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Enlightenment and Life-and-Death and Life-and-Life situations

I am starting this post with a promise to myself that this is going to be a brave and honest post. When I look at my past posts, I can see a trend that they are wanna-be brave and honest posts, but tend to end in cliched didactics or a trivialization of the entire subject-matter. I will try to ensure that this post does not yield to that trap. It should be easy, I think. But let's see.

Just yesterday evening, I was with a group of friends - my old colleagues and friends. And as it often happens during an evening spent with friends, an interesting topic came up - how one's perspective changes in a life-and-death situation. And this is the question that I want to examine in this post. I am not trying to provide answers, I am instead questioning the question itself. What is a life-and-death situation? And whether it does indeed bring you face to face with a greater truth?

Some of my friends in that group have been through terrible accidents, where survival was a matter of pure survival extinct, active brains and minds, and, yes, destiny too. One normally expects you to awaken to a greater reality after such an experience. But I think more often, the impact is more subtle and more long-lasting than an "enlightenment". More than an enlightenment, it is a perspective shift.  

And it isn't always a positive impact, it can also lead you to lose a precious part of your personality. Your innocence, for example. Or your confidence. Or your trust in your surroundings. So when you are studying the befores and afters of a life-and-death situation, it is important to examine both positive as well as negative perspective shifts. After considering both, you may choose to deliberately pursue the positive path for your study, but in my opinion, you cannot separate one from the other. Yin and Yang go hand in hand. 

My husband, upon losing his grandfather, asked me, "do you think dying hurts?" And it was then that I realized that this was the first death of a loved one that he was experiencing. He meant to ask whether his grandfather would have felt any pain when he passed on, even though he seemingly died peacefully. I replied "I do not know", truthfully. But I wanted to say that it does hurt. May be not the person who dies, but the ones who they leave behind. On that day my husband was forced to accept death as a reality and that has led him to more actively think about his loved ones. But at the same time, he lost the trust that his loved ones are always going to be there with him. Yin and Yang. 

Also, it is not only accidents that bring about this change, it can also be the 7 long-drawn stages of grief after losing your loved ones, going through a bad breakup, or losing a job. It can also be the aftereffects of serious illness that change your body to an extent that it becomes the pivot that drives the most important decisions in your life. 

And it doesn't always have to be tragic - it can also be a deep and profound love that makes you do things that you would otherwise not do. Or an awakening of the social conscience as well can happen without anyone actually undergoing trauma themselves, but witnessing them in others' lives. Both of these do not strictly fall under life-and-death situations, they are instead "life-and-life situations". In fact it is this category of life-changing experiences that has brought about a big percentage of creative experiments in human history. If you are studying enlightenment, do not forget to study life-and-life situations.  

Anyway, coming back to life-and-death situations - while an accident can be compared to an earthquake, the impact of the long-drawn after-effect phases, can be compared to the slow erosion of soil by a constantly flowing stream of water. 

In the group that I was with yesterday, we had people who were or are going through all of these long-drawn, slowly shifting changes, but no one talked about these. Instead we focused on the accidents or incidents. I am not opposed to that, nor do I say this frivolously, so hear me out.  

As a friend in that group put it in these words - "when you go through an accident, your subconscious mind tends to deliberately wipe out those unpleasant memories". I agree, and I will also add that this wiping out of those memories is as much a survival instinct as the immediate action that one impulsively takes to survive the accident.   

When you incur a personal loss, there are two stages of impact that the brain has to deal with - the impulsive-reactionary stage and the contemplative-reactionary stage. The impulsive-reactionary stage is pretty much the same in case of an accident or the actual incident of the loss of a loved one - the brain does its best to ensure that you survive the actual incident of the loss. But your mind often takes longer to adjust to the contemplative-reactionary stage where you are experiencing the 7 stages of grief. The brain is slow to accept that it is undergoing trauma and, hence, slow to put the survival instinct into action. And hence the impact is often more pronounced and profound and long-lasting. 

When one talks about "enlightenment" or a "life-changing incident", one thinks about the night when Prince Siddharth witnessed the three stages of life and realized the greater truth, and became Buddh. That may happen to some of us, but most of us will go through life-changing or enlightening experiences without realizing that we are doing so.  

Talking about impulsive-reactionary stage is difficult, but talking about these contemplative-reactionary stage is even more difficult. Many a times, people around you do not realize that you have gone through, or are going through loss or grief, and the extent of the impact. And then you yourself are so conscious of bringing everyone's moods down, that you are not comfortable with broaching the topic yourself. 

One of my friends who has undergone and is still undergoing trauma feels compelled to use disclaimers such as "this will only take a moment when I talk about..." while talking to us about his experiences. I can only speak for myself when I say this - it is my bad that I haven't been able to give you the confidence that I feel privileged that you want to share your experiences in my presence. And I do want to hear you talk about yourself. I may not be able to provide answers / solutions or even make you feel better. But I can be one hell of a listener. And I care. 

And when people like me are undergoing trauma ourselves, we often find it difficult to put our thoughts into spoken word - we intend to say something and something entirely different comes out of our mouths, so some of us decide not to talk about it at all. And hence, when we are going through the contemplative-reactionary stage, on the surface our lives may appear mundane. But deep inside, a tectonic shift might be happening. 

So when you are studying enlightenment, study it in context of both life-and-death and life-and-life situations. And while it is definitely worth exploring the impulsive-reactionary stage, it is also important to study the seemingly mundane contemplative-reactionary stage. And also study positive forces, such as love and social conscience (, that have brought about some of the most powerful changes in the history of human beings. 

To my friend Swapnil, who is on a very interesting path in his journey, if you have read this post till this point, I hope you know that I am not writing this to question your quest. I do not consider myself in a position to do that. But if you ever want to talk about the long-drawn mundane contemplative-reactionary stage, I can share an experience or two to add to your wealth of knowledge.  


  1. Read this again. I recall myself being as one of the active participants for some of the conversations but I do not remember, whether Swap spoke about the quest. We do know the rituals he is following and I can see the method, the routine, the do-redo-redo act of getting into a rhythm, probably harnessing the power of a 'structured program' to get to another state. May be, purely observational. During his brief stay, somehow we never spoke about the why's of his new lifestyle. I think you are so normal and comfortable that you just talk.

    Personally, for some reason that accident never comes to life unless I meet people and get asked on what happened. And then I share it with them. But with-in me and Smita, we never remember the incident, it never gets triggered, I guess following is what wins.

    "when you go through an accident, your subconscious mind tends to deliberately wipe out those unpleasant memories"

    I am not familiar with impulsive-reactionary and contemplative-reactionary stages or acts, are these a standard vocabulary in the field of 'enlightenment' ? I am getting itched to read philosophy. May be I would.

    Keep writing, Vibha.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Nandan.

    I never asked about the accident because I assumed that it wouldn't be a pleasant memory to relive. When Swap asked about it, I admit I was taken aback. But then it led to this conversation. And it opened new threads of thoughts and discussions and what not! So one can never assume about the rights and wrongs when it comes to what we can talk about with friends.

    I haven't read much about enlightenment, but I don't think "impulsive reactionary" or "contemplative reactionary" are standard vocabulary. I confess that I kind of made them up while I was writing this blog. But I hope that I managed to touch a chord somewhere.

    Will always look forward to your comments.



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