On Aging, Death and Dying

I haven’t been writing much lately. It seems that the words have died, that there is a dearth of meaningful emotions, of consciousness. In exchange, and as a compensation for that lack, I have experienced a slew of defensive strategies unfolding in my psyche, pushed into the external world. The psyche, it seemed, went round doing the same things over and over again, yet again. I simply experienced them differently in the external world this time. Like old wine in new bottled, under new labels. The unfolding has again  emphasised to me the futility of seeing the psyche as a product of space and time.

In Decemeber, I encountered the death of my grandfather, and soon thereafter the death of someone I had known and admired long ago during my youth. The two deaths spawned off a slew of actions, behaviors and attitudes that are interesting, to say the least, esp when one looks at them with detachment, and dispassion born of self analysis. And I began to see more clearly why the world is a place that it is. Although I am now back to being able, and functional, but uninvolved, uninterested, and detached from life. So this piece is born out of an encounter with mortality – mortality of those who are or have been important to us, and our own mortality. It probably will be a bunch of fragmented and disjointed pieces of impulsive thoughts, but please bear with me, I have just begun coming out of the dissociation.

The synchoronicity of it all is mind boggling. They say that you are never given something that you cannot handle. What this means is that the part of trauma that is beyond your endurance will be either dissociated away, or repressed into the unconscious for later processing. So at any given time, the trauma that you experience will rarely exceed your capabilities of handling such emotions. So if the trauma is more than our capacity to handle it, the psyche would either break it up in bite sized pieces, or evolve strategies that will enable us to meet with the challenges that it imposes. In this case, I had planned a vacation much before was informed of my loss. The psyche, as if sensing my inability to handle these events, had already planned an away time for me, only my conscious mind was not aware of the intended design. This was my first vacation in over 2 years, and it turned out that I could not have survived as well if my time away hadn’t been pre-planned. The time was spent much differently, of course, then I had anticipated it to be spent. The silent meditation that I practiced during my time away, gave me tools to observe my trauma and to manage physical and emotional pain. It enabled a dissociative strategy that allowed me to learn and grow from it in many ways than I would otherwise be able to. For that I am immensely grateful. However, the psychotherapist in me knows that when the trauma is repressed, we do not remain unaffected. Only our awareness of the trauma is shielded from our consciousness because consciousness is not capable of handling it. But the traumatised psyche suffers the ravages of the trauma through unconscious acting out of the trauma through residual emotions like anger, irritation, escapism etc. We buy our way out of the sadness with other emotions, and behaviors. and sometimes these can be pretty debilitating.

The first strategic step in dealing with issues of our own mortality is avoidance. For years, during our adolescence and later year, we avoid dealing with the issues of death. We banish these thoughts from our mind, convincing ourselves that that happens to others, those men and women who are old and ugly. It is not something we need to concern ourself with. Youth is – probably by design – given a sense of invincibility; it lacks the ability to look beyod its proverbial nose. And thoughts of death and dying are so far far away from its mind, unless they are touched by the death of a caregiver, or a loved one. It is only then that the facade of invincibility is shattered, and remains in the form of a deep fracture in the core of life. And even then, the instinct for survival brings forth a slew of strategies.

The first among them is the dissociation. Based on self analysis, my experiences in meditation, and the experiences of my clients, I had once presented in a conference, my views on dissociation as a life enhancing phenomenon rather than it being simply a debilitating defence. And I re-inforce that view here. Dissociation and distractive phenomenon are called by the psyche as defences against the threat of psychic breakdown due to trauma. It is also the strategy of choice that is esposed by many Eastern philosophies including Buddhism.

