“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)
There are different gradations of the mid-life crisis, the time in one’s life where the future path remains uncertain due to the majority of life’s main objectives having already been reached. To keep the spark of life going, the fire in the belly so to speak, it is not uncommon for a middle-aged individual to make a list of the things they want to do, or accomplish, by the end of their life. Though the list goes by different names such as the “life list” or the “bucket list”, a reference to the “kick the bucket” euphemism for death, the objectives are still the same. When analyzed by one who is spiritually inclined, the bucket list can be viewed both positively and negatively. When viewed in the negative light, the compiler of the bucket list is deemed to be quite ignorant of the natures of time, space, and spirit. Under the positive light, the desire to experience something before one’s impending death brings the necessary urgency required to achieve life’s foremost mission, that of becoming purely spiritually aware and active at all times, including the time when the body is ultimately renounced.
A simple review of the typical life cycle proves helpful in understanding how the point of creating the bucket list is reached. In the early years, a human being is simply interested in playing. The child has no concern for anything pertaining to romantic relationships, careers, paying bills, or even studying higher knowledge. A young child will simply play all day if not told otherwise. Through regulation and discipline offered by the parents and preceptors, a child can gradually mature into a young adult, and then eventually into a human being. In the young adult years, goals and objectives start to form, namely those pertaining to the occupation one will take up when they reach full blown adulthood. The purpose behind identifying an ideal occupation is fairly straightforward: to provide for life’s necessities. Parents would surely love to take care of their children throughout their lifetime, but due to the age difference, the parents are likely to pass on before the children. Therefore a good parent is one who can raise their children to be self-sufficient adults.
After receiving a formal education, the aim of life shifts to the career area, concerns pertaining to landing a job that provides a salary sufficient to meet one’s basic obligations such as food, clothing, and shelter. The next goal is to have a stable family life, where a compatible spouse and beautiful children are required. By no means are any of these objectives easy to meet, for there is great struggle involved in securing a decent job, especially due to the fluctuating natures of economies. In industrialized nations, the agriculture sector of the economy is very small; therefore the primary occupations adopted service the passions of others. Companies produce goods and services and offer them to the general public. Depending on the mood of the public and their affinity, or lack thereof, for a particular product, a company will either earn a profit or slowly lose money. Since the mode of passion, which is one of the three modes governing this world, is ultimately incapable of providing any lasting satisfaction, the buying and selling habits of a population at large tend to fluctuate. Therefore there is little job security, even though in a system where goods and services are traded peaceably and voluntarily, there will always be jobs to be had, stable or otherwise.
“The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this one is bound to material fruitive activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.7)
Romantic relationships, which serve as the next step in the ascension towards greater and more intense experiences in material life, are even more difficult to secure and maintain. Men will always complain about women and women will always complain about men, for the sense interests of an individual can never be met to complete satisfaction. Finding a suitable match is difficult enough, but then maintaining the relationship is an even greater task. In any situation where two independent individuals are closely paired with one another, there will be friction and tension. If a unifying force is absent, a common purpose holding the personal interests of both parties in check, there will be great friction. Add children to the mix and what you’re left with is a lifetime of unsteadiness, concern, and obligation.
So let’s say we are fortunate enough to achieve all of our goals that we outlined after our education was completed. Where does that leave us? Is life over? Do we not still have the life force inside of us? It is the nature of every living entity to seek out pleasure. This means that no matter what stage of life one finds themselves in, the desire for thrill and excitement will always remain active. For one who has achieved all of life’s primary objectives, the next aim is to find new thrills, experiences that aren’t necessarily so important but are still appealing enough to take up.
Since there are obligations pertaining to work and family, the limiting factor is time. There may be many thrills that one wants to experience, but the guaranteed nature of death puts a constraint on these desires. Therefore it is not uncommon for one in their thirties or forties to make a “bucket list”, an itemized rundown of all the things they want to do/accomplish before they die. The experiences listed can surely run the gamut of material activities, but they often include things like writing an autobiography, visiting a certain landmark, performing a daredevil stunt such as skydiving or bungee jumping, eating a certain type of food, and even meeting a specific personality. The idea is that if one can achieve all of the items on their list before the time they die, their life will have been worth living.
This is certainly an interesting mindset, for it is based off the assumption that experiencing an enumerated list of thrills can bring complete satisfaction. Yet what gets overlooked is that the person compiling such a list has already experienced many thrills in life. Regardless of how lucky or unlucky a person is, there are moments in their life when they feel supreme pleasure, extreme bliss. In the middle age years, memory of these past experiences may be lost, but the events nevertheless occurred. Using a little intelligence, it becomes obvious that if we already experienced thrills that were later forgotten, what’s to say that we’ll remember any of the future thrills that are on our life list. The point of the bucket list is to be able to lie on our deathbed and look back on our life with complete satisfaction. Yet if the experiences of every thrill remain distant in the mind, what would the difference be if we never actually get to experience any of our desired thrills?
