I have memories.
I have desires.
Who am I? What exactly is this “I?”
I think I know who I am, but the “I” that I am is certainly more than my body — or the many bodies I’ve been in. It has to be so because although the “I” is the same, the body keeps changing. As I look back at my life and think about it, my “I” has inhabited many bodies: the body of a newborn, a toddler, a child, a teenager, a young adult, and of an old man now. I ask myself, “Where are the bodies that I once occupied?” They don’t exist anymore. But I am still here. The “I” persists without those physical bodies.
I have recently learned that there isn’t a single cell in my body right now that was there seven years ago. I am dying all the time. Looking from another angle, I realize that while some cells are dying, other cells are being born. We are not only dying; we are also being born again and again. Both processes are taking place at the same time: death and birth. I keep dying and being born again.
Thinking about my final physical death, within this framework, I realize that death is not such a big deal: it is just one more death in the stream of deaths. I believe that the “I” that has persisted without the bodies it has once occupied, will still persist even without the physical body I may be ‘wearing’ at the time of my final death.
As my friend Bob once told me, “My body is just an overcoat. That’s all it is. When I got it, it was new and beautiful. The fabric was immaculate and soft. As years went by, it started to show some ‘wear and tear.’ It got dirty, and with time it came to a point where I wasn’t able to wash the stains off anymore. The fabric lost its glow, and I couldn’t get rid of the wrinkles. Some holes started to show up. The overcoat lost some buttons, and I just went on wearing it without them. It will reach a point where it will be beyond repair. And then the time will come when I will have to throw the overcoat away because I will not be able to wear it anymore.”
A lot of the pain and suffering we experience in life is due to our over-identification with self. But we have to come to the understanding that the “I” is just a construct of our minds, a concept that we have created, and that, as the Buddha has warned us, “nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine.”
My friend Leslie, who had a near-death experience, tells that when she left her physical body she experienced an exuberant feeling of freedom. She tells that “the feeling of freedom was combined with a deeper feeling of peace than I have ever known before or since…and exuberance/joy… And love. And the love was visible as the most beautiful white light imaginable. I was surrounded by love in the form of light. And I was in my true home.” She explains that in that moment she felt expansive, light, free, and realized how dense, heavy, and constricting the body was. Dying was, for her, a liberating and joyful experience. It was like removing a heavy overcoat. She says that although not comparable in magnitude, dying produces a feeling somewhat similar to taking off every single piece of clothing that may be bothering and constricting us after a long day of hard work, and going skinny dipping. It is a liberating and joyful feeling! She affirms that there’s no need to be afraid of death.
Heaven’s Perspective is the tile of the book where Leslie Lott describes her near-death experience. Check it out. Here’s the link: Heaven’s Perspective
Sailing to Byzantium
W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.