At its core, meditation creates a separation of body and mind. What we do with that separation, and how we handle it, distinguishes progression from regression. Some are afraid of the dissociation and hence remain trapped in it. For others, the separation enables them to see that the mind is distinct from the body, a life force that is an inherent and ongoing property of the universe. It is the polar opposite of the phenomenon of symbiosis where one has no independence existence except as a part of the mortal other. In death, the soul is forcibly wrenched away from its partner, the body because the spirit is restless to explore, to be free of the limitations of a frail and failing body. Being trapped in the failing body, it has nothing new to learn, and wishes for freedom, for new horizons to explore, for new awakenings. In meditation, this wrenching away is gradual, as is the awareness of the separation between the body and the mind/soul. Sufficient awareness of separation between the body and mind creates an awareness of being a participative aspect of the universe, of being a property of the universe rather than being an entity that is contained in and separate from the universe itself. We hold the same relationship with our thoughts. Our thoughts are part of, the property of the universe, but we often tend to experience them as contents of our mind, and more erraneously as the mind itself. Hence I often have this delusion that my creative work belongs to me! For an alternative awareness to flourish, I must be forced to permanently give up my claim on the transient body. The soul leaves its temporary abode, the body, and merges back with the universe in the same way that the river, a body of water formed from the melted ice caps, returns back and becomes one with the the ocean. An image of the butterfly, the symbol of transformation, comes to my mind as I write this. The pupa relinquishes its cocoon only to acquire the ability to fly freely into a more coveted existence. The butterfly, we can assume, must experience successive stages of dissociation from the pupa’s body before it acquires its new form, and a new consciousness. To me, these are not simply metaphors, but patterns of being in the matrix of life, and death is simply a way of recycling the body and a return to a more evolved state of being, though not just that. It is more, much unfanthomably more, but along the same lines.

People often ask how we Asians can believe in afterlife, and why we would believe in this, given the lack of evidence. The response to this is complex, and has a lot to with the structures of the mind, and the developmental milestones that we achieve over our lifetimes, and its connection to the mechanism of discernment and analysis of the external world around us. How the external reality is organized – we can never be sure, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter. What really we are concerned with, is our own experience of it. We are concerned because if we are to survive, we have to organize, assimilate and make sense of that experience. Hence, how we make meaning out of our environment, the what view we take of our future, including about issues of life, death and afterlife, has a lot to do with the ways of organising and managing thoughts that have been become a part of our very early experiences. We each have a method by which we organize the chaos of the external life, and that method is developmentally determined/crafted. The topic is beyond the scope of my present writing, but perhaps someday something will trigger a more detailed exploration. Right now I only want to highlight that I have struggled with and thought thru questions like “what is it that makes me believe in afterlife ? What is it in my friend that makes her disbelief in afterlife?” And having done that, I have come to a place that is peaceful, and contentment oriented. I can create a benchmark ground, and move onwards from that ambiguity and chaos that such thoughts obviously create.  In the end life is all about finding that ground, and living this reality to the best of our ability. I strongly believe that our minds are crafted in response to a subjective reality, and we are not equipped to understand what the ultimate reality REALLY is like. The best we can do is to ground ourselves in some way, and build a referential identity on that ground. We can do nothing more, nothing better. So to me dissociation between the body and mind is a simple life-enhancing phenomenon. To me it is a gift that the psyche brings forth. What meaning we make of that, and how we can use to grow from it, and becomes more self aware and self realized, depends on how we will view it. If we see it as a dysfunction, then that is what it will become, and continue to hinder our development. One sees and hears about people filing lawsuits against various meditation schools, and gurus, because they experienced the so called dissociation in meditation. In keeping with their internal chaos that brings such people to these meditation centres, they continue creating external chaos. They would create this chaos anywhere because that has become an unconscious template of their lives. Meditation retreat becomes just another avenue for such.

