Friday, August 24, 2007

Chasing Daylights

Death is not annihilation; it is the flowering of life
- Mata Amritanandamayi

A few months back I chanced upon a book- Chasing Daylights -in one of the book reviews in Business World. The premise of the book- How my Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life – seemed interesting and I promptly bought it.

I started off in a hurry as I generally do with all the books that I buy but after a few pages, I lost interest and the book found itself scattered all across the house- at different locations, in different rooms, lying in an unwanted heap of books and papers.

And then, suddenly, last week, for some unknown reason, I decided to pick up the book and give it a try (Thank you, Amma). My journey to office takes close to 1.5 hrs daily and I had the time to read it. Now that I am through with the book, I wonder why I did not finish it in one go earlier.

Chasing Daylights is a new age philosophy book written by Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO and Chairman of KPMG, one among the Big Four Audit firms. Calling it a New Age probably does not do it justice – New Age is a much abused terminology. This book is an account of his final journey towards death.

It starts from the time he is diagnosed with the disease- glioblastoma multiforme - and concludes with his death four months later. The final chapter of the book is written by his wife as he is too sick by that time to pen down all his thoughts. It is an intimate, thought provoking account of the last days of a man who realizes that he was “…blessed. I was told I have three months to live”.

Death is undoubtedly the most personal moment of one’s life(!!!) – a phase which one has to handle alone - all alone. The grief that surrounds this transition affects not just the person but the surroundings, making it a rather morbid feeling. Eugene, however, decides (rather realizes) that death need not be so bad at all and that the pain of it can be lessened by being ready for the last day and embracing it full heartedly.

He decides to unwind himself from all that he is associated with – his colleagues, his business associates, family members and finally self. He reckons, very rightly I realize, that the pain is much lesser when both the related parties agree to move apart.

I guess, in many ways, the problem with death is not that it comes one day inevitably – we all know that- but when it comes, it jolts us rudely from our slumber of mortality. Most cultures do not discuss death because there is a fear and anxiety about it but how about facing it with a smile or even welcoming it by being ever ready for it?

Welcoming death does not necessarily mean running away from life but it means looking at death as yet another milestone that needs to be covered in our ever changing state of consciousness. We are all scared of Death because no one has ever returned from there to tell us how it is to die; if someone could return, things could have been very different.

Most Hindus would agree, at least theoretically, that death is not the annihilation of our souls but a mere signpost in our long journey. But are we ready for this journey?

I distinctly remember reading the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche where he says that the best form of meditation is to meditate on one’s death. Sounds ghastly, right? But it is so only because it is a radical thought; after all haven’t we all been brought up to look at death as something hideous and grotesque? He says and I quote -

Death is a vast mystery, but there are two things we can say about it: It is absolutely certain that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. The only surety we have, then, is this uncertainty about the hour of our death, which we seize on as the excuse to postpone facing death directly. We are like children who cover their eyes in a game of hide-and-seek and think that no one can see them.

One of the most beautiful things that Eugene tries to explain is how to live in the present and not bury oneself in the debris of the past or the uncertainty of the future. Now this is not an entirely novel thought and I’m sure we would have heard this umpteen times. But, he does not sermonize; instead, he tries to bring that change to his life.

He succeeds on a few occasions while he continues to struggle on many others but there is a certain peace that he feels as he connects to his true self – something that happens when you start living in the present. It is a constant struggle which takes a great deal of effort initially but slowly it becomes an effortless and painless process. Contrary to what we have been brought upto believe, it is our nature to be happy and it is only when we move away from this feeling, we become diseased – a state of not being at ease.

Being a businessman, he goes about the business of dying (as he calls it) in a very methodical manner. He lists his final goals, sets timelines and tracks his progress, all of them focused with one final target in mind – DEATH. He stumbles repeatedly as he realizes that his strengths as a business leader are probably not the biggest assets that he requires now.

Speed, efficiency and micro-management (Type A Personality characteristics) were of not much use to him at this juncture and it is then he realizes that the most important virtue in a man’s life is Consciousness.