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.20)
Based on this quick review, we can see that the key to satisfaction is not necessarily a thrilling experience here or there, but rather a permanent shift in consciousness. Consciousness is eternal, something that never goes away or stops functioning. According to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, consciousness is tied to our identity, which comes from the spirit soul. This brings us to the negative review of the bucket list mindset. The spirit soul, which is the anatomical functioning unit of any life form, never takes birth, nor does it ever die. What we refer to as death is simply the shedding of the outer garment of the soul. There is never a time that the soul stops functioning, and there is never a time when the spiritual spark loses its natural properties. And what are these properties? The soul’s qualities are inherited from the original father, the Supreme Soul.
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.61)
The individual soul, which is known as the jivatma, resides in one body at a particular time. There have been instances in the past where great mystic yogis divided their souls and travelled through space in different ways, but their identities were still the same. They couldn’t perform different activities with the different divisions of their original soul. The Supreme Soul, or Paramatma, is different in this regard. Since it is a direct expansion of God, it is not a division. The Supersoul resides within the heart of every living entity, thereby making God the only entity who is conscious of the thoughts, desires, and hankerings of every living entity, past, present, and future.
Since the Supersoul is non-different from God, it has natural, eternally existing properties. The Supersoul is knowledgeable, blissful, and imperishable. The individual soul, which represents our identity, is a derivative of the Supreme Soul, similar to God in quality but subordinate to Him in quantitative powers. Thus the individual soul is also imperishable, ever-knowledgeable, and prone to a blissful state. The difference in quantitative powers manifests in the form of the jivatma’s fall down from the spiritual sky. The Supreme Lord is always blissful, regardless of His particular form or appearance. This is not the case with the individual. When brought to the material world, the soul must put on a particular suit. This is similar to how astronauts must don proper attire when travelling through outer space. For the soul to survive in the material world, it needs a dress, an outer covering.
The influences of this outer covering are quite powerful. The primary effect it has on the individual is that it causes him to forget his natural relationship to the Supreme Lord. As a result, identity is taken from the gross body, a collection of material elements which constantly goes through changes, culminating with ultimate destruction at the time of death. Thus the bucket list mentality is simply a byproduct of the false identification adopted at the time of birth, when the soul is placed into a material body. One who is in the know, however, understands that the soul never perishes. The term “lifetime” is simply a demarcation of time, a unit of measure similar to a second, minute, day, year, etc. Just as it would be silly to say there can only be one instance of a second or a year, the viewpoint that we only get one life to live is similarly invalid. The soul is not subject to the influences of time; only the body is. Therefore there is nothing to be lost in terms of opportunity for thrills once death comes. In fact, God is so nice that if one wants to remain tagged to a material body in the next life, they are allowed to do so. At the time of death, a moment of great turmoil and panic, the individual’s desires and reactions to work are measured by the higher authorities of the universe. Based on this assessment, a commensurate body is crafted for the individual’s next life.
“Those who know Me as the Supreme Lord, as the governing principle of the material manifestation, who know Me as the one underlying all the demigods and as the one sustaining all sacrifices, can, with steadfast mind, understand and know Me even at the time of death.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.30)
This brings us to the positive review of the bucket list mentality. Though the soul is eternal and never dies, the time of death is still of critical importance. Though ignorance envelops the individual when they are trapped in a material body, there is no requirement that one remain a devotee of matter perpetually. Rather, if one’s consciousness, which is driven by work and desire, is purified at the time of death, a spiritual body is crafted for the next life. Moreover, this spiritual form roams free in the imperishable realm where the original Personality of Godhead resides alongside His eternal, loving associates. Thus one who achieves a spiritual body and residence in God’s realm never has to worry about descending to the material world again. In this way, the purification of consciousness is actually what brings the greatest thrill.
Though the soul will continue to exist irrespective of outer covering or place of residence, the time of death represents the complete change of dress. This means that if one’s consciousness is not purified at the end of life, they have to start the knowledge-acquiring process all over again in the next life. Thus the same struggles pertaining to occupation, family, and romance will have to be endured again. In addition, there is no guarantee that the next form of body will be a human one. The laws of karma, or fruitive activity, are quite fair, so if one is overly sinful in this life, they will surely have to suffer in the next. The body of an animal brings great opportunities for sense gratification, but nothing beyond that. The animal is not cognizant of impending death, spirit, or matter. Only in the human form of life can one take the necessary steps to understand who they are, why they are where they are, and what they can do to reach the Supreme Destination.
“That supreme abode is called unmanifested and infallible, and it is the supreme destination. When one goes there, he never comes back. That is My supreme abode.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.21)
So how do we purify our consciousness to the point that we’ll get a spiritual body at the time of death? Moreover, should this goal be the only item on our bucket list? The process for achieving purification is quite simple. In fact, though the required discipline can be formally classified as yoga, the associated activities are completely natural and intimately matched with the soul’s intrinsic properties. The discipline of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, not only brings about a permanent shift in consciousness, but it also secures thrills at every moment. Obviously, in the initial stages these thrills will be difficult to realize, but for one who steadily practices the ancient art of the religion of love, there is no question of the lasting benefits to the mind and the psyche.
