Nityanando’s experiment: to live as if one had just one year to live…
Live each day like it’s your last.
One day, you’re gonna be right!”
– Ray Charles
Right on, Ray!
Before joining the current Sammasati Support-Person Training, one participant – voluntarily, and healthy in body and mind – immersed himself in an extreme experiment. He decided to live as if he had just one year to live. Looking back, Nityanando says, “It is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, that I’ve ever given my totality to.”
Though Nityanando found the inspiration for the experiment elsewhere, Stephen Levine makes the same proposal in his book, A Year to Live. Chapter by chapter he lays out the components of what he regards as a healing process that ‘allows a gradual completion of all that lies behind and a clear-eyed entrance into whatever may lie ahead. A process of clarity, insight and closure’. (p7) He also includes themes one might address through the year – around ‘noticing’ (aka witnessing), reviewing one’s life, practising forgiveness, looking at one’s fears about dying, and so on. I’d personally add more meditation but it’s undoubtedly an inspiring read, a ‘profound guide for savouring life’ as Daniel Goleman puts it.
“I took the idea on immediately because it shocked me,” Nityanando recalls. “I saw, ‘Oh that’s how it is – death just comes out of the blue; you don’t get ready for it’. So I took it on – that I had 365 days to live. The impact was huge,” he says.
“When there is only a year remaining, our options expand exponentially,” Levine suggests. “Should we go on vacation… get married… divorced… take up macramé… get a face-lift… consider cryonics?” (p15) For Nityanando, one priority was to address those relationships that remained incomplete; ones in which there were unresolved issues. With that intention he travelled to Australia and South America. Meeting up with the people concerned, he found that things panned out somewhat differently; in fact they led to a wholly unimagined but significant insight. While some things did get resolved – meaning that he felt better, sometimes in the completing of one thing, he says, “I made a mess somewhere else!”
“The understanding began to grow that when I want to complete or resolve something, underneath what I really mean is: ‘I want to feel good and I don’t. I don’t like feeling uncomfortable and I want to do whatever I need to do to feel comfortable.’ I got to see that some things don’t particularly feel good, and that feeling uncomfortable is a very real part of life and that’s okay. We don’t necessarily need to do anything about it. At the start of Osho’s recorded audio discourses are the words: ‘This discourse is complete in itself….’ That has become a very big part of my life – ‘This meeting is complete in itself’, ‘This issue is complete in itself’, ‘This moment is complete in itself’.”
Did you inform your friends of what you were doing? I want to know.
Even though it created difficulties, he couldn’t bring himself to. That was less from a conscious decision and more from an urgency not to postpone. As part of his experiment Nityanando started to ‘take the freedom’ to really tune into what he wanted, moment to moment. That might mean saying to a friend, ‘I don’t want to talk right now’, and also spending a lot of time alone in his room.
He thought he’d be supported – “What is this idea of a ‘friend’ if one cannot be true to oneself? What am I doing here if not to be true to myself?” he wondered – but was surprised, even shocked by the reactions. “Some close friendships, though still intact now, did lose a depth of intimacy,” he says. “Yet others became deeper.”
I’m simultaneously admiring of his uncompromising attitude and also wondering if, in the same position, I’d be willing to put my friendships at stake.
After the year was over did you explain to your friends what you’d been doing? I ask.
“I wouldn’t do that in order to explain why I acted a certain way, in order to justify my actions being different from the past,” he comments. “In fact, most of those changes in the way I act have not gone away, they have become permanent. I’m happy about that. I do look for ways to meet people more in presence and less in conversation than I used to. I get ‘bored’ with the blah- blah more quickly. I cannot say I am very skilled at finding other ways, but I am certainly learning.”
The impact of the experiment touched other aspects of his life. “I am happy to say that I did not find a big ‘Bucket List’; there weren’t so many things I still wanted to do before I die. On the contrary, there were less. Life’s priorities rearranged themselves: things that had seemed important – such as being right, getting my way, seeing new, pretty places, having new toys – dropped away. Other things became very important – such as being with my mom more, spending more time sitting, following my breath, being intimate, walking, and simply hanging out, enjoying the moment.”
“My shyness went away; perhaps some inner humbleness grew…”
And how did that being so total, so unremittingly true to yourself in living, impact your attitude towards dying?
“What I have found is that wherever I get stopped, die, along the way, that is okay. I have given my best. Now, life takes its own course. For me, that is the greatest preparation for death – to give myself totally to life while I am alive; then, when death comes, I am ready to give myself totally in that direction.
“Remember, death is the unknown, it is not the end, so whatever one can do to learn the courage to move into the unknown – that’s useful. Whatever one can do to learn trust – that’s useful. Not the trust that everything will be okay, nicey nicey. It is bigger than that. It’s Trust without an object, without a particular goal.
“It was also important to come to the realization that I go alone and during that year I spent much time alone; that was useful – to become comfortable being alone. When I say ‘alone’, I mean not busying oneself with things, like being on the computer.
“One exercise I did during this year was something between a stop exercise and the ‘Let Go’ meditation in which Osho leads us at the end of some discourses. Every so often I would spontaneously, slowly collapse – not to any particular position – and lie there for as long as I could, just be there. Like the meditation, ‘Be as if dead’. Very simple, very powerful, complete in itself.”
And when, after 365, your ‘death day’ finally arrived?
“I felt very alive. What happened was not what I had planned, but what life brought me. That was again a reminder that death is not one of those things we get to plan, as much as we try sometimes.”
I wonder how things are for you now, 18 months or so down the line.
“I came to Osho to find out what Love is,” Nityanando says. “Through this process a more personal reality has grown, and it has grown in the form of intimacy. The strange thing is that I find that it does not depend on the other; it does not depend on the topic. Intimacy has become more a quality of letting myself be seen, living a life style that is open. It includes a quality of sharing myself, as I am. On the practical level, I hug much more than I used to… actually taking a moment to feel the other’s heartbeat, their breath, and to allow them to feel mine.”
And he’s learnt something about having his needs met. “So often in the past I waited for someone to fulfil my need only to discover that they don’t even know what that need was. Well, why should they? I’ve learned to ask more, and I find that, more often than not, people want to support my life.
“This is a big tenant of Marshal Rosenberg’s NVC [non-violent communication] work, and I find it true. People want to support life and in asking them for what we need we are giving them the gift of filling that need of theirs to support life. He says that when you go to someone to ask for your needs to be addressed, ‘Go like Santa Claus, offering a big gift’. I live more like that now and he is right: people respond in kind.”
Interview by Maneesha
Maneesha is co-facilitator of The Sammasati Support-Person Training 2013