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Namah Journal

Terminal illness

Rays of hope

Dr. Alok Pandey


Reproduced below are some of the questions asked by patients in a terminal care unit. Most of them were suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. We take them as typical when human beings are faced with the prospect of a disease that is seriously debilitating and from which the prospect of recovery is poor. Many of them concern existential issues; others are related to our belief-systems that are being challenged through the crisis, a crisis of faith as it were. Some are connected to the illness itself.

1. Have I got this due to God’s displeasure?

Illness and adversity come to all human beings. We do not fall ill because God is angry with us or punishing us, but because such is the nature of our body. Our body is made up of elements that are prone to wear and tear, disease and disintegration. Saints and sages also suffer and so do children of God. The difference lies only in the way each one of us reacts to our illness. God is only Love and Compassion. He, in fact, aids and helps us through every crisis, carries us through life and death. He never abandons anyone and reaches out equally to the saint and the sinner. We must keep our faith through illness and every crisis. By believing that God is punishing us we close our doors to Him who is All-Compassion, All-Grace. Whereas when we trust that He is there only to help us then He too responds in keeping with our faith. That does not necessarily mean we will get cured. The human body, as it is now constituted, is prone to succumb to one disease or another at some point. But if we remain full of trust in God then we create the best conditions for ourselves, whether for cure or for journey to another world after death. 

We need to also remember that illness is the result of an imbalance between the different parts of our nature or between us and the environment. The reasons for this imbalance are many and complex. But they are certainly not due to God punishing us. If that was the case, science would not be able to find the cure for any illness, many of which were taken in the medieval ages as an expression of God’s wrath. In fact the Will of God is to make mankind free of all diseases. That is why mankind is able to gradually discover the various inner and outer causes of illnesses and slowly overcome them. When mankind has grown into a state of perfect Knowledge by God’s Grace and evolution, we shall be able to conquer every illness but we are still far from such a complete conquest over disease. 

Whether the cause is hereditary or due to diet or bad lifestyle, we cannot undo the past. We have only a right over this moment and if we use this moment rightly we can help the future. So face it and let this difficult passage, this crisis, become a door to a fruitful change.

Besides, death and disease strike everybody although the timing varies for different people. No one is an exception in this regard. So quite obviously, you have not been singled out or especially punished for some wrong! In fact, death and disease can be an occasion for some great progress and often the worst crisis comes to those who are the favourites of the gods so that they can develop strength in their souls and bring out the best from within. Look at God’s own sons and see how much they went through. No one is an exception in this regard. And yet we can make a difference by our attitude and our faith. By taking an attitude of trust and hope, we can actually help ourselves minimise the trouble, whereas by taking the attitude that we are being punished by some cruel Fate we only add to and prolong our misery.

In other words disease and death are the result of a complex play of nature in its present condition. God stands behind nature and waits for our call, for our readiness to receive Him. Pain and death come to us as reminders that we have got a bit too engrossed in the superficial play with transient things. Pain compels us to turn once again to our Eternal Truth, the Truth of God, Freedom, Light, Peace, Bliss that dwells within the depths of our soul while we seek things outside and never find.

That is why God has sanctioned pain as a necessity in this play of nature. But do not forget that even in this hour of crisis He is near you, holding your hand, carrying you in His arms and through all this trouble and turmoil drawing you closer and closer to Him. The joys of life are no doubt His gifts of Grace, but pain too is His gift of Grace and very often a greater Grace, since through pain we often draw faster towards Truth and Light and Peace and Bliss.

An illness, like any other event in life is the result of many forces at play. Some of the forces that create the events and circumstances of our life are physical, some psychological, occult or spiritual. Of these we have an influence only over our psychological aspects, that is to say, over our thoughts, feelings, will, impulses, attitudes, etc. This too is only a partial control at best. The other factors are hardly in our control. However, by extending our psychological forces, by making them more and more powerful through concentration, meditation, prayer and worship, through the practice of charity and selflessness we can extend the degree of control beyond into the spiritual, occult and eventually even into the physical domain. Perhaps this illness gives us an opportunity to introspect and try working upon the psychological and spiritual side of our lives at least. That will be at least one positive gain of the illness. 

