My mind has been on death for the last couple of months. I am sure that my wife’s mother’s death, and all the recent high profile celebrity deaths helped turn my mind towards death. These current deaths bare on me more heavily because I am becoming ripe for death. I don’t have a terminal disease, unless you call aging a terminal disease. Aging stunts your youth and reduces your physical prowess, but death is the Doomster that gets you. A Zen Master said, paraphrasing, ‘When I was young I was like a tiger. Now that I am old, I am like a cat. I am happy to be a cat.’ Aging gives you an opportunity to redefine your life within your wrinkled skin. I don’t have morbid thoughts of death nor do I have a great fear of death. Its a curiosity about my life, its stages, its processes, and its meaning, that prompts me to search for meaning of my life by discovering the meaning of my death. The moment you are born into this world so is your physical death. Death is your constant companion, so instead of denying and fearing its relationship with you, why not embrace it and investigate, and learn its nature. I have hear it said, that if you find a new definition of death you have also found a new definition of life. Life and death are intimate contraries, and as such, any consideration of one is a corresponding consideration of the other. The fact of death, places the question,”Who am I, and why am I here?” in unobstructed, plane sight.
From the dawn of human self-awareness humans have pursued the meaning of their life by discovering the meaning of their death. Some where I read that when Plato was on his deathbed his pupils asked for one final word of advice, and he responded, “Practice dying.” Dyland Thomas, a Walsh poet, in his poem, “Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night,” tells his dying father:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”…
In the Zen Buddhist tradition, when a Zen Master was about to die, he writes a poem. The Master’s poem serves as a summation of life, and as a parting gift to inspire his disciples. Below are two poems from, Teasho and Dogen respectively; feel the great anticipation and exultation of the Master’s poetical expression, as they slip consciously into their physical death.
Finally out of reach-
No bondage, no dependency
How calm the ocean,
Towering the void.
Four and fifth years
I’ve hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through-
In his book, “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens has his character, Scrogge completely transform his life because of his experience with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The Spectra merely points to the gravestone with Scrooge’s name on it to create in Scrooge an immediate, full transformation. There has been testimony from many people, the world over, who experienced a mystical, “near death experience,” that instantly and completely transformed their lives. Thomas Hardy, a novelist and poet, brings yet another out look, in his poem, “The Subalterns:”
…“Come hither, Son,” I heard Death Say’;
“I did not will a grave
Should end thy pilgrimage today,
But, I too, am a slave!”
We smiled upon each other then,
And life to me had less
Of that fell look it wore ere when
They owned their passiveness.
In India there is a group of universal stories intended to inspire and bring wisdom to spiritual seekers, dating back 5000 years, called the “Upanishads,” meaning, “at the feet of,” an enlighten one. In one story, called the “Katha Upanishad,” a young boy, Nachiketa wanted to know the truth beyond the cultural, spiritual rituals and ceremonies, and went to see Yama, Death, to find the truth.
…”Having tested young Nachiketa and found him fit to receive spiritual instruction, Yama, the king of death said:”
“The joy of the Atman (the highest spiritual consciousness achievable in this life cycle), ever abides. But not what seems pleasant to the senses. Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt man to action. All is well for those who choose the joy of the Atman, but they miss the goal of life who prefer the pleasant. Perennial joy or passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always. The wise recognize these two, but not the ignorant. The first welcome what leads to abiding joy, though painful at the time, the latter run, goaded by their senses, after what seems immediate pleasure”…
(the ignorant)…”Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their own esteem, these deluded men proud of their vain learning go round and round like the blind led by the blind. Far beyond their eyes, hypnotized by the world of sense, they live in darkness, unaware of any higher good, or goal, they fall life after life under my sway…”
And here is my poetic contribution about our relationship to death, called, “The Hearse:”
The Hearse travels through live streets
and all pause to pay respect.
The young, caste a wistful glance then
continue their play.
The somber, stop, bend down their head
in anxiety over their day.
The old, captured in a moments reflection
knowing soon their flesh will too decay.
The wise, let death pass unattached, with
out losing their sense of the day.
The Hearse travels through live streets
and all…pause to pay respect.
