As soon as I wrote that piece about the consensus trance, I thought that I’d follow up with a further note. It’s been a while, so I’ll set some context: It’s usual since Freud for us to seek the cause of our discontent in deficiencies generated in our family of origin. What the consensus trance concept does is broaden this, so that we look at the way that society shapes us, to fit in with its values, and its dominant ideology (which in the West, includes tracing personality difficulties to family of origin). Since Marx, we can see a lot of our suffering also originates on the societal level – particularly with the injustice of unequal distribution of capital and other opportunities. There’s all this, and more – for I haven’t gone into the madness and violence of the inheritors of medieval religious beliefs.
However, the acquired patterns of culture are not all we have to clarify, to see nature, death, and ourselves in perspective. Beneath all this are the ‘innate’ patterns, brought along from our animal past and even from cellular life itself. We weren’t born a blank slate. We were born with our inherited predispositions, which, ironically, can obscure our relationship with nature, if they aren’t made conscious. However, many beliefs about ‘nature’ obscure this territory.
Even if we didn’t acquire dulling predispositions, through our conventional conceptual training in this lifetime, we still would have, in our mental continuum, tendencies which were established by our plant and animal forebears. To live harmoniously with each other and with the biospher, these tendencies, too, we need to uncover and transform into a new level of functioning – even if they are harder to see and change than the patterns of the consensus trance.
I don’t see that the animal level is being named very usefully; partly because it is dominated by a particular myth in science. That is, the dominant ‘trance’ in this area is enhanced, these days, by conventional evolutionist scientists. They provide us with a major thread in the current version of consensus trance. (Current? Consensus trances are not new – ask Socrates. Ask Hypatia or Galileo.)
The views propagated by conventional science, run like this: The universe is some kind of dumb ‘material’ or ‘physical’ stuff – ‘things’ in movement. They move in something which, ever since Newton at the turn of the seventeenth century, is imagined as absolute time and absolute space. (It’s ironic that Newton also believed in an absolute God, who was supposed to be somewhere out there, too.)
Apparently, in this story, time and space are somewhere running the show, and are independent of our conceiving. So, in this kind of time and space, a material universe pops up and evolves randomly, running mechanically, once certain chains of billiard-ball-like activity have been set somehow in motion. It’s a dead universe which gives rise to living organisms; which never are other than versions of material stuff, matter.
In this model, intelligence enters the picture with humans, or at least with primates. We are ‘homo sapiens,’ ‘wise man.’ (Yes – ‘Man.’ A nomenclature which we haven’t yet corrected, but surely it wouldn’t be a difficult move?)
No-one has shown convincingly how it is that a non-living material universe gave rise to sapience, to a creature with intelligence. Neither has this stuff (that is, ‘matter’) ever been discovered. However, this belief is comforting (for scientists) because it apparently makes nature predictable (for scientists); that is, it gives them a deterministic universe – if we can only work out the ‘laws’ of the material stuff.
One harmful consequence of this belief in ultimate ‘matter’ is that natural processes – such as the body – are treated as machine-like. The metaphor of the machine is propagated in conventional science training at all levels. There are scientists now spending millions and millions of dollars on projects aimed at storing the information in human brains (as much of it as they can get), so that machines can have it. Some of them hypothesise that there wouldn’t be any real difference between such a machine (a robot) and a human.
(This is not too different from what I was told by many an adult, when I was in my late questing teens, during the Vietnam War: You can’t stop war, because humans have always been this way, and will be this way forever. Determinism.)
So, this modern ‘materialism’ is all part of the consensus trance, too. My point, though, in this ‘footnote,’ is that all these beliefs are acquired on top of one’s natural state at birth; one’s nature – which is not perfected, or perhaps not even perfectable; but, which, one experientially accessed, can be worked with. However, by and large, these patterns remain unexamined and foundational for one’s sense of presence, because the consensus trance is not dealt with.
And, if we don’t know who we are, as life-process – if we simply go along in the trance – how do we know what death is? When no longer entranced, we might be able to understand what poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote: “Man has created 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.
I could be writing about ensuring one’s legal will has been prepared; or, about the powers of attorney that might be needed. (In case you aren’t in your best mind at the end, someone who is competent may need to give permission to turn off your life support.) I could be writing about planning your funeral (and paying for it, now). You could choose some music and texts for that inevitable day; or, write your own message for those who will gather for your farewell.
