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From 'The Little Book Of Life And Death' 

by Douglas Harding

The real problem: what am I?

“I am a man is not natural. You are neither this nor that.” Ramana Maharshi.

Pressing and poignant though the problem of my mortality, of the end of this life — certainly is, it is not the problem. The crucial question is: who is mortal? Whose life is it, in any case? Solve that puzzle, and the rest follows. There is no other way. When I want to judge how long a gadget around the house is likely to last, I note whether it's made of papier-maché, wood, plastic, pottery, or stainless steel. Similarly with its user. I'm either sort of thing that perishes, or endures? ‘I am made of God,’ says Dante's Beatrice, ‘and therefore indestructible,’ she adds — in effect. ‘Am I mortal?’ Is subsumed in ‘Who or what am I right now?’ As the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi insisted, the real answer to every serious question is see who asks it. It follows that my main job in this enquiry must be to approach myself from a variety of angles, to keep coming back to the question of my true and present identity, to stop all pretending and game-playing and be with full awareness none other than what I really am. And this should reveal — almost as a side-issue — how permanent I am.

There are immediate advantages in this widening out of the problem, which is also the reduction of my problems to just one. For it requires me to shift from an escapist preoccupation with other times to present realities, from there to right here, from guesswork to certainty, from vague thinking and speculation to sharp perceiving, from a wool-gathering passivity to work (if waking up and staying awake can be called work), from an unnatural life lived from the lie of who-I'm-not to a natural life lived from the truth of who-I-am. And, as a bonus, I find this is none other than preparing, in the best possible and only effective way, for death. If I do my homework now with full attention I shall pass the end of term examination. If I just sit back and hope for the best I shall most probably fail. (And be relegated? Given another chance in another incarnation, many reincarnations? Be packed off to some purgatory or hell? These are among the questions we shall be asking in due course.)

What, then, is this alleged True Nature of mine, this wonderful discovery of the wise which promises to settle everything? I'd better have some idea right away of this identity I'm looking for, otherwise I'm unlikely to find either its presence or its absence. In briefest summary, what I'm advised to seek is no thing at all, but unlimited, unconditioned, unmoving, timeless (repeat timeless), simple, silent, and — above and below all — self-evident and intensely alive to itself as all this. It is the unknowable of which Aristotle said that nothing is so noble. It is the bottomless abyss of mystery-beneath-mystery which is at once my refuge and myself. Among its metaphors and synonyms are Nothingness, Clarity, Transparency, the Clear Light, Empty Space, the Void which is trackless and stainless and speckless, bare Capacity, the Unborn and Undying ... None of which do more than help me recognise it when I stumble on it. (Getting the words right, knowing all about it, thinking and even feeling it — I'm assured that these are an infinite distance from the reality, from actually seeing it more clearly than anything else, and so consciously being it.)

Such is my strictly wordless inside story, my essence, my deathless reality, according to the rumour persisting down the ages. So it's Seers – whatever their religious and cultural affiliations – consistently claim. And such is the truly mind-boggling hypotheses I'm testing here now, and not putting off till I'm prostrate on my deathbed. Rumi, the great Sufi, sets my task uncompromisingly: ‘Die before you die.’ To which I would add: ‘And see what happens.’ And Plato goes so far as to define philosophy itself as ‘the practice of death’. Long-live philosophy!

(The Little Book Of Life And Death was first published in 1988.)

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