by Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa, Ph.D.
On a cool Tuesday morning in January 1990, Jonathan called. I had been teaching yoga to people living with serious illness for about five years in Los Angeles.
“I’m calling to let you know I may not make it to class on Friday, ” Jonathan began in his soft British accent. “I’ve gone to the doctor this morning and he told me I have just three days to live. Mind you, I am not actually canceling. If the doctor is right, my partner David will give you a ring.
If the doctor is wrong, I’ll be in class, in my usual spot.” Jonathan spoke with ease and calm. From the time he had first started classes in Kundalini Yoga for people living with HIV, he took to heart the yogic perspective on living and dying. He used this time to explore his life.
What was he afraid of? What was holding him back from fully enjoying the gift of his life? Jonathan used the practice of meditation to help him become aware of his feelings, beliefs, decisions, words, and actions and to transform them.
He then made a conscious choice to live in a way that honored the sacredness of his life. He was 39 years old. When it came time for death, he was prepared. It was with this fearless depth that Jonathan heard the doctor’s prognosis.
In the early evening on that same Tuesday, David called to let me know that Jonathan had passed away peacefully in their home.
When I first started to teach Kundalini Yoga to people with HIV, cancer, and other life-threatening illness, a renowned health care leader told me bluntly, “Death is a medical failure. We don’t want our patients to die, so when it looks as though they will, we start to pull away. We turn our attention to the patients where we can win.”
At that point, there was nothing in my life experience that had taught me how to serve people facing death, and I was seeking the wisdom of those in the field. I stood in front of a leading representative of modern medical health care, astounded.
So, I thought, this is how medical people are trained away from a dying person. How would a yogi respond? Simple. Move closer. Closer to the dying person, and especially move closer to the realization and acceptance of one’s own death.
Yogi Bhajan says that to know how to live, we must know how to die. To a person following a yogic way of living, life is a conscious preparation for death. When we remember in life that we are to die, our awareness does not allow us to do a wrong act. We remember the preciousness of our life and choose right action.
Roger was a chemical engineer and a methodical man. For him, everything had to have a reason, an explanation, and it had to make sense. When he received a diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer, he approached his treatment with the same one-step-at-a-time system that he used in his lab at work. When his oncologist told Roger there was no further treatment he could give him, Roger said, “I’ll just keep turning over more stones, until I find a solution.”
His efforts led him to meditation and yoga practice and the inner work of facing death and finding new life.
“I have discovered a world beyond my intellect and this has been an extraordinary experience. Now, to me every place is an altar, every experience is a blessing. Life has become magical, even though I am doing the same routine.” Roger encouraged his family, friends, and colleagues to explore this process with him. He made new friends along the way and continued undaunted, even when others around him did not share his enthusiasm for addressing death.
” I was an old guy, 68, when I was diagnosed. I didn’t think there was anything more I could learn about life. I never thought spirituality or religion had any value. I was mistaken. After I reached the limits of medical treatment, I learned to see and to serve the purity and piety in all. Shocked the hell out of me and everyone who knew me.”
“Facing my death has been the most important work I have done in my life. I believe death needs to be more openly discussed and planned for in families, the same way that education of the children, retirement, and buying a home are discussed and planned for. Understanding death has such an impact on living life that we need to give it more attention.”
Roger lived four years longer than his doctors foresaw, and at the time of his passing he was surrounded by loved ones who were at peace with his death, and who could support him calmly. His wife, Melinda, described his last moments. “His breathing became difficult for a minute or two, then calm and even again until it stopped altogether. I noticed he had a slight smile on his face. Though I was right next to him, it was clear that he was not smiling at me.”
What happens when we die? According to the yogis, at the time of death, each of the nine gates close, one at a time, until the energy of spirit is consolidated at the crown chakra. The soul is carried with the subtle body through the tenth gate. The person exhales, the soul is released. There is no next inhalation. Stillness follows.
At the time of the passing of the soul from the body, each of us experiences 30 seconds of “divine grinding.” This divine grinding comes in three stages. During the first 10 seconds you face the entire panorama of your life. The next 10 seconds, you judge yourself. During the final 10 seconds you take your last breath, your last exhalation, and your soul and subtle body pass.
Once the soul passes from the body, it enters a “cylinder,” the tunnel of white light described by so many who have had near-death experiences. As it moves along in this space, the soul may sense the passing of other souls. At the end of the tunnel, there is a choice.
The left side is hot; the right side is snowy cold. On both sides are your relatives, calling you.
The message of the yogis is, “Go toward the snow.”
At 17 days after death, the soul chooses to stay in the electromagnetic field of the earth, or to cross through the electromagnetic field, into the blue ethers. Most souls remain in the first level of blue ether for a period of time before entering the next life.
In the process of death, it is important to keep connection with the neutral mind. This is the time to be deep in our identification with the infinite, undying self. Yogi Bhajan says, “You and your mastery must come through at the moment of death.” We develop mastery when we wake up during the early morning hours, take a cold shower, and meditate before the sun rises.
In the darkness, in the resistance of that time of the day, meditation practice gives us skill to penetrate the mind with the light of the soul. This ability is necessary during the divine grinding just before the soul leaves the body.
It is also said that chanting Wahe Guru or the pran sutra, Nanak too lehna too hai, guru amar too vicharia, (You are Nanak, Guru Angad, and Guru Amar Das) at the time of death helps to connect us with the neutral mind, and release the soul.
Long Ek Ong Kars
The chanting of Long Ek Ong Kars, for example, is part of the Aquarian Sadhana and is an excellent means to command freedom within one’s self, increase vitality, and break through blocks. Yogis recommend practice of it to allow ease and vitality into the process of dying.
Also called the Morning Call, this is the 2 and 1/2 cycle mantra of Ek Ong Kar available on most sadhana CDs from Ancient Healing Ways
Yogi Bhajan describes death as “a process where your consciousness does not exist within the control of your ego.” This means that we must have a relationship of trust with the unknown, the unseen, in order to die peacefully. Much of yogic life practice is to deepen this trust.
Nam Simran, the repetition of the sound current, such as a mantra, with each breath develops such trust. The practice of the one-minute breath can have this benefit as well. The practice of giving to the unknown, such as in charitable giving, and the practice of taking right action without attachment to outcome, are examples of deepening the relationship of trust with the unknown.
Instead of judging oneself and others, practice blessing and forgiving so you can bless and forgive all that you see in the panorama stage. Practice releasing all attachment to what happened or did not happen during the course of your day and forgiving and blessing every person and every event.
Roger found that this practice became his greatest power in life. “My best achievement is that I can bless all, forgive all. It has brought boundless joy to my life.” And a peaceful, transcendent death.
The poetic words of Guru Nanak convey the feeling of vastness, joy, and deep calm that is the movement of the soul from life into death.
The nine gates are closed by the True Lord’s Command and the Soul Swan takes flight into the skies.
Be at peace.