Reminding you of these tasks is surely helpful, however, for me, practising A Year to Live primarily means living in such a manner that I am really here on planet earth, in the flow of how things are, now; so that I’m not just a bystander. Like Mary Oliver says in the poem When Death Comes:
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
If I die today, I want to be as ready to leave as I have been to enjoy the day’s wonders; as ready as can be to open to that particular experience, an experience which is no less a ‘being in the flow of life’ than having breakfast. The gospel song asks, Are you ready? We can add, ‘..to be here today.’ “The readiness is all.”
Is it any wonder that when the Zen adept Ikkyu was asked for a calligraphy representing the highest wisdom, he picked up his brush and inked: ‘Attention.’ The no doubt disappointed petitioner said something like, “And that’s it?” So Ikkyu did another one for him: “Attention. Attention.”
In short, today’s imperative is to live such that if death should happen this day, my life would be in harmony with this planet’s touching destiny. It gave birth to aware organisms! That’s awesome. And, practising A Year to Live inspires me that the quality of my life be of some benefit to all life.
Of course, if we live this way, with this kind of attention, of course we do look after our last will and testimony. We look after others. We will get our worldly affairs in order. (Currently, I’m going through a de-cluttering process, which is partly for daily clarity, but also: so that nobody has to do it for me after I die.) All that is good and real. However, how painful it would be, to arrive at death’s threshold and feel like you haven’t lived!
Many people think that living means fulfilling a ‘bucket list’; as though on my deathbed I’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I should have gone to Kathmandu. I should have listened to more opera.” “Oh, shit. I didn’t get to see Old Faithful!”
I can visit those places, of course, and still not be there. I can fulfil my bucket list, but forget to be wake in the ordinary moments of living and loving day to day. It’s much harder, of course, to be awake than to book some tickets. “Oh, yeah. I went to Kathmandu, but I just worried about whether I was doing the right thing, or not.” I think of the tourists (in Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends) disappointed that the geyser Old Faithful hardly lasted long enough for them to get their pictures.
Naturally, to be awake in this world includes encountering, and understanding how our selfishness works. Hence a lot of the exploration in this A Year to Live project investigates how we set up a fictional self. Freedom in life and death is aided by this investigation; because, when unexamined, the conventional, faux mode of being a person (that is, a way of being a person which is based in our self-image) obscures our relationship to both life and death. Our default mode distorts our understanding of this big life process.
Just as a parting irrelevancy: given how much water there is on the planet, and how much the atmosphere matters, who named the planet ‘earth,’ I wonder? What was the reasoning, there? How unexamined is this? Before we die, can we know the nameless planet of which we are? Are we ready for this ‘now’? Mary Oliver writes:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
– from The Summer Day.
Translated from the Anguttara Nikaya; from the Book of the Ones, by Christopher J. Ash
“Practitioners, one does not enjoy the deathless who doesn’t enjoy mindfulness directed to the body. One enjoys the deathless who enjoys mindfulness directed to the body. The deathless has been enjoyed, by those who have enjoyed mindfulness directed to the body.
“Practitioners, one has fallen away from the deathless who has fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t fallen away from the deathless who hasn’t fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One has neglected the deathless who has neglected mindfulness directed to the body. One is bent on the deathless who is bent on mindfulness directed to the body.
“Practitioners, one is heedless about the deathless who is heedless about mindfulness directed to the body. One is heedful of the deathless who is heedful of mindfulness directed to the body. One has forgotten the deathless who has forgotten mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t forgotten the deathless who hasn’t forgotten mindfulness directed to the body.
“Practitioners, one hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up the deathless who hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body. One has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up the deathless who has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body.
“Practitioners, one hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised mindfulness directed to the body. One has recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who has recognized, fully comprehended and realised mindfulness directed to the body.”
