“Practitioners, whatever there is in the world… whatsoever is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, sought after, and ruminated on by the mind: I know all that. I have fully comprehended all that; all that is known to a Tathāgata [one who comes and goes in suchness], but a Tathāgata does not serve that knowledge.” – The Buddha, Kālakarāma Sutta
The method of inquiry in the Buddhadharma is experiential. In an experiential inquiry, concepts serve us; they aren’t given a life of their own. If we give them authority over direct experience, we serve them.
In our project, here, ‘death’ is a dhamma word, which we don’t want to leave as a mere idea, or it will haunt us. It will dominate us, rather than serve us. We can get along – stumble through life – that way, of course – get through a life without giving attention to how it works in us. That doesn’t change the fact that a word’s meaning is in our living bodies. So, to ignore how the word ‘death’ lives in daily experience is actually detrimental to living.
This might be a strange idea: “how a word works in us.” Words work. That’s the point of them. Another way of saying this is that words have energy. And, in particular, they carry the energy of all the ways they have been used, in all the situations in which they have been used, by ourselves and our fellow speakers. (And, all the ways in which our animal forebears communicated – in gestures, for example.)
So intimate is the relation of words to experience, that words can help carry our life forward, affording us greater richness of experience. (It’s common, by the way, for meditators to be disparaging of words or concepts, but even this disparagement depends on concepts. If we haven’t mastered our mind, we tend to feel assailed by the verbal mind. Even this disdain for language, though, is an attempt – albeit unskilful – to carry one’s meditative life forward in a positive direction, isn’t it?)
Following Gendlin’s work on the relation of words to experience, the meaning of any word includes all the situations throughout your life in which you’ve encountered the word — all these experiences. So, your use of the word ‘death’ reflects the richness of your understanding of death in life.
Not experientially absorbing the word’s meaning, robs our humanity of its vitality and of a range of resources that we humans need, desperately. The meaning in the dictionary is not the living meaning. It can be a help in accessing our bodily experience, but it can’t give us the actual lived meaning of the word. (I treasure my dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary is a major achievement of the English culture – but I’m realistic about its limitations. A dictionary’s power is in our contact with bodily experience – in the users of the language.)
If we settle into an unreflective use of words, we suffer. We all settle into this habit before our twenties, having mastered the necessary habit of inattention by then. “Necessary?”, you ask. To not be attentive to the relation of words to reality appears necessary, doesn’t it, so as to fit in with the consensus social reality? That’s where our ‘centre’ has become established – in social reality. Yet, what the Nikāya Buddha is saying (in our quote above) is that he has become independent of social reality. He got there by connecting with immediate experience, and noticing the role that concepts (name and form) play in shaping experience. I’ll go more deeply into this later, in a way that is grounded in everyday observation. That’s one reason for this inquiry, so that harmony reigns between our speaking and experience.
A practitioner named Vaṅgīsa said the Nikāya Buddha: “Truth, indeed, is deathless speech: this is an ancient principle. The good and the Dhamma, good people say, are established upon truth.”
– The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries (p. 229). Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications.
To resolve our doubts around ‘death,’ and to know the deathless, we – ordinary people, not academics – can’t avoid the relationship of speech to experience.
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
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.
The following steps for cutting through unhealthy thinking are adapted from the work of Stanley Block; as presented, for example, in his book ‘Coming to Your Senses.’ This process helps in bringing deeper, spiritual work into daily life. It can be good for establishing the freshness of a ‘now-centred’ place, when you feel overwhelmed by a sub-personality’s repetitive, stressful patterns.
From the clear place that comes from this practice, you may be able to then turn toward the troublesome patterns with compassion: “Hello, Panicking One. I know you’re here.” (However, though I credit Block, I’ve heavily tampered with his method, so I don’t say I’m representing his process, here.) Finally, do this process as though it is play. Be a playful master of your own mind. Enjoy your inner work.
