Normally, I try to avoid posting anything on this blog that is excessively personal in nature. This week I’ll make an exception. Exactly two years ago, one of my best friends from high school, Nilanjan Banerjee, died very suddenly and unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. You can read about his life and see pictures here. He had just turned twenty-six when he died. I miss him very much.
The reason I’m writing today about Nilanjan (affectionately known as “Nilly” to his friends) is because his death has had a profound and permanent effect upon my outlook on life, and these changes are in many ways part of my growing yoga practice. Perhaps the greatest change I’ve experienced has to do with the way in which I approach everyday difficulties and challenges. Nowadays, when I am stressed or upset in my daily life, I try to sit back, take a few deep Ujjayi breaths, and think for a few moments about how fortunate I am to even be standing here, going into my thirtieth year on this amazing planet, in my relatively problem-free life, in a more or less healthy body. Not everyone shares this fortune, and for me to dwell on the petty nuisances and headaches that are an inevitable part of life is, I think, to be incredibly shortsighted, selfish, and ungrateful. In many respects, I ought to consider myself lucky to have the particular nuisances and headaches that I have; that is, the nuisances and headaches of my own life are really quite luxurious compared to what most people on this planet have to put up with from day to day. Moreover, the very fact that I even have nuisances and headaches in my life is made possible by my simply being alive, a wonderful luxury that I take for granted all too often. It’s a sobering thing to stand in awe of something, and there’s perhaps nothing more awe-inspiring than the simple fact that each one of us is alive and breathing.
Nilanjan’s passing also reminds me very vividly that everything can be taken away in an instant. Indeed, it’s a simple fact of life that everything will be taken away in an instant — after all, we’re all bound to die one day or other. To put it another way, Nilanjan’s death is a stark reminder for me that the present moment is really all we have, and that to dwell on the past or to fear the future deprives us of this. But this is all starting to sound very cliche; what, in the end, does this whole “be present” mantra really add up to, if anything at all? Well, despite what some people might think, it’s not about some new-agey, feel-good vibe that can be reduced to chanting “Om” all day long, sipping on chai tea, and being perpetually “blissed out”. At least that’s not what being present is to me. Rather, I like to think of being present as a way of being truly alive. It’s about looking fear straight in the eye. It’s about being honest, with oneself and with others. It’s about seeing what is, as opposed to imagining what is not. It’s about meeting life head-on.
Nilanjan had a particularly refreshing and inspiring way of meeting life head-on. Although he wasn’t the best looking guy, or the most athletic, or the most popular, he never ever backed down from a challenge. Sometimes, he just flat-out made a fool of himself, a veritable and underappreciated skill that most of us have yet to really develop. And no matter what kind of mess we got ourselves into in high school, Nilanjan always managed to laugh at it, almost as if he knew somehow, more than the rest of us teenagers, that life is short. Now, I don’t want to candy-coat who Nilanjan was and pretend that he was some kind of angel. Like all of us, he was flawed and certainly made some very bad choices in life. In fact, I suspect that his death may have been at least indirectly caused by one particularly bad choice. But despite his flaws, Nilly led a pretty good life, and he lived it pretty darn well. And for that, many people are thankful.
Nilanjan’s passing has been, to put it bluntly, a slap in the face for me. Now, I don’t claim to possess any great wisdom, or the key to the good life, as a result of my friend’s passing away. I hope, however, that in trying to come to terms with Nilanjan’s death, I can also learn to affirm life. And what does it mean to affirm life? Well, I’m not sure exactly, but I can be fairly certain that it will include at least this much — breathing in and breathing out. To the extent, then, that yoga is really about connecting with this breath, it is, at its core, about affirming life. In my practice today, I’ll try to honor my friend Nilanjan by not dwelling on his loss or the tragedy of his death, but by breathing deeply, and by being awake, alert, present, alive.