So what constitutes bhakti? In reality, activities in bhakti are no different than those we already take up, with the only difference being the object of worship. Currently we sing different songs to ourselves, read various books, visit restaurants and nightclubs, and hear about the exploits of celebrities and politicians. Taking these same activities, we can spiritualize them by reading books about Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, or one of His numerous non-different expansions. We can visit His temples and holy pilgrimage sites. We can hear about His glorious activities and of the steep resolve shown by His faithful servants, the exalted Vaishnavas. But the most effective process of bhakti is the chanting of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
The Vaishnava authorities, the spiritual masters and expert practitioners of bhakti, recommend that one chant this mantra on a set of japa beads, sixteen rounds daily. A japa mala, or rosary set, consists of 108 beads, with the mantra chanted one time on each bead; thus one round of japa equates to 108 recitations of the mantra. If we multiply this number times sixteen, we get the minimum number of mantra recitations per day. Obviously this is quite time consuming, especially in the beginning stages for those whose tongues aren’t familiar with pronouncing Krishna and Rama, the greatest names ascribed to the Supreme Lord of all humanity. Yet simply through this chanting routine, the most potent of religious practices, liberation can be achieved in this very life.
“Real love of God is ahaituky apratihata: it cannot be checked by any material cause. It is unconditional. If one actually wants to love God, there is no impediment. One can love Him whether one is poor or rich, young or old, black or white.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Science of Self-Realization, Ch 1b)
With the bucket list mentality, and even the desire to achieve a purified consciousness at the time of death, there is an end-goal in mind, a disposition where all of one’s accomplishments have been met satisfactorily . With any endeavor, there is an intended state of interruption, wherein the initial motivation for the undertaking of the activity ceases. These properties are observed in virtually all endeavors. There is an initial motivation for the activity, a desired end-goal. Subsequently, when the aim is reached, the activities cease and the motivation goes away. With bhakti, however, the opposite effects are seen. Since chanting Hare Krishna, reading books about the Lord, and associating with fellow devotees bring thrills to the soul at every moment, there is no motivation and no interruption for those in the heightened state of Krishna consciousness. In this way, a pure bhakta automatically achieves liberation, for they are no longer hampered by the negative influences of the material body, a form which acts as a holding cell for those who are spiritually unconscious. For the devotee, the body serves their spiritual needs instead of inhibiting them. This is a role reversal of sorts, wherein the slave becomes the master.
“Oh Rama, for as long as You shall stand before me, even if it be for one hundred years, I will always remain Your servant. Therefore You should be the one to choose a beautiful and appropriate place for the cottage. After You have selected a spot, please then command me to start building.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 15.7)
These ideas sure make for a nice practice in theory, but there is also great tangible evidence available to substantiate the claims. The properties of the soul were not mythically conjured up or devised through some legislative body. Rather, the soul has always bore the property of being a lover of God. When an individual transcends the effects of material nature and takes bhakti to be their life and soul, there is nothing that can stop them from loving God. Similar to the sentiment sung in a line from a famous song, “if loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right”, the bhakta will continue their service to the Lord no matter the opposition or impediments thrown their way. Shri Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama, exhibited this property beautifully. Many thousands of years ago, the Supreme Lord descended to earth, as He likes to do from time to time, in an eternal form visible to the human eye. As a pious and courageous prince named Rama, God roamed the earth and gave His darshana to those deserving of it. A notable portion of His life was spent in the forests of India, where He lived as a recluse alongside His younger brother Lakshmana and wife Sita Devi. On one occasion, Rama, the eldest brother of the family, asked Lakshmana to find a nice spot to erect a cottage for the group. Lakshmana very nicely replied that if he had the pleasure of being with Rama for one hundred years, he would always stand by His side and do whatever He asked him to do. This shows the ideal mood of devotion. Who could ever imagine working at the same job for one hundred years, wherein every day at the office was eagerly anticipated and every moment brought supreme bliss? Yet Shri Lakshmana always felt this way while serving Rama.
Similarly, those sincere souls who chant the maha-mantra for sixteen rounds a day will never give up the practice. One could offer the dedicated devotee millions and millions of dollars to stop their chanting, but they would never accept such an offer. If there is anything we should aim to strive for by the time we leave our current body, it should be the adoption of this mindset, wherein the interests of the Supreme Lord take precedent over all else. The chanting tradition passed on by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, His disciples, and those following their example, carries with it the secret that unlocks the door to eternal bliss, a level of consciousness where every second is thrilling. One who swims in the nectarean waters of the sound vibrations of the holy names of the Supreme Lord never has to worry about past, present, future, or the potential loss of thrill. The waves of transcendental bliss secure the sincere devotee all the happiness they require.