1. Recognize that you’re having negative thoughts, or an ‘overwhelmed’ process. It’s a part of you, not all of you. Give the experience some space. Start from being aware of your breathing, because it is a present-moment happening. You could say something like, “I am here, there is this body, and there is this painful process.” Breathe and include your arms and legs, and the middle of your body.
2. Then, say to yourself; “My thoughts are telling me that…( and summarise the negative thoughts.) Or, “I am experiencing the thought that … (state your negative thought).
3. Recognise that the thoughts are thoughts, and you are more than these patterns, by saying (simply), in an accepting manner (like a grandmother, who is humouring her boisterous grandchildren): “Those are only thoughts. That’s just what they do. I don’t have to follow them.” In Block’s terms, this prevents that negative thought from crossing over the mind-body connection; that is, of being embodied. They are presenting just one possible stance. In neurobiological terms, this is abandoning old neural pathways, and laying down new ones.
4. Having identified the pattern, and acknowledging that it is only a pattern of thought, now:Listen to your environment, to the background sounds. Feel the fabric of your clothes against your skin, feel the contact with your seat, or the ground, or the solid element below you. Feel the warmth of your body, your breathing, and your feet on the floor. In short come to your senses. Let your breathing be felt in your whole body, if you wish. Listen, touch, feel, smell, taste the bigger implicit dimension, the Now.
4. When the body tension lets up (showing that you have rested your I-System), then you have stopped the sub-personality’s thoughts from organising your body. You’ve restored some calm. Let the whole body have the result of the practice. Take it into every cell of your body, and down to the molecular and atomic levels. Enjoy the result – giving your body-mind this positive feedback. (This is based on Rick Hanson’s Taking in the Good.)
5. Now – only if you wish to – you are free to deal appropriately with the original thought without being hampered by body tension. You might, for example, empathetically listen to it, as though it were a small child whom you love. Or, perhaps now you are strong enough to do some ‘inner judge’ work – disengagement – or you’re ready to do some Focusing, or whatever is needed.
6. Repeat, and repeat, whenever needed.
I intended today to write about regret; but in the early afternoon, I gathered my materials together and I painted. At first the process felt a little mechanical, but very soon I found myself absorbed.
Amongst the interesting things I did was to make up a yucky mix that worked perfectly for the red eucalyptus stems in the painting. How does that happen? It looked awful as I mixed it, but I knew it was right; and it worked well, enlivening the whole canvas. I was now engaged, and seeing colours that were mysterious – like the blues which I invited into the black in the setting.
After I’ve painted, I find I’m sensitive to colours everywhere I go. Suddenly the rock-faces hereabouts turn up colours which I don’t usually see. The forests are showing a myriad of subtle greens, and tender reds in those same greens. The way the sunlight plays on the sandstone cliffs at sunset is fresh to me.
As I walked back to the house, from my studio, awake to the unfathomable being of the world, something rose up in me: a felt sense without words.
Going inside the house, I made a cup of tea, and sat down to invite that sense, to ‘say hello’ to, that ‘sense of something.’ Like all felt meanings, it was murky at first. It’s the kind of thing that, if I didn’t know better, I might say was ‘nothing,’ or at least unpromising. It could easily be dismissed by someone not familiar with what Eugene Gendlin calls ‘a felt sense.’ Or, if such a one could at least respect it, they might be satisfied with calling it ‘mysterious’ or ‘ineffable,’ and enquire no further.
However, sitting alongside it, giving it some space and some kindly attention, in the way that I’ve learnt and practised over several decades, more could come there. Like a shy fawn, it could only peek out at first, but then come into view. The poet Ted Hughes has a piece called The Thought Fox that suggests the cautious, even wary, way a felt meaning emerges.
That’s why Gendlin called his practice Focusing – because when we give it the right kind of attention, this vague ‘something’ in the middle of the body goes from murky to clear (as when in the old SLR cameras the frosty circle of the centre of the lens went from blurry to clear when you got the correct focus.)
