The Awe of Being Alive
I have been unwell for a while and mostly stay at home. It has been three years since I have traveled out of Hyderabad. There was the lockdown period in between when everybody was stationed at home, and culture of Zoom calls and work-from-home evolved, but gradually, the world has returned to normal and all the birds are flying again, except for those who must learn to enjoy their tree, the branches, the nest, and the straws of which it was made, remembering the story of each straw.
I have been a voracious reader and a regular writer. Somehow, by publishing one book every year, I could publish some 24 titles and can brag of writing. Many of these books are ordinary but some are brilliant – especially, Wings of Fire (1999), A Doctor’s Story of Life & Death (2001), Transcendence (2015), and A Modern Interpretation of Lokmanya Tilak’s Gita Rahasya (2017). When I read them now, I wonder if it was I who wrote them, or an unseen force that wrote them through me. My book on Kabir, explaining the idea of God Within is with my publisher and the manuscript of Abundance and O Mind! are works in progress.
My study is indeed a strange place. There is a wall on my left, fully covered with books that I have bought, or received as gifts, and I could read most of them. There are some mementoes that I have collected after my talks, and a picturesque pencil sketch done by former CSIR scientist Ali Kausar, showing me sitting at the feet of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. And of course, my Apple computer, connected to the Internet and the Bluetooth earphones with which I prefer attending to videos of leading scientists and philosophers of our times and educational matter of high quality and value.
Two Carls have been my heroes – the Swiss medical doctor and psychologist, Carl Jung, and American astronomer and writer, Carl Sagan. Over the years, I have read the 20 volumes of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung that run into some 10,000 pages and also all the books written by Carl Sagan. Recently, I discovered an hour-long interview of Carl Jung, and was thrilled to see the person I idolized talking on my computer screen. When asked by the interviewer, “Do you believe in God?” Jung answered, “What believe? I know God.” Jung died in June 1961, but his answer filled me with awe even in 2022.
This interview of Jung’s created ripples in my psyche, as does a stone when thrown in a placid pond. I came across, or to use a better expression, a lecture appeared before me given by David Bentley Hart on experiencing God as Being, Consciousness and Bliss, what we call in India as Sat-Chit-Ananda. This video was followed by an essay written by American psychologist Kirk Schneider which made me write this blog and I am using the title of his essay. Kirk Schneider is known for his work on Existential-Humanistic Psychology. The gist of his work is to guide his patients towards personal and collective aliveness as against waiting for death passively in their adverse health situations.
Carl Jung explained a human life as merely a link of a very long chain. We are aware of our parents, grandparents, and very rarely, some children may even see their great-grand parents. Beyond them, there is darkness. In earlier homes, there used to be an old trunk filled with articles of ancestors, but no more. Nucleated families live “lean” and prefer “fully furnished” rented properties over building houses or wasting “space” for storing “old stuff.” No wonder, an increasing number of children are estranged from their parents and one can find “old-age homes” in every big Indian city. In small towns, old people are living alone their social deaths while waiting for the biological end.
The thirteen-part television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage written and presented by Carl Sagan in 1980 is now available on YouTube for anyone willing to experience the awe of universe in which we live. Carl Sagan passed away in 1996 but I can be with him watching this series any time and so anyone can who is interested. In one short clip on YouTube, when someone asked Carl Sagan if he believed in God, Sagan asked back, “What kind of God are you asking about?” His question took me back to David Bentley Hart and through him, to Sat-Chit-Ananda. Can I feel Sat-Chit-Ananda in me?
Kirk Schneider’s essay provided me the answer when I read it in the light of Carl Jung’s description of “psyche” as an energy between two poles like charge in an electric battery cell. Schneider lists eight conditions of old age: being alone; experiencing sorrow; loss or absence of hope; fear; fragility; uncertainty; anger; and feeling lost. Then he gives two possible responses – one of death and the other of life.
I can feel the challenge of being alone; worry about my regrets and sorrows; feel paralysed under despair and hope of any kind; shudder of fear of this being my last day, or week; feel terrorized of fragility; be distressed due to uncertainty; experience the bitterness of rage for all the wrong that was done to me; and the panic of feeling lost. This is one way of living the remainder of my life.
Or, I can enjoy the creativity of being alone; feeding the birds; tending to plants; or indulging in some hobby I always wanted to take up but could not find time for; feel the sensitivity of experiencing sorrow; the mobilisation spurred by despair; the defiance sparked by fear; the humility generated by fragility; the possibilities opened up by uncertainty; the strength aroused by rage; and curiosities prompted by disarray.
My long-standing friend and renowned cardiologist, Dr P Krishnam Raju tells me that though diseases are pathways to death, the two are not necessarily related. People die without any disease even in their youth and severely diseased patients live for years praying for their death in vain. If I am alive today, it is indeed a gift. What am I doing with this day, this moment? And it is here that a wide-angle picture helps. When you watch a sparrow visiting you to glean its grain and you find it waiting if you are late by a few minutes, you will be filled with awe. Watching the sun rise is another powerful experience! And the dazzling show of stars every night is there for all those who can “plug themselves off” from their TV.
Neglecting and abusing the body is sinful. My body is the instrument, the medium for my soul, and my willpower comes from the visceral core. A malnourished body, an unkempt body, a tired body, a body kept awake for watching some program on TV late in the night, a body deprived of fresh air and blocked off the fragrance of flowers and plants, the sounds of birds and the sight of floating clouds in the vast blue sky – renders a cordial invite to ailments. Know life as the expansion of consciousness and death as its constriction. Get up, stretch your arms, look up, take a deep breath, exhale and enjoy the wonder of being alive. Carl Jung said in the interview I watched, “Live life as if you are going to be there for 100 years!”
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