Monthly Archives: June 2018
I’m away this week, and I’ve had no time for writing. But, this morning, this came: Dying is continuous. I wake up, I die to my ‘second.’ I meditate, I die – very consciously, again and again – to my ‘second.’ I shower, I die to my ‘second.’
If you have a scenario going on in your thoughts, which takes your energy from your living presence – there, right there, is a ‘second you.’ It’s the one you imagine could be, will be, should be. It’s a conversation of the one you ‘could be’ with your partner, your lover, your boss, your teacher, your friend who hurt you. It’s what you could/should/will say or could/should/will have said; and so on. Right? A long lost friend of mine used to call them ‘scenarios.’ But, notice they imagine a ‘you’ as somewhere else in space and time. Is the one here now – the immeasureable ‘first’ which you actually are – is this one conscious of scenario-ing?
Try dropping them all day, even in your sleep. That’s a form of continuous dying. (Of course, drop the criticism of ‘scenario-ing,’ too. That’s just more ‘seconding.’ If it helps, just say “Oh, hello ‘seconding.'” And soften your bellyrelax into bodily presence-ing. Timelessly active, dying is a flow.
What is consciousness like, which has no reference point, other than the inconcoctable presence?
No-one – not your mother,
Nor father, nor your relatives –
can do as much good for you
As a well-guided (citta) mind.
– Dhammapada, verse 43. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
– The Nikāya Buddha.
Some people might think that the intention of ‘memento mori’ – of remembering death – is to make us think about what will come after we die. That would make it a ‘later’ thing, even if only a heartbeat away. But, remember, we are wondering, in this project, if the essence of death is an inner process; and, indeed, if that makes the essence of death right here, now.
If the presence of death is as close as your present breath, then it may not be the unmitigated disaster that your untamed thoughts have it; and there can be a sane and life-affirming way, a life-enhancing way, to find out if death is the ‘sacrament’ which some say it is.
However, if you take up the invitation (which the fact of death offers), there will be many voices – both inner and outer – who will try to dissuade you from disturbing the conventional trance of the false-’I.’ This is the consensus trance.
On the other hand, there’ll be those who’ll encourage you, when you need it. I remember, when despair about loss pierced me through in the mid-seventies, I had a chance meeting with a Catholic nun, one night, in a taxi cab. I asked her what she thought of the big questions, and of the quest for awakening. We talked for about half an hour, and I recall how she glowed with joy when she heard what my despair was about.
She didn’t lecture, try to convert me, or patronise me with ‘Christian’ advice. Instead she said, with palpable kindness, “Oh, yes, those questions are on the right track. Keep going. Don’t give up.”
Her warm heart gave me the support I needed right then, and the inspiration to treasure the journey. She affirmed that though such possibilities weren’t taught in the regular culture, there was a real transformation possible. I felt less alone, and fortified for the next steps in my journey.
It is tragic really, this trance going on right here in these bodies; tragic that we don’t encourage deep inquiry into experiencing. This is one reason why we don’t get our relationship with nature right, and are destroying our home, the planetary ecology that originally gave rise to us.
It’s tragic when we ask the big questions, and get nonsense in reply from others; nothing straight-forward. We should help each other with the truth, even when we don’t know truth. As poet Bill Stafford wrote:
“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
The way forward, though, is always right at hand, even if we don’t see it. It’s as close as eating, walking, running, laughing, sleeping, spewing, crying, feeling sad or happy, lying down, or turning-somersaults. It’s at the heart of our life – with its actual processes of seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching and feeling. At Sāvatthī, the Nikāya Buddha spoke about this to his bhikkhus.
“Practitioners, dwell with your heart well-established in the four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
“What are the four? Here, a practitioner dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world. Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.”
– The Deathless (Amata Sutta: SN V.41) Translated by Christopher Ash
(In this translation, I’m not entirely satisfied with the word ‘psyche,’ because it’s a word rarely used these days – and it can be associated with occultism. Nevertheless, I’ll use it until we explore more of what ‘mind’ can mean, and until the Pāli word ‘citta’ can take over. I’ll go into these distinctions, later, an explain why I used it here.)
So, it bears mentioning again: I am not primarily investigating physical death. I see that as a simple matter. Culture can complicate it, but not stop it. Death will, from that side, will be easy. The body will do that well: heart stops, breathing stops, life-systems close up shop. From that angle, death is a breeze.
Can you feel as I say that “It will be easy”? Can you sense what happens in your body? While I’m not wrong, something’s missing in that picture, right? As an experience – that is, in the psyche – there’s more to it, right? And there just might be something we can learn to prepare us. And, along with that preparation for physical death, what physical death means to us while we’re living: that depends on how we’ve met our psychic death.
An Invitation to Intimacy
“Dying is easy
It’s living that scares me to death.”
– Annie Lennox, from the wing ‘Cold.’
Because culture – and nowadays, the culture of modern science – has such an over-bearing influence on attitudes to death, I approach the concept of death in a way that steps out of the usual seemingly implacable restrictions of ‘now’ and ‘later’: “Now I’m alive; later, I’ll be dead.”