So, now, what came clear was an understanding which I haven’t been confident about, hitherto. It was this: what I had just been immersed in for that period, breathing in and out, painting, was an introduction to the radiance of being as it exists in my own body. It was revealed through the art of seeing. And, then I recalled that the artist Brett Whitely had once said that the only reason to paint is to learn to see.
I now had the words for the experience which occurred immediately after the painting session. “Radiance.” As I had come away from the studio, the radiance everywhere was intense. In one sense it dissolved all differences, revealing a deeper unity through the very ordinary miracle of seeing.
On the other hand, the radiance shone – from the inside out – in every leaf, every grass-blade, and even in the buildings about me. The pittosporum as I passed it; the concrete path where I walked; the tangled jasmine in the corner, the rough steps into the house were luminous.
I had intended to write something about ‘regret’: about the harmful things I’ve done, the hurts I’ve caused which I regret the most. Instead, I find myself back at the easel, marvelling at the black with phthalo blue, painted over a green-black underlay — at how the purples peek through, in the afternoon light. And, those tiny, yellow spots in the eucalyptus leaves. The red line around that edge, there.
Seeing is for developing the heart. It would also be strong, my regret, if I arrived at the end of my life without having learnt to sense the wonder of the ordinary. All my learnèd philosophy would have been just empty naming, if I hadn’t embodied it, thus to see the world afresh.
When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!
– Basho, trans. D.T. Suzuki (Japanese ‘nazuna’ could be translated ‘shepherd’s purse.’)
My relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophy book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveys that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture which invites the felt meaning of Being.
So, for me, the ‘object’ of devotion in a ritual is never out or over ‘there,’ or ‘out there’ in the universe somewhere. It’s not the statue to which I bow. Neither does the statue represent some deity somewhere else. I am bowing to Being itself, retrieving my connection to Being via the being of my body. This is possible because one’s body participates in Being. A ‘human being’ is a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said.
Each morning, the first thing I do, after rising, is: I put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of the goddess of compassion Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha (inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh):
“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”
I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordiality of Being.
The meaning of any words, like the true meaning of any ritual, is what the words do in us – how they shift our state of being. Each word we speak is a gesture toward Being. The Nikaya Buddha suggests, in the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta): be mindful of the body in the body. So, I have a practice of speaking the gatha from my body, with awareness in my body, and feeling into the saying. It’s an experiment in consciousness.
I check inwardly, after saying my short verses, to see how the ritual has changed my body. This way, the ritual becomes an experiment, because I am present to see how I am changed by the posture and the sayings. Has the ritual brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, with this very body as its conduit?
And, when I say ‘together with all beings,’ it invites the bodily feeling that this grounded Being is the ground of every sensing creature. The sensing bodies of all beings are in your body. So, I’ve added another verse to this gatha:
These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
All the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.
I think of the English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674): “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”
Also, in the case of this particular ritual, I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does one become intimate with death, than in one’s body? In my bowing and in saying my gatha, I am putting myself in a gesture of being “one hundred percent for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it).
A Scientific American article suggests that: “Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”
David Michael Levin’s 1985 book (and his presentation therein of the work of Eugene T. Gendlin on ‘felt meaning’) gives us a good philosophical case as to why, by the gift of embodiment* our bodies respond to ritual gestures.
I’ve tried to think how I can quote Levin, to show, in a pithy way, the power of his vision, but when taken out of the context of the whole book, isolated passages are difficult to transmit. What I got from Levin’s book, though, (supported by my mindful inquiry and meditation) is as follows:
Our bodies participate in “the wholeness of the field of Being” (p.117); and so, the body’s symbol-making power combined with skillful embodiment can retrieve the primordial lived meaning of existence. Living this way, we realize our authentic belonging in Being, which illumines a host of problems we humans feel burdened by.
May all human beings – through the gift of combodiment* – be a hundred percent for birth and death.
* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” deserves a better word than ‘embody.’ So, I use the term, coined by Akira Ikemi, ‘combodiment.’
