A couple of days ago I had a dream, a rather long one so I won’t go into the prelude. It ended with me on some little boat with a little motor leaving the beach and going between and over heads of some swimmers. I wasn’t very careful and one of them probably had enough. All I remember is that suddenly I was out of the boat, locked in a serious chokehold and pushed deep into the water. I didn’t see who did it, I didn’t think it was an animal, I just assumed it was someone who was quite prepared to kill me.
So, there I was, unable to breath, deep in the water, eyes closed, feeling that resistance is futile, and it took me only a split second to figure it all out and make a decision to embrace my fate.
Decision was easy, following through was not.
Have you ever tried to hold your breath? It was exactly like that, except I also didn’t have any choice. Actually, holding breath is an illuminating exercise in observing mind-body connection. No one ever died that way so it’s pretty safe and yet there are practically no limits to the depth of one’s experience there.
It starts fairly easy, body still have plenty of oxygen and you can think about anything you want, including Kṛṣṇa, of course, but the test of mind over matter hasn’t really started yet. Struggle begins in about half a minute for an ordinary person so you don’t have to wait long.
It starts small, just a tiny urge to breath, perfectly ignorable, just concentrate your mind on something else. Then it grows stronger and so you have to think harder to ignore it. There are two ways to deal with the situation then – one is to consciously push yourself, use the full force of you mind to restrain yourself from taking a breath, another is to continue thinking of something else.
The first option is not very interesting and I don’t think it’s very useful. It might help to train your body for skindiving but we are not interested in making our bodies stronger and better. Exercising this brute force only perpetuates our illusion that we are doers and controllers in this world, we better not go there.
Second option opens far more possibilities because it not only demonstrates the power of mind over matter but also gives an opportunity to completely separate the two. If we think about something else we do not identify ourselves with the body anymore, we direct our false ego somewhere else. I don’t know if “direct false ego” is the best choice of words here but it will do for now.
We can literally imagine ourselves being in a field of flowers on a sunny day, with breeze blowing and bees humming, everything is perfect. While our minds are there we are not aware of what’s happening to our bodies, we can become totally separate from our gross physical existence.
Unfortunately, this distraction doesn’t last long because we keep checking on our body condition. As soon as we direct our consciousness back to our bodies we immediately feel the pain of suffocation. Actually, we can try this method with any kind of pain or discomfort – think happy thoughts, it works exactly the same way.
So, this stage is where real struggle begins – on one hand there’s our imaginary place, on the other hand there’s our body we grew so accustomed to. It doesn’t take any effort for us to feel bodily pain, our mind can return to evaluate it very very fast but maintaining the illusion of being elsewhere is a lot harder.
At some point we give up and take a deep breath. It always ends the same way and we can learn every little detail, sense every push of the mind, every signal from the body by doing it over and over again and simply paying attention.
One reason that we always fail is that our minds are not in our imaginary place, that place does not exist. When we are drowning for real the situation changes.
In the dream I was expecting death. I wasn’t thinking of Kṛṣṇa per se but I was expecting meeting my maker, as they say. This was an important observation for the future – when death is near our minds can’t think clearly, we can’t force them to make coherent thoughts and analyze things logically, so we have to make do with a vague remembrance of the Lord and not much more.
My mind itself was in a happy place, though, it was in warm water with blue all around, no sounds, no disturbances, pretty peaceful. It was where my body was but it saw it differently – as if simply taking in surroundings while ignoring the big, strong enemy who was restricting my movements.
Every now and then I was reminded of my bodily situation and I had an urge to free myself, at least grab the attackers arms, but what good would that achieve? I didn’t feel any space to get a hold on and pry his grip apart, it was obviously a useless tactic. Actually, I realized that struggle would only exhaust me faster, that until I see a real opportunity to break free I should better preserve my energy and remaining oxygen.
It wasn’t such a bad strategy – if the attacker didn’t understand my lack of reaction he could have changed his tactics, he could have pulled me back up to see what’s wrong with me and if I was still alive. I would have had a much better chance to free myself then so I waited.
So, expecting death I thought it’s better not to struggle, and when returning to my bodily consciousness I also thought it’s better not to struggle, it became a three way battle – waiting for death, intelligence suggesting ways to save myself, and primal urge to break free at any cost. Only one of those options was really worth pursuing but then I woke up.
It was only a dream but it poses poignant questions – what if Kṛṣṇa doesn’t show up until the very last moment? Can we keep our minds on Him until that happens? Without His presence we are bound to return to our struggle for existence just as it happens when we hold breath artificially. What happens if we give in to our primary instincts? Our minds are sure to follow and Kṛṣṇa will be forgotten. Will our death be in vain then?
Even in our every day life, in non-threatening situations, why can’t we maintain our concentration on the Lord or on the Holy Name? Why do we always feel the urge to check what’s going on with our bodies even when everything is perfectly okay and we are safe? Why can’t we immerse ourselves in chanting and need to come up for a breath of fresh air of illusion?
Is it because we have not yet realized that we are not our bodies and there’s no prospect of happiness in the material world? Or is it due to the power of illusion? We say we are conditioned souls and in English it means that someone else is keeping us in this condition – is it them who forces our consciousness back to our bodies? Is it what liberation means – no one forces us anymore?
Finally, is it at all possible to concentrate on chanting so much that external world completely fades away, not just for a moment but for a sustainable period of time? I hope so, but then again, every time we hold our breaths we eventually give up. Maybe overcoming this weakness is not the pre-condition for meeting Kṛṣṇa, maybe it is.
Or maybe it’s a sign that we can’t plan our death and a perfect way out and so should totally depend on the Lord, develop full faith that no matter what happens He will be there for us when it matters.
This thought might put our minds at ease regarding death but what should we do about our everyday falldowns? All I can say for now is that we should ignore them and appreciate brief moments of absorption in chanting whenever they happen. Do not take this advice as having any kind of authority, though, it’s just a speculation at this point. I still think that returning back to external consciousness is a serious step back and we should try our best to avoid it.