Multi-tasking is not a virtue as many of us would like to believe. It merely means a lack of focus on any particular activity. I remember reading this beautiful Zen tale about a monk and his disciple. One day, after years of austere life, the disciple asks his Master what is the difference between the two of them?

The Master says, “I eat, I sleep, I work and I meditate. “ The puzzled student says, “So do I. What is the difference?” The Master smiles and replies, “When I work, I work; when I eat, I eat. But when you work, you think about what you eat; when you eat, you think about your sleep and so on”.

How different are we? At this moment, as you are reading this, you probably have lots of different ideas running through your head. We are all a set of muddled minds, without a focus – the ocean of thoughts needs to become a silent stream.

Chasing Daylights is not about one man’s fight against death like Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike which chronicles his struggles against all odds and less than 10% survival chances to emerge a hero. Armstrong’s effort is wonderful and inspiring but for some reason I felt closer to Eugene’s story. Embracing death is probably so much tougher than enduring it, though a happy ending always makes for pleasant reading.

The disease was at its final stages when diagnosed; probably one reason he did not fight it the way he and many of us would have wanted. Yes, snatching life from the jaws of death is heroic but there are times, when we need to accept life and death as they are. The book is more about his acceptance of his fate which some people may claim as cowardice but to me, it is as heroic as it gets.

After reading the book, I think I need to strive to live in the present; not an easy idea to implement by any stretch of imagination but it is a profoundly powerful feeling. As I write this, my mind goes back to the meeting that I had in the morning; clearly there is a long way to go before I actually start living in the present but then, I can always make a start, can't I?

We all have the required tools scattered around us to tap the energies in the world, conspiring outwardly to help us whenever we need. But let us make an attempt to reach out to it. It's never too late; we need not wait until Death stands at the altar of our lives before we attempt to change.....


  1. Hey Pradeep, I loved the post. Thought provoking to say the least. Now I cant wait to get my hands on the book.

  2. How cum bout death suddenly...after all your Singapore and Malaysian voyages??

  3. No particular reason; just tend to be philosophical at times…I think we must always keep the idea of death in our minds as we live…It is a healthy way of living; do not ignore death but accept it whole heartedly and be ready for it….

  4. wat does be ready for it mean....then that you will not be able to live ur life to the fullest......let us take it as it we have a choice ne ways?

  5. Living life fullest does not mean ignoring death as many of us believe. Being ready for death does not mean anything negative at all. It is part of our upbringing to look at death as something evil that should not be embraced. I cannot explain the philosophy of death in one line; you will have to read either of the books mentioned below to have some idea about it. Or maybe if we discuss some day, I can try to throw some light on this.

    We do not have a choice to live or die but we have a choice of how we die (state of mind not cause, I mean). Otherwise, it will bring grief to yourself as well as others. This can however be handled in a way that the grief is minimized and the transition from life to no life is a smooth and natural one..

  6. Sir
    very well written....
    I used to read the first few lines of your messages every time and move to "Friends" folder for a Saturday afternoon reading....and most of the times I do not find "that" Saturday afternoon....
    but this one was good and made me do it on a Tuesday evening when I had come to office after a 6 day vacation, that too specifically to clear my mails... but the message beginning, flow and style of writing was interesting...

    but I do not agree to the point on "it is our nature to be happy" Do you think so?

  7. Hari sir,

    Thanks; after a long time, it was an article I had written more from the heart and less from the brain…Maybe that was why it was better than many others…

    About “our nature to be happy”, what I mean is that it is inherent nature to be happy but we have made our decision not to be happy in life (not deliberately). We are all born to be happy but learn to become unhappy later on in life (I say learn because it is a conditioning and not an impulse). As kids, we were all happy and innocent and that represents our true self but as we grow up, we cultivate tendencies that make us look at life in a way that brings sorrow. Some of us even feel guilty for being happy and so look for ways to become unhappy.

    I think it is high time we start living the way God always wants us to be – HAPPY…..The world is not going to change the way we want but we can change the way we look at the world…If I have trained myself to be unhappy, I’m sure I can unlearn this tendency and be how I was as a kid…

  8. Pradeep u are just too good.. such a wonderful thought... Like u even i will make an attempt to live in present..

    Keep writing.. ur words are quite thought provoking..