To ‘em-body’ is to put something into a body. However, ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with.’ All of life is ‘with’ the body; all there to be revealed. It’s a body primordially intertwined with all else.
You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodying paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.
Why do you meditate? Have you thought about it? I meditate because I’m alive. For me, it goes with being awake in this world. Meditating nurtures the process of being consciously alive. Meditation reveals that being alive is basically good. And, when I know I’m alive, I experience all kinds of positivity. To sit quietly, doing nothing but know one is alive – this enhances life.
What are the core aspects of being alive? Are we experiencing optimal aliveness? If not, why not? Why aren’t we appreciating and enjoying the miracle of existence so completely that we cannot but recognise that we already-always actually are this miracle of existence? Why cannot we see our beauty?
How is it, that humans are so violent towards themselves and each other, toward other species of plant and animal life, and even toward the mineral life and the waters of this small blue planet? Speaking from an ecological viewpoint for a moment, if we are the biosphere – which is obvious, isn’t it, at least logically? – then why are we treating ourselves so badly, destroying the life of forests, rivers and seas?
Precisely because we only get that fact logically, not directly touching it with our bodies! Meanwhile, the intellect divides what is undivided.
We live as members of a deeply divided species, divided in so many ways. You know them, these ways. I don’t need to enumerate, here. We need, then, a different a kind of consciousness to meet the situation we are in as a species – to end the divisions in consciousness would be wonderful and, at the very least, we need to live with a deeper kind of attention. We need, too, to awaken a consciousness that is big and generous enough to hold all the suffering we encounter when we truly open to what is in us and around us.
The meditative mind is crucial to all these things; sitting-meditation is a catalyst for a renewed consciousness and for profound shifts in identity. Meditation is a way we have to learn new ways to direct attention and even to change our habitual brains-states, and with regular practice to produce new human traits.
If you look closely, it becomes clear that ‘experiencing’ is core for all humans. No matter what one’s personal situation – or one’s background, or one’s congenital condition – sentience is core for human beings. How, then, has our ‘experiencing’ become degraded, so that we miss so much that is going on? Further, our habitual treatment of each other, worldwide, demonstrates that in large numbers we don’t know deeply that we are all equal in this basic fact of ‘experiencing.’ People treat others in appalling ways that could only indicate that they don’t get in their marrow that others are like them in the experience of suffering.
If I am ever to love my neighbour as myself, I need to learn to love myself. Meditating has been a major help in this, for me. Funnily enough, to sit quietly, forty-five minutes a day at least – openly, non-judgementally – to sit with myself ends my self-absorption. (Brain science has shown, by the way, that solo mediation activates social neuro-circuitry).
That’s certainly an important reason why I meditate – to be less self-preoccupied. What did Dogen say? “To study the self, is to forget the self.” The irony is that forgetting the self is knowing the self. And then, in that peace there’s space for ‘the ten thousand things.’
13th-century Zen master Dogen said: “A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only be mindful of authenticity or inauthenticity of practice.”
Sitting meditation is to place your body in an authentic relation to being. You obviously can’t fake sitting, you are it. To practise unelaborated meditation, we can take to heart this simple instruction by the Buddha, in Sutta Nipata verse 1055, where he says to a spiritual seeker:
‘In every direction there are things you know and recognize, above, below, around and within. Leave them: do not look to them for rest or relief, do not let consciousness dwell on the products of existence, on things that come and go.” (Translator: Hammalawa Saddhatissa)
This is excellent training for death. That’s the heart of it: Do not look to things that come and go for rest or relief. Don’t land on anything. Or, as another master, centuries later, counselled: ‘Don’t perch.’ From the point of view of turning to the deathless, it’s not worth landing on anything.
If we take ritual as placing our body in a gesture that invites Being; that is, as a way of putting our body in the most intimate relationship with Being – while simultaneously being that very gesture of Being – then meditation is a living ritual.