But what we should not do is to blame ourselves or others. Blame, guilt and a complaining attitude open the doors to depression and anger which only make matters worse. What has happened has happened and it is no use going into the past and ruminating over it negatively, filling the present and future with blame and guilt. Life always moves forward and we cannot go back in time and rectify errors and mistakes, many of which have been done in a state of ignorance. Instead we should look to this day and fill it with the fresh breath of goodness and the energies of love and light and goodwill for all. 

2. Has God forsaken me?

Whether we are sure of what will happen to us tomorrow or not, of one thing we can be sure, more sure than one plus one making two, — it is that God never abandons us. He is like the captain of the ship who does not escape but sinks with the ship. So when the ship of life called the body is broken then He too sinks with you and carries you ashore onto a new ship. He is the only permanent Friend and Companion of all times, the Guide through good and bad days. It is not God who has sent diseases nor does He subject us to death. These things come and happen to all since the body is built of perishable stuff and tends to break down, today or tomorrow. True, things may still not always work the way we want. Yet if we turn to Him we will at least get the strength to go through the whole thing with peace and gladness in our hearts. He will then make us see that the house and householder (the body and the soul) are not the same thing and even if our bodily house is breaking down, the soul can still be free and not afflicted. It can even be in a state of calm and joy, since it knows that a new house is being prepared behind the scene.

You may wonder why you do not feel Him near. Well, to feel Him near during the hours of crisis, one has to have felt him near when all was going well. Meanwhile, you have to find him with the eye of faith. Just as the clouds covering the sky cannot destroy the sun but only temporarily hide it from our view, so too clouds of doubt and gloom hide God’s Presence from our hearts. Just as a momentary storm blinds our eyes and then we see only mud everywhere, so too the storm of anger, agitation and anxieties blinds our minds and we are unable to see and understand God’s working through it. Remember wisdom is the Light that comes after the storm has passed.

So learn to endure this suffering with trust in God’s Wisdom and Love, learn to bear this law of pain with surrender to God and faith in His complex workings, workings that baffle our human intelligence and soon you will feel Him near you by your side, nay nearer still, in you. So while the storm of disease rages outside try to enter God’s inner shrine, the temple within your heart and soon you will feel sheltered in His arms and when the sky has cleared and the dust settled, you will once again see the clear light of a new day and the gift of a new life to fly towards new horizons and reach out to new heights.

3. Is this the punishment for my sins?

Sin is present only in human eyes. In the eyes of God, there are only learning experiences and opportunities for growth. True, in certain things we do face their consequences. It is simply a law of nature that applies at every level of our being. But this law of action and reaction, of deed and consequence, is not to be seen as reward and punishment but as a means for our growth through learning. This learning process is often complex. Our human mind oversimplifies things and thinks that if one is having adverse circumstances or many difficulties and problems, it is because of some bad deeds. Sometimes it is just the other way round. Just as a goldsmith forges a beautifully designed ornament by letting the raw gold pass through fire and the beating of his hammer, so too He lets us pass through the process of purification to prepare us for greater achievements in the future. Much as an examiner tests the student, not with an intent to trouble him but to see how well he is equipped for the next learning-curve, so too nature tests us and God prepares us for a greater evolution, sometimes through the passage of pain.

Why should you have done something to suffer? Suffering comes to all creatures, not because there is something bad in them or because they have done bad things, but because we as humans are attached to transient things which in their nature cannot last. Therefore when the time is up for these temporary things to return to their parent state we then suffer. If only we remembered this great truth, that we are mere trustees and not possessors of objects and people, that we are mere actors in a great play of life with changing roles and forms and names, then we would not suffer. We suffer because we get too attached to our limited roles and wish to continue them forever. But the great Director wants us to do many roles so that we can learn about the totality of life and not just one state. If only we could live with a little more detachment we would perhaps suffer much less.

See how a tiger pounces upon a deer and kills

it. Is it because of some sin that the deer has committed? Or is it because life in the deer and the tiger is one in two different forms? It is the play of life using two forms much as two actors play out different scenes with changing roles or an expert actor plays out many roles during his masterly performance of mono-acting.

