Can’t take it with you

A discussion of Avidya

People gathered at Yogafurie to take part in a discussion

There is fear of death because there is a part of us that dies. It’s very important for living things to die – because then their compounds are available for re-use by other living beings. Gardeners create compost heaps to exploit this – as things rot, they release their raw material which is then available for new life. People say that death is inevitable: in fact, life is inevitable. No matter how many things die and rot away, more springs up. Our minds exist to manage our lives, so our minds are uncomfortable with the idea that life must end. When the body dies, so does the mind.

Yoga texts suggest there is a part of us that doesn’t die. They go on to say that we mis-identify, and assume that our mind is our life: that because it dies, then all is over. And, of course, all is over for that individual. But the part that lives on is in all people, and is the same in all people. Its presence is required for the physical process we call life to occur. When it leaves, that process ends.

If we can identify with this deeper aspect, this broader identity while we are physically alive, then quite a few things change forever. For instance, if the cause of my life is also the cause of everyone else’s, and is the same for everyone else, then why would I do anything wrong to other people? It’s just me hurting me.

New life in the palm of your hand

The mis-identification is called avidya. The changeless, endless essence that is the cause of and is the same in everything that’s been created is called Brahman. Is avidya a bad thing? Well here’s the conundrum. If everything is Brahman, then even avidya is Brahman. Let’s replay that. Even the doubt that there is a single, eternal essence is the single, eternal essence. Ok, so we recognise that there’s doubt: we don’t really buy it that one spark could ignite a whole universe. So, we identify with our individual life – and often get freaked by the thought it’s going to end. We think we’re separate from Brahman. And that’s really important. Where there’s doubt that Brahman is all, individual creation must exist. We’re literally born of the doubt we carry.

The next conclusion then is that Brahman is entirely giving. Whatever is asked for is given. If I doubt, I’m given a body. In that body – what I think of comes to me. So, I learn positive thinking techniques. But I’m still a worrier, so things still go wrong. In fact, the whole system is so complex with all sorts of people trying to achieve all sorts of things that I have very little control really. But we still hold ourselves to account for failures, and self-congratulate our successes: all of this further reinforces the notion that we are not extrusions of one united being, all of this further leads us to think that we really are separate and independent.

Deforestation on one side of a road and a forest on the other

People really do believe this, and the whole species acts in that way. The species as a whole is destroying the habitat of many other creatures, as if their needs don’t matter. Subsets of the species treat each other in the same way: some groups hold on to wealth and claim more than their share of food and water. Even within countries, some people have far more than they need while others struggle with poverty. That’s even in the UK.

It’s good to be able to dip into avidya. To have a human life can be amazing – there is a lot to enjoy. To realise that there’s more to it than that is really important. I can’t take any wealth with me when I die – but I can ease my own passing if I’m already comfortable with my deeper identity.

Sinead sitting in a meditation posture at Bristol harbourside

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