“A person should not give himself away. He should not relinquish himself.” – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Devasamyutta section, of the Samyutta Nikāya
Given all this, I have decided to dialogue with the texts, and not place my greatest reliance on some supposed historical Buddha. So, when I am saying where I learned something, then I will refer to the Nikāya Buddha, the Lankavatara Buddha, the Diamond Sutra Buddha, the Surangama Buddha, and so on; and my reader will not be confused about my Buddha, at that moment. My relationship with the Nikāya Buddha has spanned all my Buddhist life; it’s my favourite textual territory. Yet, in the early seventies, I learned a lot from my dialogue with the Lankavatara Buddha. And in the mid-seventies I learned a lot from the Surangama Buddha and the Diamond Sutra Buddha.
One reason why I chose this way of speaking, apart from the problems outlined earlier, is that I noticed that I would use the phrase “Buddha said…” to claim legitimacy for my views, whether the view was soundly based in experience or not. I’d use the name ‘Buddha’ to bolster my arguments. This is a kind of seduction, and so, upon discovering this, I abandoned the practice. And, I see other teachers arguing (sometimes fiercely) about what the Buddha said, as though they could know.
(By the way, in case you don’t know: ‘Buddha’ is a descriptive term, applied to a class of beings. It is not a proper name. What does it describe, then?
In the Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha says he is not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor is he a man. After perusing the etymology given in the Pāli-English Dictionary, I’ll accept ‘awakened’ as a reasonable translation.
Gotama was one in a line of Buddhas. By the end of this project, we might have a clearer idea of what this means, but for a start,: ‘not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor a man’ means he or she realizes that they are inconceivable. More on this later.
Whose victory cannot be undone, a victory not worldly:
by what path could one ruin an awakened one,
whose field is trackless, immeasurable.
– Dhammapada, verse 179. Translated by Christopher J. Ash)
So, back to our topic: Instead of saying ‘Buddha said…,’ I might say: “This is how I’ve understood the teachings; and, these are the set of texts which I hold up against my experience, to see if they can carry forward my life. In such-and-such a text, the Nikāya Buddha says…” I dialogue with the texts, and don’t claim to know what the historical Buddha said, thought or taught. That would not be a legitimate way to speak.
One further issue is whether one’s experience validates the texts, or the texts validate one’s experience. I would say it is ultimately the former. In respect of the latter, the texts may agree with my experience, or they question my experience (which I can be grateful for). And, they can only validate experience if I bestow some authority on them, which I can’t prove they have – except by appeal to bodily-grounded experiencing.
I think that would be an abdication of human responsibility, to grant the textual tradition the power to judge one’s experience. Nevertheless, my learner’s move is to grant them a provisional authority, and see in what direction my experiences change with that gesture. That’s why I talk, mostly, about the Nikāya Buddha, because I mainly use those texts to do this. They have proven to be profound guides.
My original blog morphed along the way, to become a dialogue with the earliest Nikāya Buddhist teachings on death. It seems that these texts are as close as we can get to the earliest Buddhist teachings (when augmented by similar texts in Chinese, called the Agamas). I began, part-way along in this project, to approached the Nikāyas with the questions: What did the Nikāya Buddha teach about death and dying? Was it of any interest to him, to live with full consciousness of death? Did he suggest some kind of preparation? And, as well – but, incidentally – I asked: What of the rebirth issue (a topic which brings controversy in modern Western Buddhism)?
(For this edited version of the original blog, for coherence, I bring in the theme of the Nikāya Buddha’s approach somewhat earlier than I did in 2015-16.)
My first audiodharma teaching from any Buddhist teacher at all was from a workshop of Stephen’s. I heard it forty years ago on a set of cassette tapes. Stephen was supporting people who were confronting death, and people suffering grief and loss.
There were people who were living with terminal diagnoses; and, people grieving the loss of loved ones. There were people supporting those who had such a diagnoses; or who were in pain about their loved one’s diagnosis.
I could hear his compassion and his courage. His solicitous voice is still in my memory. His teachings penetrated my armour. He brought me to tears. Even though I wasn’t faced, at that time, with a life-threatening situation, even so, he brought me home to my own battered heart.
I, too, was one intensely in need of healing – of wounds of which I was at this stage barely aware. So, Stephen’s voice on those tapes held me, too. Even the silent, witnessing presence in those workshops of his wife Ondrea was a support.
On those tapes I heard him supporting people to stay for ‘what is’; to stay for their pain – their physical, mental, emotional distress. It was a revelation to me, to think that turning toward such unbearable pain, would be freeing.
