The Fear of Losing Yourself

Abhinivesha (Fear of Death) is identified by Patanjali as one of the five major causes of human suffering.                                                    ( ref. Yoga Sutra 2:3)

“Abhinivesha, is very deep- rooted and sustained by its own force in the minds of the ordinary individuals and the wise ones alike.”             (Yoga Sutra 2:9)

No wonder then that living with a major chronic illness, especially during acute symptoms and exacerbation of accompanying problems may cause us to obsess over our own vulnerability and mortality.

Survival and the desire to cling to life is our most basic instinct.  At the deepest layer, all our fears, anxieties and arguably depression too, may stem from Abhinivesha, which literally means “I may cease to be.”  .

In the past, the disease-focused western medicine in the treatment of medical patients regarded psycho-emotional issues “outside the scope of medicine.”

However, in the last couple decades, anxiety, depression and other emotional disorders are increasingly being recognized as “comorbid disorders” associated with major “medical illnesses” such as the chronic lung disease, heart disease, cancer, etc.  Numerous patient surveys and clinical surveys have now dispelled the myth that there is no such thing as “purely medical” or “purely psychiatric.” They are unavoidably and intricately linked.

Consequently, anxiolytics and antidepressants are routinely prescribed. Unfortunately, multiple medications may also introduce more toxins and side-effects to the existing physical and emotional burden a person has to bear.  Undoubtedly, some will need medication and others will need medication and psychological therapies.

Dominant medical model and traditional psychological therapies hardly provide emotional skills and tools a person needs in order to deal with the emotional challenges of a severe and chronic illness.

The newer psychological therapies, however, especially the ones inspired by Yoga and other Eastern philosophy and mind-body techniques (breath awareness, meditation, mindfulness, etc.) are offering desperately needed emotional skills and tools.  Emotional growth and often an overarching personal transformation is exactly what we need in order to overcome the sense of loss and vulnerability a severe illness brings to bear upon us.

Yoga with its practical philosophy, stance of courage, positivity and emotional equanimity with its vast array of mind-body techniques is uniquely suited to help us adapt to the new realities and discover personal facets and strengths we thought we never had.

Yoga is Karmasu Kaushalam, “Skillfulness in actions is Yoga” (Gita 2.15)

Since I have chosen to walk the path of Yoga living I have made a commitment with myself to handle all health challenges with emotional equanimity, grace and skillful action (comprehensive self-care) and right knowledge concerning who I am and what my physical, psycho-emotional and spiritual strengths are.

I must not give up the attempt to smooth the rough edges of the symptoms even during the illness flares.  I must often remind myself to maintain a positive attitude and outlook at such challenging times.

Yoga encourages us to stay calm even during the eye of the “storm.” Remember we may not be able to change the diagnosis of our illness or the prognosis of it but we can change the experience of our illness by changing ourselves.

Yoga living with a major chronic illness requires that we come to terms with the loss of what we once were.  Shedding that lovely sense of unlimited power, invincibility and immortality, we may grieve over it for a while then we must accept what we are now. Yes, after grieving over “What I once was” I need to accept with emotional evenness “what I am now.”

And then, “evenness” begin to spread out in our life in other dimensions. For example, I have become smaller, weaker and more “breathy” in some respects, but in many other respects I have become stronger, taller and wiser. Just the other day someone said to me (trust me I was not fishing for a compliment) “You are spiritually 60 feet tall.”

Make a commitment to personal growth.  Totally accept when you notice you are “diminishing” in some areas and gratefully acknowledge when you are “amplifying” in other areas.  On a humorous note, let’s call it “Getting even with yourself!”

Abhinivesha!  Fear of death is in fact the desire to cling to life in this body. The desire to cling generalizes to everything that can help us protect and preserve this life.  Therefore, fear of death extends also to the potential loss of our loved ones who depend on us and those on whom we must depend for our survival.

Ancient Indian texts say the pundits, the wise ones, do not grieve over the death of the body. It is hard to emotionally reconcile with the fact that just the other day we could see, hear and touch the person we loved and then, the light goes out of the body and we can’t see, hear or touch them forever!  That there is life after this life is hard to even imagine.

Abhinivesha robs us of true peace of mind.  May we discover that in the termination of the body we are not “losing” ourselves we are “finding” our true Self.  How do you like the word “termination” of the body?  The body is given to us to serve a definite “term,’ (long or short) and upon serving the term, the “prisoner” is released.

One of the most powerful tools for dealing with our fears is nurturing the conviction that we are more than our body.  “I am more than my body” should become everybody’s mantra, healthy or otherwise.

May this mantra lead us to the discovery of who we really are!   That, we are Spirit residing in this body.  That, spiritual existence, not the physical, is our true and everlasting reality.

Someone once said, “We are not physical beings having spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having physical experience.”

In Samskrita, the word for “individual” is Vyakti, meaning the one who is “manifested” or “expressed” in the physical form.  The English word “individual” means, “indivisible,” “single” or “unique.”

When I say, “I am an individual” I am celebrating the fact that “I am unique and different from everyone else.”  But, when I say, “I am a vyakti I am not making any claims about my uniqueness or differentiation from others—I am simply stating “I am manifested in the physical form like everyone else.”

Before birth, I was Spirit/ pure consciousness and non-manifest in the physical form. After casting off this body I will again become non-manifest.  Until I come to inhabit another body I will exist as pure consciousness.

In the spirit form we all are ONE but in the physical form we are many in many different bodies.  E Pluribus Umum, the national motto of USA says it all, “Out of many, one” or “One out of many”

When father of a student of Swami Veda Bharati died, the latter wrote a poem with the title “Merger.”  I love the conceptualization of death as “merger;” that is, the merger of the small individual self with the Big Universal Self!

Many advanced Yogis, Buddhists meditators and monks say that when sages and advanced meditators die their heart region remains warm to touch even when the rest of the body has gone cold.

If we believe that the Light is brightest and most evident in the heart region then here is something to do: During daily meditations bring intense awareness to the heart center, visualize the glow of Light there and focus on the chosen image of your loved one, a blossoming lotus, God or any other.

As the Buddhists say “Om Mani Padme Hum” meaning, “The Jewel is in the Lotus.”  The jewel is symbolic of the finest values of life such as love, compassion, joy, peace and the like. The lotus is symbolic of the heart center.  Let’s practice “emotional meditation” in the heart center while imagining and feeling love, peace and joy during the entire practice of meditation.

Something may begin to open up inside like the petals of the heart flower.  May that something be the reflection of our true Self!

That’s my hope and aspiration for all of us who walk on the path of Yoga Living.


Suggested Reading

“Spiritually Based Grieving” Blog Post 09/27/2015

About sharma

Vijai Sharma, PhD, certified Yoga teacher and Yoga therapist from the American Viniyoga Institute (AVI) and retired clinical psychologist with special interest in mind-body medicine. Thanks primarily to Yoga, I have enjoyed great quality of life learning and living with three major illnesses, Emphysema/ Chronic Bronchitis (also called "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease- COPD) since 1994, Quad Bypass Cardiac surgery 2007, Prostate cancer and radical prostate surgery in 2010. My experiences and insights into the illnesses, Yoga, psychology and mind-body medicine provide me a unique opportunity to put them into practice and learn further more. Through this blog I share with you how exactly I manage to have a satisfying and fulfilling life. I do so in the hopes that you will do the same with the challenges you may have. I invite you to join me!
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