desires and supplies endless choice, where formerly there was only a basic hierarchy of needs and a few simple choices. ‘Progress’ is often regarded as iffy. Dying is something we have to experience although its exact nature is generally unknown. But in that brief sleep, our future is determined. Living is a preparation for death. In his song, The Art of Dying, ex-Beatle, George Harrison implies rightly that one’s daily meditation for the future need not seal us from reality, or make us musty and morbid. It’s intelligent preparation for blue skies beyond.