Talking About Death, Dying, and Ancestors

February 1, 2023

Students ask Shambhavi intimate questions about confronting the death of loved ones and communicating with ancestors. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I have one I'd like to talk about, Shambhavi

Go ahead.

My father is dying and he's in denial to some extent. And his lack of acceptance is causing him and our family some distress. And just wondering if you have any advice or guidance with how to approach this subject with him.

You could ask him what he wants you to do for him. I mean, that's always number one. Not to try to figure out what to do for someone, but to ask someone what they want you to do for them.

So we're all, to some degree or another, in a state of denial in various aspects of our lives. And we call this ignorance, or lack of access to full wisdom. There's many things that people don't want to know about or things that are painful that they don't want to have to deal with.

So your dad, he's in an extreme position, but his response to it is absolutely normal and probably the norm. From my perspective, he has every right to be in denial if that's how he chooses to go out.

And the best thing that you can do for him is, one, ask him what he wants if anything. And try to provide that for him.

And then if he doesn't want anything or he's angry or he doesn't want to be intruded upon in his denial, then the best thing to do is to just make him as comfortable as possible. To do what you can so that he's most relaxed.

And of course, it doesn't make people relaxed when other people are trying to get them to see something they don't want to see. That's not relaxing. But what you want is for him to die in the most relaxed condition so that when he enters the bardos of death, he is more relaxed.

And then maybe there's a better result for him, even though he's not going to be fully aware of what's going on with himself. Sometimes what we can do for people is extremely limited and that's just something we have to be with and live with.

Maybe all you can do is stroke his arm or get him a glass of water or help to feed him or help him to get from point A to point B. Maybe there's nothing else you can do for him. Read him something or play music that he likes.

Sometimes what we can do is limited. But our job when people are dying is to help them to be relaxed, in whatever way we can do that. And then you said that your family is having a hard time with this.

So there's also the aspect of self care when someone's ill or dying. That's something you can pay attention to with your whole family, something that your family can do together.

Maybe do some self care together and remember to get enough rest and to eat well and all of that. But there might be an opportunity here. Even if your dad doesn't want to talk about what's going on with him or doesn't want to look at the fact that he's dying.

There might be an opportunity here for your family to bond more deeply, or to do things for each other that he won't let you do for him. So I hope that's helpful.

I found out earlier today that my dad had a heart attack. I found out by talking to my mom. I had texted her earlier today, and she called me and told me.

And she said, you know, if you wouldn't have texted me about whatever—XYZ something very casual—I wouldn't have told you. And she's like, in fact, don't tell anyone. Don't tell your sister about this. She's on a trip, and I don't want to ruin her trip.

And I don't know, I just feel like my family has a pattern of hiding things like this. I think my sister should know sooner rather than later, even if it upsets her. But I don't know if it's my place after my mom telling me not to say anything. So how would you navigate that circumstance?

I would have told my mom, I'm sorry, I can't keep that secret for you. I understand why you might want to, but that's not how I operate. If you don't want to just reinforce that family pattern and you want to do what you think is right.

You are a separate person from your mom, and you have different ways of going about things. And he is your dad. It's not like your mom has a closer relationship with him or is more privileged in that relationship.

I would just let her know you're going to tell your sister because you think that's right. And it's what you want to do.

When someone passes and people try and carry on kind of relationship, I'm just wondering, are we really even able to communicate with people who have passed in our families?

It's a great question. In Chinese culture, the word for ancestors is the same as the word for heaven. And ancestors are thought of as a wisdom source. Like a source of wisdom that you could draw on.

Not necessarily as like, individual people, but as kind of a mass of wisdom that is standing behind you. From the view of this tradition, every one of us and all of our ancestors and all beings are all that one supreme Self, showing up as all of those different beings.

So when we are talking to our ancestors, we're still talking to some form of God. We think of those ancestors as living in great time simultaneously with us. As somehow forms of wisdom that we can communicate with.

When we try to talk to an ancestor, we're talking to some form of wisdom, just like when we're talking to each other. And those forms can be paying attention or not. It really depends on what role is being played out through that ancestor that we're trying to talk to.

So sometimes we can try to connect with an ancestor or that form of wisdom that we call that person as an ancestor. And the feeling of communication and connection will be immediate. And the feeling of talking and getting answers will be immediate.

Other times it'll be we feel like we're talking but no one's listening. It really depends. Sometimes when parents or other people close to some of my students die, I have very, very strong senses of those people who have just died in the bardos.

And sometimes I'm able to kind of get messages from them. And other times I don't feel them. With my own mother, I never felt her after she died. And I once asked a very good shaman about this. I thought it was my fault or something that I couldn't make contact with her.

