What to do at the Time of Death?
Yoga teaches us to be present, non-attached, awake, clear, conscious, aware of the results of our actions and aware of the eternal Self within.
Numerous spiritual traditions teach that such qualities are most appropriately applied at the time of death. A lifetime of yoga practice prepares us for the moment when we leave the physical body. Many spiritual traditions and sacred texts present that the content of our consciousness at the time of death determines our fate in the afterlife.
What happens when we die? Do we have a choice to be born again or can we be liberated from the cycle of birth and death? We can look to many Eastern traditions for instructions, teachings and advice on what to do at this auspicious time.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead encourages a fearless, clear and calm mind as one travels through the trials and tribulations of the afterlife. Instruction is given for skillful navigation through different lokas (celestial landscapes) and encounters with demonic and divine beings in the afterlife. Positive attributes learned and gained through spiritual practice could be forgotten in this transition if one is distracted by earthly attachments, has fear of the unknown or perhaps is numbed by pharmaceutical medication.
The Vipassana meditation tradition of S. N. Goenka teaches the practitioner to reduce and thin their personal attachments and aversions (samskaras) by letting go of and not reacting to the content the mind that arises during the waking state of consciousness. Goenka explains in his teachings that this reservoir of samskaras can rise to the surface of the conscious mind, and is no different than someone’s “life flashing before their eyes” at the time of death or near death. If one has adequately worked to reduce their personal collection of attachments and aversions, this paves the way for a calm, clear, and peaceful mind at the time of death. Goenka explains in his teachings that one’s state of mind at the time of death determines the state of mind at the next birth. An individual with an equanimous and peaceful mind is capable of focusing their awareness towards the divine, and consciously directing their soul in the afterlife without distraction or interruption.
The Bhagavad Gita’s eighth chapter is perhaps one of the most popular and well-read instructions on ascension. Here, Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna on what to do at the time of death before he goes to war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Krishna tells Arjuna, “Those who remember me at the time of death will always come to me. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying. Therefore, remember me at all times. When you make the mind one-pointed through the practice of meditation, you will find the supreme glory of the Lord. With your mind completely stilled, free of selfish passions and your concentration fixed at the third eye between your eyebrows, you will realize the supreme Lord. Close down the doors of the senses and place your mind in the heart.”
“Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards to the head, repeating the sacred sound of OM, the sound of the eternal Godhead. You will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal, union with me. At the time of death, there are two paths that the soul may follow Arjuna. One, the path of darkness and rebirth, the other is of light and liberation. Attain this knowledge through perseverance in Yoga and you will never be deluded again.”
In a similar tale of divine instruction from the Katha Upanishad, A young man by the name of Nachiketa asks Yama (the lord of death) what happens when one leaves the physical body. Yama hence explains the mystery of death. He tells Nachiketa, “Eternal peace and freedom from rebirth is attainable to those who recognize the Self in their own hearts. The wise, who still the mind and senses no longer chase after the objects of the senses and the world of change. Established in the Self, they enter the unitive state, never to be separate from divine source again. When all desires of the heart are renounced, mortals become immortal, free from the wheel of birth and death.”
Yama continues, “the Self abides in the human heart in a form about the size of a human thumb and from this heart area, there are one hundred and one energetic pathways (nadis) leading from the heart. One leads to the crown of the head. This pathway leads to immortality. The other pathways lead to death and rebirth. At the time of death, draw the Self up towards the crown of the head and out of the physical sheath. Know thyself to be pure and immortal!”
The time of death is a great mystery. Spiritual traditions suggest that, at all times, we stay awake and alert, with our awareness in the unitive state and our mind focused on the divine. We must be prepared to let go of a lifetime of attachments and desires as our life could end at any moment. Such a task is ultimately challenging and could be considered the spadework of our soul.
The Winter solstice (December 21) is a time for rebirth, a celebration of the days getting longer, symbolizing coming out of darkness and moving into light. Looking ahead to this years’ solstice, it is said to be an end or death of a larger time cycle in our planet’s evolution. We have the opportunity to create a new and beautiful world by focusing our attention on that which is eternal, centered in harmony, peace and unconditional love. The content of our minds during this period of transition is incredibly important: with our collective thoughts, we have the ability to co-create a mass evolution of planetary love, peace, unity and happiness for all beings.
A verse from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is an appropriate prayer for our times:
Om Asato Ma Sad Gamaya
Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya
Om Shantih Shantih Shantih
Oh Lord, Lead me
From the unreal to the real
From the darkness to the light
From death to immortality
OM Peace Peace Peace
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Chogyam Trungpa, Shambala Press
The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita, Easwaran, Nilgiri Press
S. N. Goenka, Vipassana Meditation courses, evening discourse, day 4 & 5.