In the winter, nature shows us with all her elegance what it means to die. The tree does not identify itself with its leaves and can therefore simply let them go. The tulip does not identify itself with its beautiful, luxurious flower and can therefore let the petals wilt and fall off without attachment. We say that life comes and goes. Life does not come and go — life is, everywhere, all the time. What comes and goes is the particular form life chooses to take in the dimension of time.
If we chose to learn from nature, we would see that to make life possible in a certain form, we must accept what we call death. But as long as we don’t know our true nature, we will fear death as the end of us. As long as we are attached to the body and identify ourselves with it, we will live with a mistaken identity. How can you expect to be free when you don’t even know who you are?
I am not a body. I am free.
Freedom must be impossible as long as you perceive a body as yourself. The body is a limit. Who would seek for freedom in a body looks for it where it cannot be found. The mind can be made free when it no longer sees itself as in a body, firmly tied to it and sheltered by its presence. (A Course in Miracles, W-199)
But the body seems so real! How can I not believe I’m my body? Look at it this way: The person you are today is not the same person you were when you were 10 years old. You don’t look like a child and you don’t think like a child. In essence, the 10-year-old you once were is dead. If you believe that you go somewhere after your physical death, which one of you is going to go to this afterlife? The 2-year-old, the 25-year-old or the 86-year-old? Which one of those is you? Neither one is you, just like this year’s fallen leaves are not what constitutes this tree that’s naked right now.
When you are aware of being yourself without being attached to any particular age, you’ve found the observer within who does not come and go. What is it in you that remains the same while everything else changes? This witness or observer of experience is the self to whom, or rather for whom, all experiences are happening. All these experiences in my life are happening for me, inviting me to wake up from this dream that tells me that I am limited to my body.
You are dying at every moment so that you can keep creating yourself. (Deepak Chopra)
Once you start to see that there’s more to you than the body, you start dying to the ego. The ego is the false self, and it is the ego, not you, that identifies with the body. Your true self, therefore, must be beyond the body.
Think of the relationship between you and your body as this: What is the light bulb in relation to the light? Without the light, the light bulb would be useless because the light bulb exists for the sole purpose of being a vehicle for the light. Your body exists for the sole purpose of being a vehicle for spirit, which is your true self. But spirit does not need a body to exist, much like light exists just fine without a light bulb. You exist, you are alive, independent of the body. Only when you know this can you be free. And only when you know this can you love and accept the body for what it is: a vehicle for spirit.
Deepak Chopra explains the relationship of the true self to the body like this: Imagine a house with four walls and a roof. If the house burns down, the walls and the roof collapse. But the space inside isn’t affected. A new house can be built where the old house once was, and the space inside still won’t be affected. By building a house you are only dividing unbounded space into inside and outside. This division is an illusion. Your body is like this house: It’s built at birth and it burns down at death, but the soul space, which is your true self, remains unchanged and unbounded.
This is why the belief in a separate body and a separate mind is an illusion. The Buddha described life as suffering as long as we are bound to the four kleshas, or mental states that limit our understanding of reality. The first klesha is not knowing who you are. We think we are our bodies and our separate minds, and we also think that we live in this world with millions of other separate bodies and minds. We don’t know who we are! This mistaken identity is the ego, which we adopted as ourselves, and forgot that we did. And if we don’t know who we are, how can we see reality for what it is? If the foundation of a building is weak, how can the structure be strong?
The ego, which is the false self created by fear, wants today to look like yesterday, no matter whether yesterday was a happy or sad day. The ego craves what it knows, which is the past, and it works hard to sustain what it knows. Since life within time is constantly changing, and the ego wants to stay stuck in the past, the part of you that fears death is the ego. But since the ego is not the real you anyway, your fear of death is not even real! In other words, the real you does not fear death because it knows that there is no death.
Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to “die before you die” — and find that there is no death. (Eckhart Tolle)
What does it mean to die before you die? It simply means to die to the past, to shed the image of yourself that you constructed in the past. Once you’ve died to the past, you’ve died to the ego. And once the ego is not leading your life for you, you can actually wake up to the reality of who you are. It seems to be a paradox at first to say that accepting death is the only way you can enjoy life. But when you realize that what you call death is just a transition out of a temporary form, and that the real you never dies, you can finally enjoy life in this body because you’re not attached to it; you don’t have to cling to it out of fear that being in this body is the only taste of life you will have.
I was born when all I once feared I could love. (Rabia)
What do we fear? We fear many things, but they all lead to the original fear: the fear of death. Living in fear of death is living to die, and is therefore not living at all. But once we start redefining death as the end of a mistaken identity, rather than the end of life, we welcome death as an important part of our awakening to our true selves, and we lose the fear of the body’s death because we know that the body is just a temporary vehicle for the spirit, the true self. This is what it means to die before you die. Die to the illusion of yourself so that you can wake up to the truth of who you’ve always been.
This is what the Buddha must have meant when he said: When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head and laugh at the sky.