He encouraged us to have faith in the more that we are, to have faith in what holds us from within; even as we hold others in the human pains of sickness, mental affliction, old age and death. Over the years thereafter I used his meditations (published in several books) for my own contemplation, and to guide others in theirs.
(Also, I credit the wisdom which I manage to bring to my marriage to the fact that I read his Embracing the Beloved. I believe it contributed to my finally being able to turn toward the suffering of intimate relationship, to stay and learn the lessons which marriage can teach; particularly, to embrace meeting my narcissism. “Narcissus,” he wrote, “is the perfect analogy for the imagined self that each brings painfully to relationship.”)
Decades later I still regularly “soften the belly,” as he used to advise. There’s hardly a month go by, without I encourage another to invite “a soft belly.” I still touch “a heart big enough to hold it all,” in the ways he taught.
Then, in 1999, I began using his book A Year to Live. So, a practice of getting ready for the inevitable. The book gives us guidelines for a year-long practice of bringing death into our lives – of squarely facing mortality, of taking it to heart.
I did my first ‘Year to Live’ throughout 1999, and ‘died’ as the year 2000 rang in. Allowing for a ‘’year off’ here and there (as if one could have a year off from death!) I’ve practiced it for at least twelve of the last eighteen years.
Stephen Levine, teacher, visionary and healer, died, with family around him, in his home in New Mexico, U.S.A, on 17th January, 2016. Thank you, Stephen. May all the Stephen elements in the universe, and those elements in all of us, flourish in wisdom and love.
Life is movement. As the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: “The river where you set your foot just now is gone — those waters giving way to this, now this.” (Fragment 41); and: “The sun is new again, all day” (fragment 32). – Heraclitus. Fragments. Translated by Brooks Haxton.
Japanese Zen artist, Sengai (1750 – 1837): “Even before I can say it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop, it is no more.”
It seems counter-intuitive, to find more life through being in touch with life’s evanescence and the certainty of death; by turning toward the unknown. Nevertheless, rather than become dispirited by the thought of death, by practising A Year to Live – for nearly two decades, renewing it yearly – I have increased my commitment to life, and not distorted it. My energy has turned toward more meaningful activities, relinquishing energy-draining pursuits, while there’s more love of life – and all this through the seeming irony of doing daily practices which remind me of the certainty of death.
I have been inspired all along, in my contemplation of death, by Guenther’s statement: “…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life…”
What kind if meaning of life is there to find in the face of death? Is life meaningful, in itself – without the filter or buffer of belief systems? That’s a question I address experientially in this project.
Certainly, as a severely abused child, by the age of sixteen I tended toward the conclusion that there was no meaning to life. My companions all thought this. I became nihilistic; and, I often wished for death. Then, via the Beatles’ encounter with Indian meditation practice – which came at the very same time in which I found Socrates – I discovered the possibility of a more wholesome line of inquiry. The task became to find out for myself, the truth of consciousness.
Was there an uncharted land, I wondered, in my own mind? One which could confirm meaningfulness from within – not through the stressful activities of my outer world, with its prevailing industrial values, cut-throat competition, its genocides and wars? It seemed to me as a teenager that contemplation of life as it is in itself might be possible? Socrates, with his courage in the face of death, and his commitment to selfless values, was inspirational. And then, at seventeen, meditation presented itself, as a support for the actualization of this free, independent way of life.
Next, my encounter with Zen Buddhism at nineteen confirmed what Socrates had asserted, that a conscious practice of facing death is far from a wish for death; it is an affirmation of a reality greater than death. The Zen Buddhists speak of ‘the great matter,’ which is the inescapable presence of ‘birth and death.’ My reading of Zen suggested that, skilfully conducted, facing death brings an attunement to life. Zen writers suggested that one’s own wholeness was discoverable through facing death.
Such freedom is not to be found by merely believing some religious blather. There is no freedom in believing in some ideal fantasy of a heaven after death. For me, this freedom must be right here in this very difficult life of sickness, old age and death. We die. So, can we live creatively – not in immature defiance of death – but with open-hearted inclusion of death. The ‘historical’ Buddha (I’ll explain the apostrophes, later) suggested that we face these five things:
1. I am subject to old age. I am not exempt from old age.
2. I am subject to illness. I am not exempt from illness.
3. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death.
4. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. They are my matrix, I am related through them, they are my mediator. I become the heir of whatever actions I do, good or bad.
– The Five Remembrances, Translated by Christopher J. Ash
Then, at some stage, during an instance of my A Year to Live practice I decided that this matter of being one hundred percent for death in life (while being one hundred percent for the life in death) was something worth unpacking slowly with others. So, I began a blog to share the enquiry into this irony that life is ephemeral, yet intrinsically meaningful. This series which you are now reading is an edited version of that sharing.
“Already this morning I’ve gone through three deaths.” – Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama.
This is maybe leaping in the deep end for some of you, I know; but it might be instructive for you to see what some contemplative folks get up to. These are those who practice the invaluable meditation on the ‘Dissolution of the Elements.’
The ‘elements’ referred to here aren’t (at least, not primarily) the literal elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. They instead point to one’s experiencing processes; that is: the dissolution, at the time of death, of bodily form, of feeling-tones, sense-perceptions, intentionality (the shaping or fashioning tendencies of experience), and of the inner subtle levels called ‘consciousness.’ In this particular meditation, body and ‘mind’ fall away, (as Japanese Zen teacher Dogen said). We can expect that to happen in dying, and during death. It is also subtly happening constantly, while living. So the practice is essentially an introduction to how to live.
A friend of mine who had just finished a retreat with the Dalai Lama (in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney) said that the Dalai Lama had suggested to the retreatants that they should do this practice every day. He does it everyday.
Once, in a 2010 teaching, in Dharamsala in India, he said:
“According to the tantric teachings, at the time of death there’s the eight-stage dissolution of the elements – the grosser levels of the elements of the body dissolve, and then the more subtle levels also dissolve. Tantric practitioners need to include this in their daily meditation. Every day, I meditate on death – in different mandala practices – at least five times, so still I’m alive! Already this morning I’ve gone through three deaths.”
I’ve practised this meditation regularly during my ‘A Year to Live’ practise in the past, and I’m curious as to why I haven’t leapt into it, during this my latest cycle of the ‘A Year to Live.’ Maybe it has to do with post-operative shock, after the removal of my cancer. Maybe it is due to conceit.
Recently, a meditation student asked me (I’m giving you the gist): “Why, when you could be practising the great catalysts of Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity, why would you contemplate the Five Remembrances?” (I’ll write about them later, but the third of these is about the certainty of dying.) In response, I checked into the middle of my body, to see what I felt, and the answer that came there was: “Because it pricks my bubble of conceit.”
That’s certainly true. And, practising the Dissolution of the Elements, likewise defuses human conceit – conceits of all kinds. I’ll go more deeply into what I mean by this, later in the project.
The version of this meditation which I practise is given by Joan Halifax on her CD album, Being with Dying. I’ve put it on my iPod, so it’s always easily accessible. You can get her script here (link), if you want to familiarise yourself with it. Indeed, you too may want to familiarise yourself with the process of death – the dissolution of the coming and going aspects of being.
If you’re in the Blue Mountains, and want to talk about this, give me a call. Over a cup of tea we can talk about the art of dying. As George Harrison said, in his song The Art of Dying: ”…nothing in this life that I’ve been trying/Could equal or surpass the art of dying.”
The contemplations that follow explore how this is can be so.
I’ve been asked to collect the posts on this site, which I mostly wrote in 2015/16, into a book for my beloved family. I’ve also recently begun a new cycle of A Year to Live practice. So, as a part of my practice, I thought I’d read an entry a day, and in response to the request, I’d edit it for the book project. Also, I thought you might appreciate contemplating them, again.
I’ll rearrange them only a little, because those who made the request asked me not to do much editing. They thought there was a coherence in the progression of the originals. What follows, then – presumably for the next year, though that’s not guaranteed – is in the service of the presence in our life of the wisdom and riches of Being.
“Although you may hold, in this your life,
To it as true, it will most likely deceive you.
Once you have fully understood that you cannot rely
On that which is impermanent and without essence,
Attend to the real meaning of Being straight away.”
Tibetan teacher Longchenpa (1308–1364), Now That I Come to Die. Dharma Publications.
“Motion is unknowable apart from what has gone and not [yet] gone.” – Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika