We are creatures that have a biological tendency towards fear. We are wired, biologically, to simply strive to stay alive… yet our evolution has also given us the awareness to know that we are physically wired to die. So, we are in constant conflict with the idea of our own inevitable demise.
I was sitting in temple puja last night watching my pujari friends send the Gods off to sleep. I was feeling a bit more anxious than usual about my life, mainly about the future. It was the three year anniversary of my fathers death, and the thoughts of my own mortality snuck in on me. I began to question what the point was of seeking anything at all beyond the immediate experience of contentment. Why strive for something that isn’t a place of bliss (menial jobs, difficult relationships, etc)? Was I constantly trying to build a life that would look good from the view of my death bed? What did I really want in life NOW? What really mattered, in the end?
And at some point I opened my eyes. The priests were gone and I was left alone, on my knees, lost somewhere in my scarf covered head.
I heard a strange fluttering sound from behind me, somewhere in the chilled night beyond the temple doorway. I turned to see a creature, seemingly as confused as I, crosshatching the air outside.
It flew in and settled down next to me.
A praying mantis.
The largest one I have ever seen.
It knelt down and raised its hands to its head.
A Mantis in Anjali Mudra (Namaste mudra).
I exhaled for what seemed like forever, eyes locked on the stoicism of this insect that in that moment knew so much more about the universe than I did. It’s posture was perfect. It’s focus clear. It’s fear of me, non-existent.
After a minute it flew up to perch near Krishna. I could see it as it watched me watching it. Its incredibly large eyes following me, with such controlled and gliding movements of its' head.
I don’t know why, or what brought it to mind, but I began chanting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra to it:
oṁ tryambakaṁ yajāmahe sugandhiṁ puṣṭi-vardhanam
mṛtyormukṣīya mā ∫ mṛtāt
Drishti locked in on the devotee.
12 rounds of prayer.
Upon researching the mantra that I have uttered so many times since my yoga teacher training, I found out that it is also called the “Great Death Conquering Mantra”. A translation would look something like this:
Om, We Worship the Three-Eyed One (Lord Shiva),
Who is Fragrant (Spiritual Essence) and Who Nourishes all beings.
May He severe our Bondage of Samsara (Worldly Life),
like a Cucumber (severed from the bondage of its Creeper), ...... a
nd thus Liberate us from the Fear of Death, by making us realize that we are never separated from our Immortal Nature.
I don’t know what I believe when it comes to the universe sending intended messages, if anything at all, but I applied to this moment the symbolic message that I needed.
My father was a pilot who died in a plan crash after a mid-air collision over New York state in 2011. His best friend was flying the other aircraft. My family and I were left with many unanswered questions, the hardest ones being “What was he thinking as he descended downward to the ground?” and “How much pain did he experience at the bottom?”.
I struggle between love and hate everyday with the very idea of flight and height, whether it be an aircraft overhead or a flying mantis in the evening sky.
The truth is, my father died doing something he found complete bliss in, something he held more passion for than anything else.
And if I envy that, then that tells me something about my own values in life. If you are always following your bliss, maybe death seems less intimidating.
I ask myself…
Would you rather die in an accident on your way to a job that you brings no joy, or in the undertow of euphoria while photographing the heartbeat of life?
When we have entered that state of heightened being, we are, by nature, chemically altered. And so, if we face death in that state of rapture, I can only hope that it’s face is less grim and long lasting, washed out by the waves of adrenaline and serotonin.
But I don’t really know.
All I can do is try.
with love, respect, compassion and honesty,