Looking back, I never thought that a brief encounter with a dying man in India would have shaped the foundation of my career, and lay the groundwork for my spiritual journey. After 20 years, I now see how everything fell into place.
“Why don’t you sit with that man over there — he’s dying.” I heard these welcoming words from a man who motioned me to a cot at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta (now Kolkata). While backpacking in India as an impressionable 24 year old, I decided to volunteer at the shelter. I’d never seen a dying person, and wasn’t sure what to do, so I simply did as I was told.
In a stark, cement-floored room filled with 40 other people lying on their cots, I sat on a wooden stool next to a gaunt man. His eyes opened wide as he gazed into mine. He began speaking to me in Bengali. I tried to explain that I didn’t understand, but he continued talking. Then he reached for my hand and instinctively, I placed his hand in mine. His other arm grabbed my arm and I clutched it. Then he died. The heat and animating force left and his body grew cold and rigid, eyes vacant. He was gone. Where did his energy go?
Einstein’s Theory of Conservation flashed through my brain: Energy can never be destroyed, only transformed. For example, if you burn a piece of paper, it changes into carbon and gas. Who or what is he now? Where is his energy? Where did he go? These questions raced through my mind as we carried his lifeless form down a narrow street interrupting a group of children playing soccer. Quietly, the children stopped and inspected his feet, hands and hair poking out from beneath the sheet as we made our way past them. Then they quickly resumed their game as we brought his body to the wood pyre to burn. This is not how children would react to seeing a dead body in America.
Not only is death more visible in India, and therefore viewed differently, but life there is also experienced quite radically from the Western perspective. Most Indians have a distinct concept about who they are. They are a soul that uses a body, rather than a body that has a soul. The difference in identity is significant. One identity doesn’t die, the other one does. Primarily identifying as a soul promotes an expanded view of oneself and life.
What’s animating this body? Who are we? Why are we here? Long after my return home, my experience in Calcutta churned these questions in my mind for years. Eventually, I stumbled upon my first book on past life regression: Michael Newton’s Journey of Souls. My body pulsed with excitement, and I knew that this was the work that I wanted to do…something that glimpsed and shed light on our larger identity and purpose.
Years later, I learned that the question “Who or what am I?” had an even deeper purpose. Ramana Maharshi, one of India’s enlightened sages, would instruct his students to ask this self-inquiry as a means of stopping incessant mind chatter while awakening to, and resting back into their ultimate nature of presence/awareness. The mind is unable to grasp what our highest identity is, so the question results in a quiet, blank mind without an answer. This silence offers a momentary glimpse of our deepest self, beyond the mind’s ability to label and comprehend — pure awareness forever anchored in the here and now.
I cannot say whether or not my dying stranger/friend considered my presence a gift in the last several minutes of his life, however he gave me an immeasurable gift that has been the guiding force of not only my career, but my life.