My Dinner with Arjuna

At the beginning of the Baghavad Gita, Arjuna, the warrior, laments to Krishna, the god, that on second thought he does not really want to wage battle against an opposing army. I know these guys, he tells Krishna. They’re relatives, friends, good fighters.

How can I shoot arrows through Bhishma and Drona, who deserve my reverence? ...If I killed them, all my earthly pleasures would be smeared with blood.

To which Krishna, a real tough-love guy, tells him, you’re doing it wrong.

Although you mean well, Arjuna,
your sorrow is sheer delusion.
Wise men do not grieve
for the dead or for the living.

He does not mean that in order to be “wise” you have to be heartless. Krishna means that he can see past this moment to one where those men’s lives have ended. That, in fact, he can see both moments simultaneously. That, in fact, there is no such thing as a particular moment when one of those things -- life or death -- is more true than the other.

Never was there a time
when I did not exist, or you,
or these kings; nor will there come
a time when we cease to be.

Or, as one of my teachers, who has a flair for the dramatic, paraphrased: Those guys you don’t want to die? They’re already dead.

They’re already dead.

I have often found this immensely comforting, which is ironic for someone who won’t watch scary movies and, until young adulthood, was afraid of skeletons and graveyards (and by “young adulthood” I mean “college”). Death is terrifying to me. It is in direct, cruel opposition to the sense that I have any amount of control over my life. The very concept is haunting.

When I started writing this post, I was on a plane. It happens that I never get on a plane without thinking, at least once, maybe this is where I die. This thought used to frighten me so much I couldn’t fly for a while. It still frightens me a great deal. But now (after over a decade of yoga and therapy) I am usually able to say to myself: Okay. If this is where you die, this is where you die. I murmur to myself, They’re already dead, and at once my brain opens to the possibilities of a reality beyond the one in which I am typing on a small plastic tray, in a metal tube, impossibly high in the air. They’re already dead, I think, and I can see to the time or space where I am both alive and dead, where those I love are both alive and dead, and that means I cannot lose them. And if I cannot lose them, and I cannot lose myself, what have I to fear?

The presence that pervades the universe
Is imperishable, unchanging,
Beyond both is and is not:
How could it ever vanish?

They’re already dead is an odd mantra, but it allows me to take a hammer to that illusion of control and smash it up. I won’t pretend there isn’t fear in the smashing, too. There is. The illusion of control is so much more familiar a comfort than the infinity of the cosmos. Perhaps that’s why I like this bit of morbidity in my mantra. When I say it to myself, the hammer is already in my hand. My arm is already swinging. The illusion flies away and leaves behind relief.