We see above a variety of thinking about the human condition of death. Some of the wisdom of life and death comes from living an examined life, some comes from accepting the cultural wisdom. In the U.S., because of our cultural, belief context, conditioned by Christian doctrine, our orientation towards youth, and our materialistic philosophy, with its myopic view of objectifying everything, our concepts of what it means to live and die takes on these conditions. One concept of death originates from a completely materialistic point of view. It says, death is separate and distinct; a passive element or force. In other words, death is a force-entity, a “purblind Doomster,” that destroys life. Under this view, the destruction of life is absolute; complete annihilation of all life’s components, including all consciousness. Human life defined by this concept leads to a doctrine that places its highest values on material well-being, and on cultivating pleasure from all manner of sensual experiences, affecting a hedonistic and fatalistic out look. A second concept of physical death in the U.S., probably the most culturally accepted, originates from the doctrines of Christianity. It says, death is a condition in which an immortal soul leaves the physical body and subsists in some form of eternal fashion in one of three states: eternal bliss, eternal damnation, or a middle state of limited duration, for purposes of purification. The determination of the fate of the soul comes within the Providence of God. On the “Day of Judgement” all created souls will be sentenced by God, and their physical bodies will then reunite with their souls to serve out their sentences. Human life defined under the terms of this concept becomes, for most humans, excluding perhaps the saints, semi-fatalistic. Fear, guilt, and anxiety, become the central sensations of life; although just living life presents some small shadow of hope in terms of grace. That sprig of grace for eternal bliss is however, completely over shadowed by the inevitable final judgement, and the likely-hood of eternal damnation. The guilt, fear, and anxiety, that accompany this concept acts to resists and depress a view of life’s greater possibilities. A third concept of physical death, the least culturally accepted in the U.S. is reincarnation. It says, death is a process that merely changes the form of life; from a spirit, soul, body, to a spirit, soul. At physical death, the essential consciousness, the spirit and its vehicle, the soul, leaves the body and commingles on higher planes corresponding to their qualities, something like a pool of water that changes into water vapor and then commingling with its kin water vapors. Life as life, cannot die nor be annihilated. Life is eternal, and as such always exists and always will. The annihilation of even an infinitesimal particle of life would brake the unity of the entire Universe, and be a lose to the Universe that could not be replaced. The death of a manifest thing or form is a natural withdrawal of eternal life from one form into another form. Human life defined under the terms of this concept of death becomes one of almost infinite hopefulness and possibility, where all beings and entities are fitted into the Great Cycle of Universal Nature, and are granted a virtual eternity to fulfill their divine destinies.
To me, of the three concepts of death, only rebirth satisfactorily corresponds with the cyclical principles set down by Universal Nature. When physical death accrues there ensues to the body, not a lose of life, but a loss of individualized coherence. In other words, the once individualized unity of the body after death, becomes diffused; it becomes diffused life without the dominating control of a centralized inner government. In truth, physical death is not an autonomous force, a purblind “Doomster” that destroys life, but paradoxically, it is life which is the cause of death. Life’s unfolding field of consciousness spreads beyond the capacity of the physical body to contain it, consequently the body, over a period of time, gradually deteriorates to the point of being cast off; the entire process is what we call, death.
Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher and writer, stated in his book “Still Here” that after 30 years of sitting with the dying that there seems to be three primary questions asked by those on the brink of their death.
1. How do I deal with the processes of dying?
2. What happens to me at the moment of death?
3. What will happen to me after I die?
At the moment of death you bring the culmination of your believes with you, and as they represent the degree of your consciousness, that is what you reap. If you believe that you are only your physical body and your personality, death brings an annihilation of your body and personality. If at the time of death you have an expanded consciousness that includes a belief in life as having, spirit, soul, and body then as the natural process of returning each of life’s components to their specific sphere, there will be a degree of consciousness. This is a difficult concept to explain and to comprehend. The important point is, death is a natural process and whether your consciousness is expanded or not the process of death is the same for all; just as the process of birth is the same for all. It seems to me that the process of death is a less traumatic experience than the process of birth. At birth you are taken from a relatively peaceful place and squeezed out, with great energy and force, into a completely different dimension, and made to breath on your own. I have hear it said, that if you want to know what it feels like to crossover at the moment of death, practice keeping your mind awake as you fall asleep. By keeping the bridge of awareness as you crossover from being awake to falling asleep you will replicate the experience of passing from life to death. The transition of life to death is a natural process. All that is really required of you is to let go and accept.
I have given an answer to questions 2&3 above, now I will give an answer to question 1: How do I deal with the process of dying? All that is essentially necessary to deal with death is to understand it as a natural process and to surrender and let Universal Nature take its course. The difficulty and resistance of death comes from the out and out fear of death, mostly the fear of the unknown, the anxiety about death, and the question of the pain that may accompany death. To squelch the fear and anxiety takes a conscious and consistent practice over time. Your fear and anxiety about death has deep mind grooves, and to fill those mind grooves in with harmonizing and universal ideas is not an easy task. There are mental and spiritual practices that can guide you to a change, but the most important first step is to be come aware of your fear and anxiety, face it head on, then begin the change. Remember, the first requirement of change is that you are aware of what needs change.