By Max Strom
From time to time, nearly all of us are prompted to reassess our priorities. The trigger is usually an event or an interaction that leads to an epiphany. In that moment, we see the essence of who we really are. This can spark spontaneous and sudden growth at a deep level, altering the course of our lives.
One of the events that helped jolt me awake happened in India, almost 15 years ago.
My traveling companion and I had arrived by train at the teeming city of Varanasi—a pilgrimage destination for Hindus of all denominations who believe that bathing in the water of the sacred Ganges River remits sins, and that dying in Varanasi ensures the release of a person’s soul from the cycle of death and rebirth. Many Hindus travel to this holy city to die and be cremated on the series of steps leading down to the river, called ghats, and to have their remains scattered in the water.
On our first sojourn down the ghats, we found ourselves near billowing smoke. We were taken aback at the sight of seven bodies wrapped in muslin cloth, set ablaze. The families in mourning sat only a few feet from the flames.
My friend and I looked for just a moment, and then thought we should move away. We felt like we were intruders disturbing something very personal. But as we turned to leave, one of the attendants in charge of the burning approached us and asked us to stay. He ignored our objections and discomfort. Instead, he led us through the crowd and gestured for us to sit on the steps about 40 feet from the corpses. He left us to observe the sacred event after pointedly delivering the phrase “cremation is education”—an axiom I instantly memorized.
We both sat in silent contemplation as the afternoon sun glared through the thick smoke. I watched the attendants stoke the fire with long poles and even break off charred limbs from the bodies. As the muslin cloth burned away, I saw the feet and hands of the bodies turn black, and I felt moved by the weeping of the grieving families nearby.
I decided to use this extraordinary opportunity to engage in a form of active meditation I had read about many years earlier—a practice common in Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu asceticism, and Sufism aimed at helping one realize the impermanence of the body. The concept dictates that when a person truly understands how short mortal life is, he or she is launched into a deeper state of reality, able to live a profoundly richer life.
The practice was simple: Imagine that the corpses were the bodies of the people you love the most. In other words, make it as personal as possible.
After focusing my imagination for a while, the vision became very real. With open eyes brimming with tears, I imagined seven of the most beloved people in my life engulfed in flames. It was profoundly moving, and I found myself grieving deeply.
The next step was to imagine that one of the corpses was my own body. I selected one of the burning bodies closest to me, and in my mind I converted its identity to that of my own. Then I watched the flames envelop and consume it. Just as this happened, a gust of wind whipped toward us, blowing smoke and ash our way. As I imagined my own body burning, the ashes from the pyre blew into my eyes, covering my face and hair, as if punctuating reality. I don’t know how long we sat there—perhaps two hours—but I do know that on our walk back up the ghats, in the light of the sunset, covered in the ash of the dead, I knew that I was going to make some changes in my life.
My mortal life was running out. It struck me that even if I were to live another hundred years, my body would one day be ash on someone else’s face. In that moment, I realized that there was more to do. I was being held accountable by something deep within me, and that something told me I had better get busy. As rich and meaningful as my life was, I knew it could be more so. I knew that I was being tempted by what I call the complacency of achievement. It is a well-known trap: when you achieve much of what you want, you can be tempted to stay where you are—and cease to grow. I realized I had been holding myself back from life due to both fear of failure and fear of success. I needed to learn to become truly vulnerable; I needed to take off the armor I’d been wearing so that I could fully complete my life’s purpose.
Emotional transformation like this shapes our understanding of the world, often giving us sudden insight into the essential meaning of life, which can cause powerful changes. Yet you don’t necessarily have to wait for life to present you with an extreme situation or circumstance to accelerate your growth. Instead, you can decide to take intentional actions that accelerate your evolution, so that you become wiser—faster.
The imperative to accomplish this is as follows: Do a daily practice of breath-centric movement, such as asana, and emphasize breathwork. Breathing patterns affect us emotionally and can heal us very quickly. Without focusing on the breath in asana, we may become physically flexible and strong—yet remain stagnant in our internal world. And most importantly, no matter how young or old you are, live as if your time and your lifespan are the same. After all, we only have a few seconds here on this earth.
The knowledge we need to transform ourselves and our world is available. And whether you feel ready or not, the time is now. So live! Look at your life. What things do you remember? Wonderful meals—or television shows? Long chats with loved ones—or endless social media and texts? When we begin to study ourselves, we can step more fully into our imperfect, impermanent lives.