Getting to Heaven Before You Die

Another year is upon us. Or is it behind us? Or ahead? One thing is for sure: according to my calendar, the 366 days of Leap Year, 2016 have passed. Personally, I am a bit shocked by how fast the year has gone, even with the extra day thrown in. Most of the people I talk with agree that it went by quickly. Many (often those older than I) sagaciously nod their heads and them emphatically inform me that, the older I get, the faster the years will pass. So, as I reel from the speed with which 2016 has evaporated, I have been considering the following: 

     If we suppose that our life will span 80 years, that means our life will last 29,220 days. So, even if you were just born in 2016, you now are under 29,000 days. I’ll be honest, yesterday is the first time I actually stopped to do the math. I have to admit I was shocked that it was only tens of thousands of days. I thought a human life was hundreds of thousands, at least. I suspect I am not alone in this, which explains the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of television reruns.

     Not that I wish to be grim, but I do wish that everyone, this holiday season, in addition to feeling an abundance of cheer, will feel the slight sense of constriction that that number—29,200—brings. This year I turned 43. That means I have roughly 13,515 days left (I didn’t figure out the number of leap years), if I make it to 80. That makes the sense of tightness even more acute. Of course, as Prashant Iyengar quips, I am practicing “I-younger” yoga so maybe I’ll make it to 100. Although I’d really only want to be that old under certain, very specific conditions. But we all know: there are no guarantees.

     So even if I make it to 100, that’s still only 20,819 days remaining. Now why, you may ask, all this focus on the (fleeting) number of days we have/we have left as human beings? Well, first, it is said in yoga that the affliction abhinivesha, or the instinctive fear of death is persistent. Actually, all the afflictions: avidya (spiritual ignorance), asmita (egotism or pride), raga (attachment or craving), dvesha (aversion) are persistent. Abhinivesha however, appears to be unique among the afflictions. B. K. S.  Iyengar, in his translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras states, “Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men.” He goes on to say that, “If even a highly educated, scholarly person cannot easily remain unattached to life, it is not difficult to gauge the feelings of an average individual.” 

     Secondly, though I find the turning of the year to be a bit arbitrary, it is a time when, collectively, we are watching something come to an end and something else begin. It is also a time when we are turning from the darkening half to the lightening half of the year. Just as in yoga, the transitions, the movements are important moments for attentive, reflective awareness and action. For those of us who practice regularly, we experience first-hand countless transitions. We literally embody the fact that our physical form is constantly and endlessly changing, and it doesn’t take holding a posture for too long to have a clear glimpse of the mind’s mercurial nature. This automatically seems to beg the question: If this body and mind are so inconstant and in such a state of flux, what will become of them? A look into the human condition will show there are virtually limitless possibilities, some clearly more desirable than others. But again, there seem to be no guarantees. 

     The fact that there seem to be no guarantees about how we will change leads us to ask another important question: Is there anything I can do to have the changes that are bound to occur be agreeable? This is a key question. To ask it, first and foremost takes courage, and to earnestly seek an affirmative answer, I believe leads to the most extraordinary experience a human being can have. It is a question worth loving, as Rainer Maria Rilke admonishes in his “Letters to a Young Poet.” It is a question worth living in for decades—for however many thousand (or hundred, or tens, or single) days we may have left. This is the question, I believe, that any sincere practitioner of yoga must ask if they seek true alignment. This is the question, I believe, that, if asked, would give rise to the teachings of yoga, in the absence of any existing teachers or texts on the subject. In other words, I believe the whole science of yoga has arisen out of an attempt to forge an affirmative answer to the question, “Is there anything I can do to have the inevitable changes I will experience as a human being be agreeable?” After all, is this not what we seek, an agreeable change of conditions; an agreeable change in our experience of life? Is this not why an estimated 80 – 95% of Americans (and perhaps the world) require some kind of chemical support for their experience in the form of (legal or illegal) drugs or substances? Is this not why we as a species are consuming natural resources at such a rate that we need five planets’ worth of resources to sustain us? Is this not why we have sought out the practice of yoga?

     There is so much more to say, but days go by quickly these days . . . I will end with a call to action and an invitation. First the call to action: B. K. S.  Iyengar acknowledges a longing in us to find our comfort, and the challenges we face in doing it. He also suggests a different approach we might take on our quest to orchestrate more agreeable changes in our lives. He states, 

“As mammals, we are homeostatic. That means we maintain certain constant balances within our bodies, temperature for example, by adapting to change and challenge in the environment. Strength and flexibility allow us to keep an inner balance, but man is trying more and more to dominate the environment rather than control himself. Central heating, air conditioning, cars that we take out to drive three hundred yards, towns that stay lit up all night, and food imported from around the world out of season are all examples of how we try to circumvent our duty to adapt to nature and instead force nature to adapt to us. In the process, we become weak and brittle . . . ”

Can you hear the call to action? It is simple. It is yoga. It is Iyengar Yoga. I declare that now is the time for us to take up our duty and adapt to nature. Now is the time to give it a break from our incessant demands that it adapt to us. Were that the solution,H. O. P. E.  we would be living in paradise, given our ability to cause nature to adapt? I declare that paradise lies in a different direction, the direction we take when we seek to adapt to nature, when we seek an answer to the question, “What can I do create agreeable changes in my life?” The first requirement in seeking such an answer is discover what agreeable changes truly are. For this we must address our afflictions. We must address the avidya, asmita, raga, and dvesha that we face as human beings. If these afflictions govern our perception we have no way on knowing what is truly agreeable—not to use, not to our own egoistic sense of self, but to Life. Human history up to this point confirms that. We have never lived in times where the ego’s desires could be so extensively satisfied. Trouble is, the ego’s desires can never be satisfied. 

     Now for the invitation: This is where yoga comes in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is clearly stated that the practice of yoga reduces the afflictions and leads to samadhi, the experience of knowing the absolute reality of life. It is with this knowledge alone that we can successfully answer the question, “What can I do create agreeable changes in my life?” You could say that the whole science of yoga exists as an answer to that very question. It’s guidance is expert and comprehensive. So the invitation is: start somewhere. First, let us ask the question. Or perhaps we need to back up and start with a preliminary question: “What exactly is an agreeable change?” I am confident that, if asked with sincerity and loved wholeheartedly, these questions can and will empower us to fill however many days we have left in a worthwhile way. I am sure that they can guide us to enjoy a “happy life and majestic death,” to quote Mr. Iyengar. I also have a feeling they might just help us find  H. O. P. E.. That’s Heaven On Planet Earth. Aren’t you ready for some of that? I know I am.