By Robert Butler
Just before New Year’s Day 2020 I was visited by the Angel of Death.
Some have heard me speak of this. It was probably like nothing you think. She was benevolent and and she was loving; after all, she is an angel. But like most angels she not only came to protect and guide me, but also to challenge me around my beliefs.
She called me the night before New Year’s Eve as I was preparing for bed because she was having car trouble and wasn’t certain she was going to make it back to Los Angeles. She appeared on my doorstep (surprisingly along with her dog) at a time I’m normally turned in.
Having not seen each other in quite some time, we spent a couple of hours catching up while I got used to the idea of having an unexpected guest with a hyper little dog running around my house. Not to worry, I gave her the guest room and assured her we would handle everything in the morning.
The next day I proposed some simple solutions which initially she accepted. Through a series of events, I realized that everything I attempted to do to help this person through her predicament was backfiring. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had a busy workday planned. It was not my intention to spend the entire day with her and in trying to help her I was getting more and more frustrated.
She had a very straightforward problem, that “should” have been straightforward to remedy, and declined to be helped in the manner I sought, even after I had called in favors and inconvenienced others on her behalf. All the while, she remained calm and serene, even taking time to meditate, all while I stressed about how I was going to get my ever-increasing to-do-list achieved that day.
What I took away from her visit was not only how quickly everything could change, but that nearly every attempt I’ve ever made to control an outcome has resulted in misery and suffering.
And that’s when the Angel of Death comes for me in earnest, nothing I thought was important to get done that day will really be important. A couple of days later I witnessed a family of five and their dog almost lose their lives in a crosswalk to a speeding city bus. So close that angel came to all of us that evening!
In the weeks and months that followed, numerous acquaintances and parents of friends passed away, several per week. It seemed like death was making the rounds, stalking ever closer. I recently learned that on the very day I had this experience, December 31, 2019, was the first day the coronavirus in Wuhan was reported to the World Health Organization.
One thing is certain. No matter what our philosophy of life, no matter what our political position, religious beliefs, or sense of morality, it will all get tossed out the window when we must face the specter of death. John Lennon was famously quoted as saying “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Not long afterwards he found out that death is also what happens when we’re busy making other plans.
How many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years of my life have I spent trying to micromanage an outcome to conform with my expectations of how things “should” be?
Every now and then it worked out. But as often as not, it did not, and when it didn’t the result was almost certainly suffering.
It is not that my motives weren’t noble, or that my intentions weren’t virtuous. I may have even believed that it was my life’s purpose to do what I was attempting to do at the time. Sometimes, the outcome was even better than I had planned, and had I gotten my wishes, catastrophe would have been the result! But in the end, at the end, it doesn’t matter at all.
There is an expression that I have come to believe that says “that which we resist persists.”
When things aren’t going according to our script, every ounce of effort we expend to change the outcome qualifies as resistance, an almost sure guarantee that we will be frustrated in the end. It’s like struggling with a Chinese finger puzzle. The more we squirm and pull, the tighter we become ensnared. In virtually all Eastern thought, attachment is said to be the cause of suffering.
We in the West are indoctrinated at an early age to become the “masters of our domains,” when in reality we have no such control. Additionally, the more we attempt to control the outcome, especially others’ outcomes, the more we, and by extension, everyone around us, suffers. And at no time do we have less control of others’ outcomes than at the moment of death.
*I am going to use the words “God” and “Divine” now. If you have an aversion to those words, I am going to invite you to set that aside just for the moment. They are, after all, simply a way to refer to that all-pervading energy that animates all beings. If words such as Spirit, Life Force, Higher Power, Creator or any other term which you use to define that which binds us all together and represents all that is feels better to you, please feel free to substitute them as you like. It doesn’t change the point of this essay.
So, what will matter when the Angel of Death calls for me in earnest?
From where I sit at this moment, how well I loved myself and others, for one. How well I served for another. How truthful have I been? And mostly, how well I merged my desires with the will of the Divine. One of the few prayers I’ve heard in this lifetime that made sense to me was “Not my will, but Yours.” I’ve come to believe that surrendering to the will of the Divine is the only thing that not only will bring me fulfillment during my lifetime and will bring me peace at the end.
It took me many years to understand how to integrate my will with that of the Divine. Some fortunate souls seem to be born with this knowledge; I was not.
After years of suffering and searching, I finally found a guide that spoke to me from within and without. I quite literally owe my life to him. Until his words finally penetrated my heart, I spent my life trying to exploit and manipulate the world around me so it fit into my version of “how life should be.” That, my friends, is a fool’s game.
David Geffen, one of Hollywood’s true moguls, and one of the co-founders of Asylum Records and DreamWorks Entertainment once said in an interview: “We have our plans and God has His plans. And in the end our plans just don’t matter very much.”
I don’t know what series of events led him to conclude that, but I do know what series of events took place in my life for me to conclude the same. Some may feel the word “surrender” conveys weakness, but I can assure you there is nothing weak about aligning yourself with the will of God. For truly, what force is stronger?
In the conclusion of the 18th chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, which in Sanskrit literally translates to “Song of God,” Lord Krishna implores the great warrior King, Arjuna:
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I will protect you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear!”
So how will you know what is His will? You can ask yourself; how do you know when you’ve eaten enough? How do you know when the sun has risen? How do you know when spring has arrived? How do you know when your heart is full? How do you know when you’re in love?
In order to know, all you need to do is stop. Stop listening to the noise. Stop listening to the media. Stop listening to the politicians. Stop listening to all the advice of so many well-meaning friends.
Most of all, stop listening to your mind.
Investigate the enlightened masters who have dedicated their lives to lighting the path before us. And breathe—breathe again. And listen, and then feel!
Do their words resonate within your heart? Feel what is truly in there. And sit with that feeling for as long as it takes to feel the sun come up, to feel your heart fill up, to feel the Song of God singing from within.
Trust that. You may find that it is your highest truth. It sure beats trying to control some temporary outcome. And the Angel of Death? She would approve.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Even as a child, Robert Butler was fascinated with the nature of consciousness. A practitioner of Bhakti Yoga and committed vegetarian since the age of 17, he embarked on a lifelong journey to help himself and others uncover the mysteries of life. After living in an ashram in his late teens through his mid 20s, he traveled extensively, and delved deeply into personal growth and healing work. For the past twenty-five years, he has run a San Diego based nonprofit that supports three Bhakti Yoga ashrams and sustainable farm communities: Audarya Ashram in Philo, California, Sarahgrahi near Asheville, North Carolina, and Madhuvan in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. He is an author, spiritual counselor and senior staffer with the ManKind Project, as well as a mentor with the Boys to Men Mentoring Network. He lives in Encinitas, California.