Inside Yoga 208 (28/8/2017)
For several decades our average life span has steadily increased but in the spring of this year, a report said that this increase had stalled and might begin to fall, sparking questions about the way we now live, and the health of the nation.
These figures came from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, and showed that life expectancy will fall by four months for a 65-year-old man and by six months for a woman of the same age. The data was compiled in the institute’s Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI) unit and supplied by the Office of National Statistics. The figures also showed that life expectancy of those aged 45 is also on the decline, with a further 42 years to live for men and 44 for women, down from respectively 43 and 45.1 in 2013. Men aged 65 are anticipated to live a further 22.2 years, down from 22.8 years in 2013 and women a further 24.1 years, down from 25.1 years four years ago.
The fall in life expectancy was reported at the time as being due to a stall in improvements of mortality rates. We had grown accustomed to improvements in life expectancy in the UK, both at birth but also for 65-year-olds, but now that trend appears to have slowed down since 2011.
These facts and figures might help us understand how we live, and worry us a bit, but these figures do not address the way we relate to, or, understand our own mortality and how we live.
Most of us want to live a long life and many of us do what we can about this by living a healthy life, but what is not spoken about so much is the underlying reason for our need to know our life expectancy. One of the reasons why we want to know how long we will live is that we are afraid of our own mortality and scared to death of dying.
When I started practised Tibetan Buddhism, at Kopan Monastery in Nepal, in 1995, one of the first types of meditation I learnt was the death meditation. This is an important part of Tibetan Buddhist practices because it teaches the person what to expect when dying (assuming the death process is a gradual and not a sudden trauma). The meditation takes the individual through the withdrawal of the senses towards death. This practice is not a morbid obsession but a practical guide as to what expect when dying, so that the individual can then achieve a gradual and peaceful transition towards death, or to be precise the next life – reincarnation being an important part of Buddhist beliefs.
Reincarnation in many ways solves the problems caused by our fear of death and our need to live as long as possible, because whatever happens in this life there will be another, but there is a catch – how we live this life will dictate what kind of life we have in the next and this does mean being born again as an another type of animal and perhaps not in the best situation. This is one of the main reasons why Buddhism is filled with teachings how important it is for us to practice compassion, altruism and simple kindness… because knowing we can be selfish the Buddha understood that if a person is to be motivated to live a good and compassionate life then one way is to show that behaviour in this life will affect your next life.
The desire to live forever, or at least as long as possible, is a common emotion, and could be simply explained as being a result of our survival instinct, but for many there is another drive to this, and this is the spiritual and philosophical need to understand our life and its purpose.
The teachings of reincarnation, found in Buddhist, Hindu and yoga texts, refer to immortality being attained through the meditator’s ability to maintain a conscious link through each of life, in Buddhism it is called the mind stream (other traditions refer to this as the self, spirit, essence, and soul). In other words, even though the body dies, the mind stream moves on to a new body, so never dies, hence the reference to being immortal.
There are references to persons in India and other parts of the world, who appear in different bodies through time, but are the same person; or others, who appear in the same form. One of the most famous is Mahavatar Babaji, pictured above, the name given to an Indian saint and yogi by Lahiri Mahasaya and other disciples who reported meeting him between 1861 and 1935, and some of these meetings are described in the book, Autobiography of a Yogi. It is said that Babiji has lived in the Himalayas for hundreds of years. An image of Babaji can be seen on the Beatles 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Leaving aside the desire to be immortal many of us just want to live a healthy and long life, and although the above references appear to be teaching how to have a better next life, the point about understanding our own mortality is that we first look after our current life, and also, learn not to be so attached to it.
Letting go and being less attached to what it is to be “me” can help us to live a better and more fulfilled life because if we can understand what it is to be mortal we can understand what it is to be immortal. If we know that death is the only certainty in our life then perhaps we can live more right now? Is this why we need to know how long we are all living?
What many people discover through practising yoga – and by yoga, I refer to the whole practice, ie, physical asanas, pranayama breathing exercises, meditation, and the philosophy, is that we feel healthier both physically and emotionally, and as a result feel younger. Is this what immortality is all about? Slowing down our decline into old age, and keeping us feeling young – the Peter Pan effect perhaps?
There are reports that yoga has numerous benefits and many swear by it, as I do, because its practice helps to keep me going, and at the age of 365 I am doing quite well!
Joking aside why not give the practice the benefit of your doubt, because there is more harm from doing nothing and much less from making the effort to do something positive with our life.
And if you do want to live longer, forever perhaps, here is an analogy I use to describe what the practice of yoga does for us. Imagine your home has problems with its energy efficiency, its structure and basically everything appears to be going wrong. Most people do not just live there suffering, they call in the plumber, the electrician, and anyone else who can help, and they get rid of short circuits, clear the pipes of blockages, fix the leaky roof, and so on. So that everything works as well as possible.
This is what yoga is doing: clearing the blockages, leaks and so forth, so that our energy flows without hindrance, so that our body feels good and full of energy, our mind is clear of clutter, distractions and worry, so that it feels clear and sharp…and the result is that we feel so much better… ready and willing to deal with whatever life can throw at us (which it regular does).
And taking the analogy of a house working well a bit further, this house will last a lot longer as a result, perhaps forever? Likewise we can live forever, maybe not physically but in spirit.
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