In January of this year, as a gift to myself, I attended an 11-day spiritual adventure throughout North India with my beloved friend and mentor, Dandapani. Having traveled to this spectacular land of my ancestors many times before, I knew the experience was going to be extraordinary, but I was quite unprepared for the depth of my inner journey throughout the adventure.
One of my most memorable experiences on this trip was spending three days and nights in the ancient city of Varanasi, known widely as the seat of spirituality in India. My experience in this holy city, nestled on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, captured the essence of India for me: colorful, chaotic, magical, and mystical. From my observations, Varanasi drew hundreds, if not thousands, of people to its sacred center everyday. Hindu pilgrims traveled from far distances to bathe in the holy waters of the river, lovingly referred to as Mother Ganges. Others were there to cremate loved ones and release them into the afterlife with rituals invoking a graceful and easy transition. Additionally, the city was teeming with tourists from all over the world, adding to the vibrant flavor of this unforgettable place.
In Varanasi, it's strongly believed that the veils between the worlds are thin. Simply sitting in silence and solitude on the ghats, the series of steps leading down to the holy river, inspired within me moments of deep thought and reflection on the nature of life... and the nature of death, as well. In one of our Hinduism and Meditation classes, which was such a rich part of our Spiritual Adventure, Dandapani shared with us that in Varanasi, death is seen simply as a part of the cycle of life; everything that is born will one day come to die. Many Hindus actually make a pilgrimage to Varanasi with the specific intention to die there, on sacred ground. I was astounded by this information.
During our three-day stay in Varanasi, we were given an exercise to complete. Dandapani asked us to walk to the burning ghats, the crematory grounds where bodies are burned around the clock, and to silently observe the area for about 20 minutes. As we contemplated the transient nature of life and the physical body while watching the cremations below us, he asked us to hold two questions in our hearts:
How will I choose to live the years I have left?
Do I have the courage to accept myself for who I am and live the life I really want to be living?
I was very surprised at the deep sense of peace that came over me when I eventually made my way to the burning ghats. Standing above them, I was acutely aware of the strong smell of smoke coming from the burning wood and flesh. I counted 17 bodies burning at individual funeral pyres at one point, with new bodies being carried through on colorfully embellished palanquins every few minutes or so. Death was not only a part of life here, it was also a business.
As I looked on in silence, I reflected on the inevitable truth that one day, my dead body will also burn to ashes and be released back to the holy river. And one day, this will be the case for each and every one of my loved ones as well. Confronting this absolute fact as I meditated on Dandapani's questions inspired yet another question to arise from within me. I heard a kind, but very firm voice in my heart lovingly ask me:
My dear, what are you waiting for?
How often have we each heard stories of people we know who move through life as if time is an infinite resource, only to discover at death's door that they were never really living the life of their heartfelt dreams anyway? As I look back on my life choices up to this moment, I will admit that I have certainly bought into gravely mistaken assumption that I will undoubtedly live a long life, and, as such, I've taken this wild and precious journey for granted. The truth is, I have no clue when I will take my last breath, nor does anyone else. The future is promised to no one. So why not live today as if we were dying? Why not live every day as if we were dying? Why not let death be the greatest impetus for my commitment to myself, my purpose for being here on this planet, and what's left of my time here?
Dandapani's wise teacher, lovingly known as Gurudeva, often said that "Life is not short; it's finite." Yet another one of his favorite maxims was, "Life is meant to be lived joyously."
I couldn't agree more.
My greatest wish for all of you is this: May each of you have the courage to meet yourselves where you are in this moment, accept yourselves fully, and proceed to live the life you want with courage, love, and confidence in your heart. There is not a single moment to be wasted.
So... What are you waiting for?