Creation and destruction are a constant process and each is needed for the fullness of the other. They are the two arms of life itself and need to balance each other. So too with joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, good and evil. They are the two arms of an integral Reality in which both eventually serve the same great purpose, — of preparing man’s soul for some utter wholeness and Integral Truth of which we are mere shadows and broken reflections. Suffering comes when we see only one side of the truth and forget the equally important other side of the same Reality that was always there as a shadow waiting for its turn to do its work and play out its part in the total scheme of things.

4. I am afraid to die. I cannot sleep.

Confront your fears. That is the best way to get rid of them.

What are you afraid of? Death?

Tell yourself that you are neither the first nor the last one who is experiencing death. It is something that comes to all, one day or another, in one disguise or another. Should you fear something that is so natural and normal and comes to all?

Tell yourself that Death is only a passage, a dark passage towards a New Dawn. What is there to fear the New Light that you will find at the end of the tunnel?

Tell yourself that death is a radical change that the soul must experience in its long and winding journey to the Infinite. What is there to fear in change? Have we not experienced it several times earlier in the course of this life? Death is only an accelerated change, a change along the fast tracks of life, nothing else.

Tell yourself that death is only a means of growth towards Immortality, a spur towards our Deathless state, a call of eternity. At the end of the road of death you shall enter the mansion of the Master where His Love will await you with open arms. Is the embrace of the Master something to be afraid of?

Confront your fears. What is death after all? It is simply a passage from one state to another, just like moving from a house or from one country to another. There is nothing to fear in it especially when you know that on the other side it is your Master who is waiting for you. All those who have returned form the land of the dead, such as mystics or those experiencing a near-death experience, recount that the after-life is not at all a place to dread but a place full of warmth and glowing with the vibrations of unconditional Love. Hell and heaven are creations of the human mind that humanises everything. At best, they are simply brief passages in your journey towards the One Person who loves you and loves Creation and loves all. Let your heart be full of gratitude and joy with the anticipation of meeting God. Fear and Grief are our reactions of ignorance to death. The purpose of death is to give us fresh opportunities to live life under new and better circumstances again. 

God only loves and when He changes your conditions and your life it is also an act of His Wisdom and Love. Trust that Wisdom and Love and take a plunge into that Supreme Divinity that awaits you at the other end. If you can do that, then death will cease to exist and instead you will feel yourself carried in safe arms through a narrow passage towards the home and source of eternal Light and Love and Peace and Bliss. 

5. Is Death something painful and difficult?

Life is difficult sometimes due to its unpredictable nature. But death is a predictable event. Everyone dies one day or the other so why worry about it? From the accounts of mystics and great Masters, as well as of some patients who have crossed the threshold of life and returned, death seems to be simply a passage, a transition from one state to another. You may read an account of death in Anita Moorjani’s Near Death Experience.

In fact as one proceeds in this transition one goes further and further from the sphere of sorrow and suffering. In death we move away from earth and its worries and fears towards God who is the Source of all Light and Sweetness and Bliss and Love. Surely that cannot be a bad situation by any means! In other words, all fear of death is simply an Ignorance. It is like being afraid of sleep or of dreams. At the other end, what waits for us is a new dawn and new day! 

6. What will happen after death?

After death we shed our material body which is too heavy and ties us down to our earthly state. Then we start ascending to our spiritual home clothed in a subtle and luminous robe made of another kind of tissue, much lighter than this physical body. We transit through many states and worlds, some luminous and beautiful, some dark and obscure. The time we spend in each such world or condition depends upon our affinity to the dark side or the bright side of human nature. If we have been full of selfishness and done cruel deeds, then we spend more time transiting through dark worlds. On the other hand, if we have been kind and unselfish, generous and forgiving, then we pass through these dark worlds soon and enter the brighter states of joy and peace. Then, after spending some time here, we ascend still further to the Home of Love where God awaits us with open arms.

It is a blissful state of being. 

Naturally those who have faith in God, those who have spent their life contemplating God and in His service and Love ascend very soon. Their passage is shorter and swifter, their transition smoother and easier. This happens not because God is partial. His Love is there equally for all, but depending upon our attitudes and life, our motives while we are living, we open or close ourselves to God’s Infinite Grace and Love. That makes the transition longer. Therefore the wise have always said that we should spend our time remembering God while we are still conscious and breathing. It is the best preparation for the transit through death. 

Dr. Alok Pandey, an editor of NAMAH and member of SAIIIHR, is a doctor practising at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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Terminal illness