Coming to Terms with Old Age and Dying
Don’t worry! I’m in very good health, and I hope you are, too! Still, I am the last part of my 6th decade, so the subject of the best ways to face into old age and death are important ones for me to consider now. Actually, this is true for everyone, no matter what your physical age may be presently.
Swami Kriyananda has always taught us to “…see all of life as a preparation for death.” He calls death: “The Final Exam.” You can read his essay by that same name in his book Religion in the New Age. It’s really fascinating!
Anyway, one of my daily spiritual practices for the past few years has been to read at least one or two pages from The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita. It has become my handbook “for spiritual living” and never fails to uplift me, challenge me, or get my attention in one way or another. Here’s a section which really made me sit up and take notice, when I read it a few days ago. It’s from Chapter 19, “Knowledge and Wisdom,” verse 7:29.
Krishna (the Lord) is speaking to Arjuna (the disciple): “Those who, clinging to Me, seek release from the debilities of old age and from the finality of death become true knowers of Brahman, the Absolute, of Adhyatma, the Overself, and of all the secrets of karma.”
The verse is followed by this amazing explanation:
“The debilities of old age are notorious. They include increasing illness, physical and mental debility, and perhaps senility. It is always sad to see someone who was once robust and full of energy decline to decrepitude, outwardly and inwardly. People often spend their life savings on medical care in their last years. Those who cling to God are the most likely to die with dignity. The Overself watches over them in old age better than any human doctor could do. Inwardly it is evident to those who know them intimately, they are unchanged and, indeed, spiritually robust and ‘…ever the same,’ as the great woman saint Anandamayee Ma declared. Those with any lingering doubts as to the whys of life, the disparities of fortune, their seeming injustices, and the endless intricacies of karma, find all their questions answered in Brahman….”
I don’t fear death. I’ve had a couple of close calls already. But the “notorious debilities of old age,” some of which are listed above–well, I must admit they sound a bit scary to me.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, as did her mother and also my aunt (my father’s only sister). So if this disease is hereditary, as some say, then the “shotgun of senility” is pointed directly at me. Wow!
A few years back I decided to ask Swami Kriyananda about this and see if he had any suggestions about how to avoid senility. He gave me this simple reply: “The brain is like a muscle. Never stop using it! Always keep it strong and actively creative.” Good advice, which I am doing my best to follow!
Here’s another comment from Swamiji on the loss of mental functions: One of Paramhansa Yogananda’s closest disciples was Kamala Silva [1906-1997]. She wrote two beautiful books about her many years of discipleship to her master: The Flawless Mirror and Priceless Precepts. In the closing years of her life, she experienced a massive loss of brain function. She lived at Ananda Village for some of this time, with several of our members taking care of her.
The question arose in many of our minds, “How could such an advanced and beloved disciple of Yogananda lose her ability to think clearly, know where she was, or who the people around her might be? She seems to have lost contact with her brain!” When this question was asked of Swami, he again made a very simple remark: “What’s a brain?” He was, of course, implying that there are other, more important aspects of a human being than the functions of the mind.
“Well,” I said to myself, when I heard that statement, “My brain is pretty darned important to me! When I can’t think clearly or well, then will life really be worth living?” Still, I meditated carefully on Swamiji’s words, as I always try to do, and here is what I came up with. A heart full of love for God and Gurus (I’m certain Kamala never lost it, even when she lost the ability to be mentally clear)–that has got to be more important than any amount of intelligence or lack of it. Surely, this is what the verse quoted above means: “…those who cling to God, they are [in the most important way] unchanged, spiritually robust, and ever the same!”
Then there’s that part in the Gita about how, at the close our lives, we can come to terms with “…the endless intricacies of karma.” What does this mean?
I think an example may explain it; I love this true story about the great Italian saint, Padre Pio [1889-1968]. He was called to the bedside of a man who was experiencing intense physical suffering. Padre Pio had the gift of healing, a fact which was well-known to this man and his family. Naturally they asked Padre Pio to heal him.
At the suffering man’s bedside, Padre Pio blessed and comforted him, but told him that he would not (could not) heal him because, “…there is still a little more chaff to burn.” [“Chaff” is the dry casings of wheat or other grains, often burnt after harvest as a waste material.]
The deeper meaning of Padre Pio’s words are: “You have a little more karma to get rid of (burn up), here at the close of your life. For me to ask God to heal you now would not allow this process to happen as it should. You have to go through this bit of suffering, and I must let you do it. Then you’ll be free of it forever!” I think that this is what often happens at the close of our lives, that is, “…just a little more chaff left to burn.”
Some of us may die quickly, quietly, and easily. Some of us may die young. Some of us may live to 100+. Some of us may suffer greatly at the end this life, mentally or physically. Unless we are able to merge back into God in this lifetime (work on it!!!), it’s certain that one of these things is going to happen to us. No matter! Our souls are truly untouchable by anything that old age or even death can throw at us. Remember that The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “…the Overself watches over us better in old age than any human doctor could do.” What a wonderful promise!