Mortality and Immortality

Mortality and Immortality

Andrew Cohen Read

A few months ago my wife bought me a season pass to our local gym as a birthday gift. I have been doing strong yoga for many years, but we now live in a modest home with little space to do my daily practice. The gym is a welcome place to go for a few hours a day.

I’m a regular, and I’ve become part of the scene there. I get a lot of compliments, especially from the older men who tell me how impressed they are with my flexibility. I always tell them that I’ve been practicing for many years, and that anyone can do it.

I am 61 years old, and I’m at that point in my own evolution when I am beginning to face into the unavoidable fact of my own mortality. I am blessed to have good genes, and I have taken pretty good care of myself, but I am awakening to the truth that I am slowly degenerating physically.

For the first time in my life I can no longer take my physical health for granted, or deny where this is all headed. It’s really happening – my body and mind will continue to slow down, and eventually cease to function. But something else is changing too.

I now look at my older gym mates with greater interest and curiosity. I wonder to myself about their age and observe how they are moving their bodies. I wonder how well I will be able to move when I get to their age.

I’m surprised to discover how as a younger man I just didn’t experience the depth or immediacy of our shared humanity. Now it feels like for the first time in my life I actually see them. I see our sameness and feel compassion for their growing frailty.

For most of my adult life I have been looking in precisely the opposite direction. I was always focused on the higher, superhuman, immortal dimensions of the human experience. I think that’s why I have often overlooked the profound vulnerability inherent in it, especially in old age.

It seems the higher the reach of our spiritual ambition, the easier it can be to lose sight of the inherent vulnerability of every human being, and the truth of our own mortality. I know this may sound odd, but it’s true.

When the revered evolutionary Guru Sri Aurobindo died in 1950, many of his disciples felt he had betrayed them. His passing proved that he had not succeeded in what they had believed would be part of his unique attainment: physical immortality.

One of the most influential spiritual memoirs of the second half of the twentieth century is “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. The fantastic tales he tells of Christ-like Himalayan yogis possessing superhuman powers, including physical immortality, are both captivating and deeply inspiring.

My own Guru H.W.L. Poonja told me on more than one occasion that his incredible spiritual power had literally raised a man from the dead. While he certainly did have tremendous power, whether he did actually raise someone from the dead is of course another matter.

The point is, when the monumental shift occurs from me to God, the small “I” to Consciousness without beginning or end, we are simply not seeing the world in the same way any more. The fears and desires of the small self are no longer the center of attention.

Now we are engulfed in a new world. The presence of the infinite, the wide open beginningless and endless domain that the Buddha referred to as the “Deathless” (the Ground of Being) obliterates our sense of being trapped not only in time, but also in form.

In this “deathless” state, the body feels a much less significant part of who we are. The mystical refrain “I am not the body” is directly experienced. It becomes absolutely true.

I recall a few years ago a respected Harvard brain surgeon who underwent a dramatic near death experience. This utterly transformed him from a staunch materialist to a New Age prophet, declaring to the multitudes the truth of eternal life!

When we awaken to the truth of evolution not as an idea, but as a living reality felt at a soul level, this can propel our awareness into a superhuman sense of infinite potential. Maybe my Guru really did raise the dead? Maybe Sri Aurobindo was close to achieving immortality?

Whatever the truth, these extraordinary higher states of consciousness which are so utterly enriching and liberating can also leave us removed from our own and each other’s frailty and vulnerability.

This is so often the Achilles Heel of spiritual aspirants who are drawn to a truly radical form of spirituality. When we tap into dazzling vertical states of higher consciousness, from that intoxicating vantage point we can see only that which is miraculous.

In these higher states we soar above the illusion of birth and death. We experience the deepest dimension of our self that is in fact immortal and not subject to the time-bound frailties of the body and mind.

Even as a temporary home, this ageing body, conditioned mind, and fickle personality is our soul’s sanctuary for as long as this particular life is going to last. No matter how spiritually liberated we may become, until death we remain subject to its inherent limitations.

Never forgetting this simple and obvious truth awakens a deeper humanity and humility. No matter how high we may be lucky enough to fly, in the end our frailty, vulnerability, and unavoidable mortality is the biggest equalizer.

If we are spiritually ambitious, the challenge is to boldly aspire to attain immortality of spirit, while remaining ever humble to and cognizant of the limitations of the body, mind, and small self.

Often now at the gym I am acutely aware of the desperation in some of my older gym mates as they struggle to work their ageing bodies so they can stay in shape. I hope when I reach that age that I will be as strong as I am now, and as free as I am in my highest moments.

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