In the spring of 2000 I had a dream. I have many dreams that I recall, and many of them I find insightful, inspiring and sometimes life-changing. This dream arose most vividly, a dream of death in the shape of a woman holding the rotting head of a child—her child—demanding attention. I awoke, not disturbed, but profoundly moved. Maintaining the Silence of my Being I immediately wrote a poem about it, which subsequently inspired the beginning of this book.
As with many poems I write, new insights arise as they take me to that Secret Place beyond the linear reasoning of the day-conscious mind. After writing the poem new images arose in my imagination. I took them into my meditation, and after abiding in the Silence of Being, the idea emerged that a book was to be born from the dream. It was to be titled, The Teachings of Yama: A Conversation with Death.
I felt thrilled at the idea. Yet no clear image about the book’s content came forth. It was just a notion, similar to looking at a faint star. If I gazed at it directly, the book disappeared; yet if I sensed it out of the corner of my eye, with peripheral vision, the sense of the book would shyly reveal itself.
It revealed that I was just to write about what I love to talk about, what is only worth talking about: the Quest for Truth and how to go beyond the reach of Death; to bring forth the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, A Course in Miracles, and other non-dualistic teachings in a fun story form, that was clear and poetic; to write for myself, to have fun, and not to worry about what others may think. And to give up any concern about whether the ideas in the book were valid or not for those who might read it.
It has been the easiest writing I have ever done. Whenever time permitted, or when I made time, the words simply flowed. What I wrote would often parallel what was happening in my waking life, giving me guidance and insights, encouraging me along the way.
Like a dream this book is a collection of actual personal experiences (whether in waking or dreaming consciousness), imagination, and stories and teachings of others that have become a part of how I express myself in the world. Many of the stories readers will recognize, despite my elaborations, with various ones coming from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The teachings and teachers who have influenced me and thus this book have been, beyond the aforementioned Ramana and A Course in Miracles, to mention a few, are Joytish Harish and his teachings on the Leela game, The Impersonal Life, Karunamayi, Nisargadata, Rumi, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita, Rudolf Steiner and his Waldorf education, the Buddha, and Life itself. As I have been synthesizing Eastern and Western teachings with my own experiences and realizations, along with this particular time and space I was born into as an American in the 21st century, so do the teachings of Yama reflect this.
This is not a channeled book by some entity named Yama. I was fully conscious through all of the writing. Yama is simply an Inspiration. A Focus. A Reminder. I cannot say that the Yama of this book is real or unreal, any more than I can say that this Janaka of this life is real or unreal. Does it matter anyhow?
Now some might question how death can be an inspiration, for Yama is the name of the Hindu god of death. Since childhood I have been fascinated with death. For a long while that fascination included all the usual metaphysical questions: Did life exist on the other side? Is there a heaven and a hell? How to contact the dead? Is there reincarnation? And on and on the questions came. Perhaps the first question concerning death happened when I was in kindergarten. My neighbor, Elizabeth, born on the same day and in the same hospital, died of leukemia. Why her and not me was a question I carried with me, and that question continued as I watched people die and others live. Why some died in an accident and not others?
It was not until I found myself in a near-drowning incident while canoeing down the Russian River with some college friends that death became a friend. My canoe capsized and in a panic, and not knowing how to swim at that point in my life, I attempted to swim upstream. Soon I was going down into the depths for the third and last time, my cries for help I believed unheard. I did not descend into the darkness of the river but into a quiet light. Then from above the scene my Awareness, like the Witness of a dream, watched my rescuer jump up from his spot on the shore and wade (afterwards I discovered that I was drowning in perhaps three feet of water!) into the river and grab my outstretched hand. Suddenly my Awareness was back in a coughing body that grudgingly thanked the man. I thanked him more out of politeness because I was not too pleased to be back encased in this heavy body.
Perhaps it was from this time on that I have lived with the
notion that life is an adventure, and that when I die and review this life, I want it to be a good story. Who wants to watch a boring rerun full of grimaces and if-only’s? With such a notion death is not something to meet at the end of one’s life, but, instead, is a companion whispering, “Not much time left.” Hence the two-fold nature of Yama: the Lord of Death and the Lord of Dharma, of doing one’s duty or what Baggar Vance, the golf guru in the movie of the same name, spoke about of finding one’s Authentic Swing.
When I did bodywork on men fading away with AIDS, many inspired me because they knew they were dying. Knowing they were dying they enjoyed everything to the fullest, that caress, that song, that morsel of pasta. We are all dying. We are terminally ill with the disease of living. Yet we pretend that we will live forever with these bodies, hiding away from the truth with our distractions and entertainments, looking away from the pile of bodies that are tucked neatly away in wooden boxes or quickly buried. Believing that life is actually being a body, instead of seeing the body as a vehicle of expression, we squeeze out every second with the use of medicines and machines.
|Yama in his various guises.|
Artwork by Janaka Stagnaro
Life has nothing to do with quantity of years, but with quality, of what you make of the time while having a body on this planet. As the Buddha said, one’s life is wasted if one knows not who he is.
Yama reminded us all on September 11 that we need to wake up and live, to find the Essential. As the dust of the Twin Towers settled, people started looking around at the world and those in their lives with more appreciation, because tomorrow may not come, and the American dream of acquiring began to wobble and fade. But the powers of illusion are hard to dispel and soon those in high positions shouted that we must get back to normal. Act like a good American and get out there and consume. No one will make us change!
And as Yama points out, when distractions become so strong, his reminders as death are not always gentle.
This book is not for those who want to find out about what happens after one dies or drops the body. This book is for those who want to come to the Place where death never existed at all, who want to know the true Self, changeless and all encompassing. This book is simply a reminder that death and change are but friends when seen from the I of All That Is. Yama says in the book: “Your book will be a book of moments, of questions and answers. Many will find contradiction in my teachings. But contradictions are found in sequences, where the logic of the intellect reigns.
“To go beyond the place of death, of time, to the Truth, answers are for only the Moment.”
--excerpt from The Teachings of Yama; Introduction