By Linda Johnsen
July 2004, Issue no. 78, p 87
My husband and I are extremely fortunate to know Shree Maa of Kamakhya, one of the best-loved saints of India. When she heard I was ill, she immediately took me under her wing, calling and emailing frequently to comfort and encourage me. “This diagnosis sounds wrong,” she said. “I think you have more work to do.” She sent one of her devotees to our home to set up a havan kund (a Vedic fire pit) and perform an ancient healing ritual with us. We sat before the sacred fire for hours chanting the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra. (Maha Mrityunjaya means “the wonderful mantra for the conquest of death.”) It has tremendous power for healing, and when the time of death is truly at hand, it removes fear and eases the transition into the next phase of existence. Shree Maa advised me to stop working for the next several months and instead, to rest and “stay with spirit.”
Of all my experiences in yoga, the most valuable have been the opportunities I’ve enjoyed to sit in the presence of great saints, yogis, and yoginis. Extraordinary beings like Shree Maa reveal, by their living example, what each of us can become if we persevere in our spiritual practice. Shree Maa’s transparent purity, her selflessness, and her unshakable tranquility reveal a life in spirit that leaves me in awe. Enlightened beings are not just mythical figures that exist only in the imagination, I saw. They’re real people, living among us even now, who’ve transformed themselves into something wise and beautiful beyond our imagination.
It turned out that my new oncologist was also suspicious of my diagnosis. “You’re too healthy to have had bone cancer for a year and a half. You should already be dead.” He sent my biopsy out to be reexamined by another group of specialists who reported back that the particular form of osteosarcoma I have is extremely rare; only 40 cases of it have ever been noted in the medical literature. It generally spreads far more slowly than the usual bone cancer. Overnight, my odds of survival surged from almost none to 50 percent.
As I write these words, I have no idea whether I’ll survive this bout with cancer or not. Surprisingly, this doesn’t trouble me. I realize very clearly now that death can come at any moment anyway, if not from a metastasizing tumor, then from a heart attack, accident, or assault. I need to be ready at every moment, fulfilling my duty, karmically clean, genuinely loving, but nonattached. My lifelong habit of dwelling on the future has dissipated and I find myself very much focused in the present. The moment before me is so rich with the blessings of spirit that I don’t feel the need to go anywhere else.
The grace of spirit flows to everyone who opens themselves to it, whether they’ve practiced yoga or not. My mother’s death is an example of that. But those of us who practice yoga are given special tools to improve the quality of our life here and now, and to smooth our entry into the life hereafter. Breathing practices, mantra, yoga nidra (learning to remain conscious in states where we’re normally unconscious), and most important of all, the desire and effort to expand our awareness, can all help us face the final, inevitable transition with clarity and tranquility.
It’s my sincere hope that you have many, many more years of happy, healthy life before you. But when death comes, whether you’re 40 or 100 years old, it will bring with it the astonishing sense that your entire lifetime has flashed by as quickly as lightning. Let’s make use of the time we have to care for each other, and to open ourselves fully to the illumination of spirit.