All the dulling varieties of reactivity that arise with this limited approach are plain to see. People attempt every conceivable escape from wakefulness toward death – from gross to subtle. We climb mountains, drink ourselves stupid, accumulate things, make war, get famous (or try to), explore our dreams, or we watch TV – simply to forget the big questions. We even use spiritual techniques like lucid dreaming, mindfulness or meditation to fool ourselves into thinking we are cool with death. There is nothing wilier in nature than an untended mind.
And, the popular ‘seize the day’ (carpe deum) approach is limited; not because it doesn’t have its benefits, but because it doesn’t take into account certain core human experiences. When used as a substitute for contemplation, it impoverishes us. When young I was in sympathy with a sense-based version of “carpe deum” – which added up to: “Feel good, as much as possible,” basically. Eventually, I asked myself: “Do you know yourself? If you don’t know the nature of mind, then do you know who is seizing what?”
If you have not understood the mind, on what basis could you be free of death? Surely, death is intimately related to mind? In later years, I reframed my questions: “Surely death has something to do with the dissolution of the sense of being the ‘experiencer’ (of experiences of all kinds, including meditation), right?” And the insight into life and death got subtler with this exploration. Understanding, as Sue Hamilton-Blyth put it, “the constitution of the human being,” is core to understanding life’s true value. So, is it dying that scares us about living?
So, it isn’t satisfying for me, to simply leave death for later, as if death is only an ending, and not something which is here, now and sacred; something which actually contributes to the big Life process. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here, aren’t I? I acknowledge that I’ll need to demonstrate such sweeping affirmatives as this, with step by step experiential grounding.
So, to be personal, to explore the ‘more’ of this territory, I need to experience as much about the innerly nature of death and deathlessness as I can, while I’m optimally strong and clear, and long before the dissolution of the body. And, you’d be wise to ask, “How has he done that?” Some have responded: ‘How can you experience death, while you’re living? That’s ridiculous. Get serious.” While others have said say, “Wonderful. Go into it with all your heart, now, while you can. Be serious: realise the deathless.”
As a slight ‘by the way,’ I notice that the people who have this second approach are (generally speaking) more positive, more vibrant, and less selfish, than the first group. And, crucially for me, they are not flag-wearers or wavers; they’re more likely to be ‘citizens of the planet.’ The way they live reflects the wisdom of their views. Admittedly, there is a portion of this group who have a life-denying tendency (I’ll examine that later); but, generally speaking, you find less cynicism in the “deathless” group. Why is that? What does it say about their inner experience behind or under their concepts of ‘death’ and ‘dying’?
I do want to be open about the matter of the ‘deathless’ – because, I don’t want to put ‘isms’ before reality, and that includes Buddhism – but, when I started to examine ‘what dies,’ it seemed to me smart to give vigilant or careful heed to this group, who showed more genuine independence from consensus opinion than the others did. (The Vietnam War was raging at this time, and so I was suspect of what went as established opinion.) There’s a theme, here, isn’t there, of guarding one’s authenticity.
But, back to my topic of ‘then,’ and ‘now.’ If I examine my own use of the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ I notice that I can imagine ‘the later event,’ and I seem to believe it has some reality, in some way. How can this be? What can I believe or conceive about something which I haven’t experienced? So, how is dying ‘easy’?
Seeing the death of others mostly only means that ‘later’ thing. Later, like my dead relatives or friends, I’ll stop breathing, my blood will stop flowing, my body will go cold, my senses will cease functioning – things like that. I’ve seen that happen to others. This I can have no doubt about. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – death of this gross sort is certain. Death, in the ‘over there’ sense,’ will definitely happen; I’m not arguing with that. However, you’ll see it, not me; because I’ll be on the inside of it. One is, in an important sense – that is, experientially – alone in this.
It’s obvious that death, as an experience, is always a ‘now-here’ event, not ‘over-there.’ Experiencing is always Now. Without this deeper encounter, I can use the phrases ‘my death,’ and ‘my dying,’ and the words won’t carry the felt texture of being inside dying, and inside death.
So, beginning in the seventies, I asked myself regularly, “Is there any way that, while living in all kinds of conditions (sick or ill, happy or sad, and so on), and while not missing out on a fully-lived, vibrant, real life, that I can know something about the dissolving of personal life, and so live free of the burden of that thought?”
It’s this understanding that the wise speak about; so, a few decades ago, I began to engage with the kinds of sensitising practices which they recommend, so to make intimate this great matter. When I say, ‘contemplative,’ this is what I’m indicating.
And, this is why, in recent years, I decided to concentrate on what the earliest Buddhist teachings tell us about this real-life happening – especially in the Nikāyas. That’s a central theme in my project. These early teaching do speak about the challenge, and they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying: “Attentiveness is the place of the deathless; inattentiveness is the place of death.” (Dhammapada, 21) This approach is very simple, and very applicable to living now – it’s not just about the ‘later’ inevitable event. The other important thing for me is that this approach is very much a matter of ‘The work and its fruit is down to you.’
Not by means of [outward vehicles] can one go
To that place untrodden,
Where a self-tamed person goes
By means of a well-mastered, disciplined self.
– The Dhammapada, verse 323. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
– Dhammapada, verse 40.
Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?
Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.
How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.
We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’
This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?
So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.
Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.
Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.
I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.
(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)