We identify with our own experience of pleasure or pain with effortless ease. When we can identify with someone else’s pleasure or pain in exactly the same way, we are on the way to becoming true yogīs. That is what empathy is. That is what seeing one’s own self in others and seeing others in one’s own self means.
It is not enough to merely understand what a dear one’s passing does to a person or a family. We must also feel it in the depths of our being. In order to feel it intensely, it might help to recall one’s own experience of losing a loved one. When I tried to do that, I remembered my own father—and specifically the moment more than 20 years ago when I received a call late at night informing me of my father’s peaceful passing almost exactly a year after I came to Boston. I remember that moment vividly, as if it happened this morning. As soon as I had heard the news, I had experienced a sudden void, a deafening silence within me, and it had lasted for several hours. It was very vivid, very real, impossible to forget.
As I recall, no sooner I heard the news than all sounds ceased. There was total silence. And there was a huge void—a large empty space filled with nothing. Where had all the sound disappeared? From where did this large space suddenly emerge and fill my entire mind? It was only years later that I was able to objectify that experience and think about it as if it had happened to someone else.
The way I responded to the news was itself something of a surprise, although of course I did not think about it that way then. After all, at that point in my life, I had left my home as a teenager more than 23 years earlier. While the family ties never really go away, I had imagined that they had at least become sufficiently loose. And yet, while I took the news with admirable external calmness, inside was this sudden silence and a huge, empty space.
I have no explanation for the silence and the space. What I do know is that at critical moments in life—and death of a dear one is certainly a critical moment—life stops. All the noise around becomes irrelevant (even if temporarily) and all the forms of the living and the nonliving become uninteresting (even if temporarily). In the absence of sound, silence is all that remains. In the absence of forms, space is all that remains. There is something sacred about this silence and this space.
It is in this inner silence and space that the mind is able to focus entirely on whatever has triggered the critical moment. In my case, all that remained in my mind was my father. Not his physical form, not his voice—just him, whatever that means. I don’t even know whether I’m making sense. But it was in that state that I was able to grieve, knowing that I would never again see him and never again hear his voice calling out to me. A very real part of my life had been chopped off for ever, never to return.
But it was not grief alone. I was also able to rejoice, even smile to myself, remembering the joyful times that my father and I had shared together. The heart overflowed with gratitude for everything that I had learned from him, most of which was through witnessing his life through the eyes of a son, for it was not his nature to offer a lot of advice. The silence and the space healed me. When I returned to the noisy, crowded world around me, I was at peace.
I still miss my father but now I am mature enough to take his absence in my stride. I am also old enough now to recognize that everything passes away. All forms change. As Vivekananda pointed out, “Everything mutable is a compound, and everything compound must undergo that change which is called destruction” (CW 1.7). The body is mutable, it is composed of many particles, and therefore must decompose eventually.
My true self, the ātman, is immutable: it is not composed of anything and therefore suffers no decomposition. The ātman simply is. It is one with existence. It simply cannot not exist. Death is conquered through the abiding experience of being the ātman—being myself as I truly am. So long as I think I am a human being, there is still a big learning curve ahead. When I experience myself as infinite and immortal, pure and perfect—it is then that I become my true self.
We don’t need to wait passively for a critical moment in order to experience inner silence and space. We can do something about this on our own. A critical moment can be sparked when we identify ourselves intensely with the sorrow and suffering of others or with death and destruction around us. Only by viewing other people’s pleasure and pain “by the same standard as applied to one’s own self” do we become capable of not only feeling for others but also doing something useful for them.
There is also another way to proactively create a critical moment. Those who take their spiritual practice seriously know that entering into a state of meditation is a critical moment—it is the crossover moment from humanity to divinity, from the world of names and forms to the world beyond names and forms. Meditation is a kind of death—dying to the world in order begin living in God. Only when we are in God’s presence do we see God. Meditation is thus more than simply sitting quietly and trying to think of God.
Thinking of God is not meditation. That is only thinking, even if the mind is filled with ideas, images and stories related to God. Which is good, but it still is not meditation. Meditation means seeing God, not merely thinking about God. When we want to meditate, we close our eyes and see—usually nothing. If we don’t see God, the next best thing we can do is at least think about God. At some stage, when the mind becomes so focused, so free from everything else and filled to the brim with love and devotion, that everything melts away. Thinking stops and seeing begins. No one knows when or how this happens. What we do know is that it does happen.
That is when the critical moment arrives. There is silence and there is space. In Vedanta texts, it is often known as the “space in the heart” (hṛdākāśa). All that remains in that holy silence is the sound of the mantra or the prayer. All that remains in that holy space is the presence of the divine, one’s own favored way of seeing God (iṣṭa). Being in the presence of God, there is nothing more to do. It is time to just be. There is no “time” there either. So—just be.