Meditation, at its very core, is a way of seeing ourselves in detail. How else can we see ourself dispassionately without separating from our selves, our ego, our bodies? However, if we see this separation as a psychic strategy and learn the ways of nature from it, and use it as a strategic tool available to us in our repertoire of behavioral strategies, we can get the most out it, and grow from it the ways that are remarkable. Dissociative strategies to me seem like a loaded gun. Not everyone can handle it. But just because you hold one doesn’t mean it is necessarily harmful. Not unless we shoot for fun ! Much depends on what we do with the gun. Like any available defensive weapon, when it is overused, or used prematurely, or incorrectly, dissociation can create many problems, as can Aspirin, or a glass of wine, if taken unresponsibly!  It is quite possible the some people may use dissociation to push the problems of the psyche onto the body. In material terms, what is of the mind, what is an energy, what is a thought, is transformed into materiality, into something that can be stored in the material form, in the form of positively and negatively charged ions that transmit electricity, create magnetic fields, and store and/or  transmit data over neural networks. In an anology from physics, one can say that what was kinetic and dynamic becomes a potential. This transformation is regressive, and being so, exacts a cost from psychic resources as it seems that the psyche is not very well equipped to handle such regression. Hence the storage of something that is essentially toxic, something that needed to be acted out spontenously and be done with, affects the body. For me, the tears needed to be shed, the anger needed to be expressed, the fear needed to be experienced. In fact if one observes the natural processes, we notice that the clouds do not have any extended capability to withold rain forever, the earth cannot hold the seeds in its bosom beyong a certain time. In nature, life flows in the here and now, but the human psyche has developed the ability to suppress that unfolding, dam up that flow,  so we can can suspend our here and now. However, the toxicity of the stored energy cannot be forever contained by the body, and as a consequence of repression the body always suffers. When the psychic pain is thus brought into the material world, despite all our efforts to the contrary, the external world – the material world – is affected in more ways than one. In addition to all this, it is the dharma, or the nature of the toxic waste to be toxic. Toxic emotions have certain valid and useful  functions to perform. But such functions should be performed in small doses. If consciousness prevents them from performing their functions in our awareness, they will continue doing so out of our awareness where their toxicity cannot be expressed and done away with. Just like small doses of bitter medicine are meant to heal, small doses of trauma enable the Self to become stronger. However, when the expression of these is blocked up, it collects and often may become lethal. Thus dissociative and repressive strategies block awareness of trauma, but in the unconscious, such trauma wrecks its own vengenace. When trauma remains unacknowledged, or unmourned, the person tends to give in to impulsive acting out, their behavior would become irrational, beyond logic. The toxicity from the unconscious is exerting its effect.

I have more to say on death and dying, especially in regards to the psychological structures affected by our belifs in the process of dying. However, the words are eluding me right now. It has been 8 weeks since I encountered these two deaths, and during these months I have been fairly dissociated, removed from the physical experience of the traumatic awareness. But I realise that I have been operating on less than logical and rational ways. That, among other things, is the price of keeping myself functional, of keeping depression at bay.  With awareness of the potential of dissociation, one can choose its power to heal the ego, the heart and the mind. And this writing is a first step towards embracing that emotion of loss, and reckoning. Of sifting thru memories, and assimilating and/or discarding from among them. Keeping what is chereished, and letting the other dissolve and disappear into the alchmical vessel of the universe where it blends with other discarded emotions of the collective, and recycles itself, remerging as our potential. For after all, as Einstein proved conclusively, given a constant speed of light, matter and energy are transformed into each other.

As I close this piece of writing, I must comment briefly on the instinct that I experienced in the last few weeks. I seem to have turned away from meat. Perhaps it is an instinctual appreciation of life, in the face of death. Perhaps it is my fear of my own mortality, of loss of the body, the temple of my mind, a vehicle that bestows on my mind an ability to incarnate.

Whatever it is, I have honored my instinct and have stayed with the vegetarian diet.


4 responses to “On Aging, Death and Dying”

  1. Hello Madhu
    I’m back from the US and seriously jet-lagged, and have just read your latest piece. It is interesting to read and glimpse understanding, because I intuitively have felt your palpable dissociation over this time. I hope that through meditation and other strategies, you are now emerging from your cocoon. I am sorry to hear of your double loss.
    Warm wishes

    • Karin,

      Thank you. Life has to flow in now. Eventually.

      I hope you enjoyed the trip and are rejuvinated from your time away. Sorry I could not drive down to meet with you. Perhaps next time.

      Yes, I am emerging, so to say. It takes as long as it takes. And yes, I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t as connected with the world as I normally am. Cognitively felt guilty, but was drained of emotions, so I just let it be. Thanks for your patience with me.


      • Madhu,
        my feelings have been of concern, uncertainty and hoping for the best for you – no impatience. Guilt makes sense but is irrelevant. You are where and how you are. Some context helps.
        It was too bad we weren’t able to meet this time, I hope there will be another chance. In the meantime, these meetings are good.
        Take care,

      • Hi Karin,

        There will be many more chances my friend. 🙂

        Thanx for the concern. Breaking up, breaking down, breaking around. Reminds me of Dylan – or was it Leonard Cohen ? Perhaps both! And Freud who says regression in the service of ego. So all good !


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