Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Death, Kapotasana, Silence

“I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather... Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”

 Wil Shriner, comedian

Claudia just wrote a very thoughtful post about death. Following the time-honored tradition of piggy-backing on other people's posts, I am going to jump in here and say a few things too.

You may be wondering: Why are you writing about death just one day after the summer solistice? Isn't this a bit of a downer? Well, it sure doesn't feel much like summer here in Northwest Minnesota: It's been in the 50s and low 60s (that's about 12 to 16 degrees celsius, for those of you living outside the United States), and raining for most of the last couple of days. So you can blame the weather (and maybe, Claudia's post too :-)) for putting me in this pensive state of mind.

I'll start by telling a story. At the university where I teach, there is a large community of Nepali students. A few of them actually take my classes, so I personally know quite a few of them. One evening a couple of months ago, I ran into a group of them in the campus cafeteria, and we started chatting about stuff outside the classroom over dinner (which is usually dangerous territory for a teacher to venture into with students, especially if the teacher is relatively close in age to them, as you will soon see; but alas, I am young and naive...). Out of politeness, I started asking them questions about their culture and home country, and--perhaps because, like them, I am also not originally from this country--they seemed to be very at ease, and were very open in sharing with me many of their feelings and thoughts about many different things in the U.S. as compared to their home country.

At one point, the conversation turned to their post-graduation plans. I turned to one of the students, and asked her whether she intended to stay in the U.S. to work after graduation or to return to her home country. She told me that she wants to work for a few years in the U.S. after graduation, but she will quite definitely want to return to her home country after that. I asked her why. She hesitated and did not respond. It seemed as though there were something she felt strongly about, but she wasn't sure if it would be appropriate to give voice to whatever she was thinking. After a couple of awkward moments, this other more out-spoken student jumped in and blurted out, "Who wants to grow old and die in this country? In this country, you work so hard till you retire (if you're lucky enough to be able to retire), and then your children leave you in a nursing home somewhere, and you die by yourself. Whereas in our country, we take care of old people, and they never die alone. In our country, the adults take care of the young, and the young take care of them when they grow old. This is something Americans will never understand." She then went on to relate with great pride how her parents had worked very hard and made many sacrifices so that she could come to this country for school.

I listened to her as best as I could, trying very hard to keep a straight face. In my mind, I struggled with whether I should point out to her the rather one-sided nature of her views: It is true that many people in this country put their parents in nursing homes, but this does not mean that they don't care about them, you shouldn't make such hasty generalizations, etc., etc. But I just couldn't muster the heart to do it: It is really very difficult to contradict someone who believes in something with the entire force of their being. And besides, I had this uncomfortable feeling that if I were to contradict them on something that they cherished so deeply in their hearts, they would think that I was simply trying to use my authority as a professor to put them down (ah, the pain...).

But we should come back to the topic of death. There is that one line that student said that keeps coming back to me: "in our country, we take care of old people, and they never die alone." Well, is this true? Is it really possible to not die alone?

There was a time when I also shared this student's belief. I also used to believe that the best way to die is to die surrounded by friends and family, so that the event of my death will not be borne by me alone, but will be shared by others. And perhaps in this way, the burden of my mortality will be easier to bear. But does being surrounded by people whom you are close to make the death any less your death? After all, no matter how much others love and cherish you, no matter how much they wish to be a part of your demise, nothing will change the fact that it is you who is dying at that moment, and nobody can do your dying for you: Ultimately, it is you, not them, who must go forth--alone--to face that unknown space that we label the Hereafter. In short, death is the one event in life that we must face in utter solitude... actually, it is misleading to even call it an event, since an event presupposes a state of affairs that can be shared and co-experienced by more than one person. But death, death is the one (and probably only) thing in life that we must face in utter alone-ness.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I think all this may help explain why I often experience this fear and anxiety when approaching deep backbends in yoga (especially Kapotasana). There is a sense in which Kapotasana is like death, except you get to the other side, and live to tell the story. It is like death, in the sense that nobody can feel the intense sensations in Kapotasana with you or for you: It is you who has to do Kapotasana and experience the intense sensations involved. Others can help you in certain ways (assist you, encourage you, even cheer you on, if this rocks your boat), but it is you who must take the plunge, bend backwards into God-knows-what-territory-awaits-you, and do the posture. Nobody can kapotasana for you, just like (well, not just like, but you get the idea...) nobody can do your dying for you.

Well, I think I'll stop here. I know this is kind of abrupt, but while I can say a lot more about Kapotasana, there is really not much more I can say about death without sounding like a preacher or something. And I think it was Wittgenstein who said that that which cannot be said must be passed over in silence. And so I'll leave you here with the sound... of... silence...


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