The shaman told me that my mother had fallen in love with somebody during her lifetime, which I knew exactly who it was. And that she was looking for this person in the bardos and wasn't paying attention to me.

And I actually had repetitive dreams before the shaman told me this. That I would meet some reincarnation of my mother, but she would be with a man and she wouldn't even notice me or recognize me on the street.

The shaman kind of confirmed that there was something like this going on. So that's just like another play of wisdom happening, right? There's just some other story happening somewhere.

I've also found that when great practitioners die like, especially teachers that I've been close to when they die, that there's some weird way in which they kind of get released from something. And actually are more easy to make contact with.

And sometimes that happens with ordinary people too. Like there was a person that was in a spiritual community with me that I used to belong to, that I was close to. And she died of cancer when she was pretty young. She was in her early 40s.

And I was sort of close to her during her dying process. And when she died, I just felt this explosion of joy and felt she had really been released. Something had been resolved and she had been released from something. And the sense of communication was really powerful at first.

So I think many, many, many different things can happen. But just understand that you're still talking to some version of wisdom, when you're talking to your ancestors.

Is it kind of like, I've heard you say in reference to Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, saying like, Krishna appears as a charioteer because that is who Arjuna can kind of imagine him as and relate to him as.

Also symbolic that the guru is the charioteer, the one driving the car. But yes. I had a dream just the other night where someone was teaching me something spiritual, and it was in the form of my very, very first teacher.

I mean, she wasn't like a formal spiritual teacher. But she was the first person I encountered when I was 15, who taught me how to relate to subtle energy and had a kind of mystical approach to life.

And she was the one teaching me this thing in this dream. And it's just someone that I related to. It wasn't really her. I didn't have to go, oh, she came in my dream. It was just some form that I could relate to and felt open to.

For those go online and who have not met us in person or maybe have only been able to come once in a very great while. This community is structured. It has been structured from the very beginning in a really traditional way.

Which is in Trika Shaivism and other traditions of its ilk called a guru kula, kind of a structure. Where people are living closely together. It's a householder tradition, so we're not having ashrams or anything like that. But we are living closely together.

We are communicating on a daily basis. There's many more opportunities to gather with me and with each other than there would be in sort of your average spiritual community, where people maybe get together once a week. Or maybe once a month, or something like that.

We're basically, as I say, living our lives together in a distributed community. But it is basically like a kind of extended family. And the reason for this is that we want to be integrating our spiritual practice with our everyday lives.

If you come to the teaching on the three statements of Garab Dorje, the three statements that strike the point in the heart and their equivalent terms in Trika Shaivism, you'll see that integration. Taking our practice off of the mat and into our everyday lives is the most important aspect of these direct realization practices.

So in relating very closely to each other and doing things together, like running Jaya Kula and helping each other with this, that, and the other, and just hanging out together. By doing that and bringing our practice into these relationships.

As kind of an experimental field where we can try out new things and come into contact, have our resistances and our things come up and then be able to work on them, in the context of you, in the context of our spiritual life.

We can always do that, even with people who aren't practitioners. But then we have to approach it differently because they're not doing this practice and they don't have our language.

So having a sort of mandala of people who are living their lives together in this loose-knit way and working with a teacher and getting lots of contact with a teacher, gives people the opportunity to be integrating in a much, much deeper way.

And for the newer people, this is why you'll hear people asking all these questions like, this happened at work or this happened in my family. Because all of these things are being brought onto the path. People are asking, how can I make this part of my spiritual practice?

There's a word for this, akhanda sadhana, it means unbroken practice. And this is really what we want to be doing. We want to ultimately, even though most of us are far from being able to do this, ultimately wanting to be able to be in the state of our practice.

Or remembering who we really are, 24/7. Whether we're checking out at the supermarket or at work or having a fight with a friend or even sleeping, we want to always be resting in our real nature.

And having a community like this, where there's so much contact and so much actually happening between people, gives us an opportunity to integrate. I can't emphasize enough how much integration is the essence of what we're doing.

Since the Pandemic, we live-stream. Before the pandemic, we also live-streamed, but much less frequently. And the Sunday satsang, which was the only satsang that was live-streamed, was only live-streamed to people in our community already.

Not to people who hadn't come in person, or hadn't taken certain teachings. So the Pandemic really changed what was going on at Jaya Kula to some degree.

And now there are people from various places in the world and some of those people have made the trek to visit us. But there are other people who have become students and who are doing practice and relating to the community of students, who have never met any of us in person.

As long as somebody shows up and practices, that means I have an unavoidable commitment. So you may not know that. [laughter] But it's true.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.