Simply establish and maintain the ritual sitting in one place, and there’s nothing more to do, except relax all experience. Relax ‘body and mind,’ and sit resolutely in favour of simply being here, one hundred percent for whatever condition you are in. We needn’t be disturbed about disturbance (for discomfort is bound to come).
And, a note for any beginner who might find this way of sitting hard: give yourself the gift of five minutes a day, meditating this way, familiarizing yourself slowly.
Whenever our meditation is unelaborated, straight-forward, there we invite death and the deathless; because by simply being, we dissolve identification with whatever occurs. By relaxing our usual here-there orientation, and our self-other images, we get to calmly see into the heart of dying. What a blessing is that!
“(A Year to Live) is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness. It is an opportunity to resolve our denial of death as well as our denial of life in a year-long experiment in healing, joy, and revitalization.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
Some people express a fear that thinking and journaling about death might invite death – physical death. That is one fear that will arise in this practice, but the primary purpose of this practice is to turn toward what we fear; to explore, feel, think, sense into, and know one’s actual relationship to this kind of life – the life of fear – as well as death. We help others when we help ourselves in this way, too.
One way to work with the fear of facing mortality is to keep grounded in our life as actually lived; that is, to know yourself intimately in all your daily, bodily-based changes. That’s why, in this work, I place an emphasis on mindfulness of the body; and knowing the body in the body – not simply as a concept.
“Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have to inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
So, during the practice of A Year to Live, we can clarify the Buddha’s term ‘the deathless.’ It came to me forcefully several years back, with a radical clarity, that “There is no death.” I then undertook a period of review, to be sure that I was seeing right, which has included checking with accomplished Buddhist teachers. I wish to demonstrate this radical claim to you, during this project.
My understanding of the body is the other most radical shift in thinking during this inquiry. To dwell in the body intimately and fully only happens after a thorough training; because, this ‘dwelling’ not just about being in contact with bodily sensations and actions – the organism has much subtler dimensions than these surface processes.
Because the body is a local representative of true nature – it is the intelligence of the universe manifesting in specific ways, gross and subtle – we can resolve the question of who or what dies by knowing ourselves directly. And so, for me, the enquiry naturally deepens into an understanding of human nature as being more about ‘process’ than about ‘content.’ It’s more about how we are in the world, how we interact, and less about ‘what’ we are.
While I glimpsed, forty years ago, that I could say rightly, “I am not my body,” on the other hand, it is also the case, and is helpful to realize, “I am only my body.” This is not the body of modern medicine – a constructed thing, or a machine. The body is a way of knowing.
This experience-near, process-oriented way to think of ‘selfhood’ naturally leads to a different understanding of death. When we able to see the real issue in ‘death’ as the loss of our identifications with self-images, then this changes what is important about death and being human. We then know what matters about living.
The Deathless turns out to be surprisingly near; nearer than your breath.
“(T)he thought of death is… a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me.” – Herbert Guenther.
I want to share some of the gift that contemplating death brings. Here’s how I experience something that seems to resonate with what Guenther wrote, in this passage.
I can be sitting at a my computer, I can be in a cafe, I can be driving my car, or talking to my partner – and a pristine, all-encompassing space opens. The thought of death can bring this opening. The certainty of my death, or the uncertainty about ‘when, where or how’ I will die – or, likewise, the thought of the certainty of the death of my loved ones – these contemplations can bring such openings. These ideas are one kind of “powerful stimulus.”
With the opening of that ‘space,’ my positioned (and positioning) ‘self’ dies, just like that. Dissolves. If I rest into the ‘gap,’ it is another dimension of being. A knowing is purely present, without any seeking or orienting. Acquisitions have ceased. I’m simply aware of the quality of openness itself, with its measureless ‘ing-ing’ (Gendlin’s expression). And, if I don’t scramble – that is, if I don’t make boundlessness a problem – if I relax and trust it, sigh into this unknowing knowing, then there is a meaningfulness that exceeds any of the phrases about it.
(We’ll look later at the designations in this. The ‘self’ dissolves’; so who is resting into the gap? What do ‘I,’ ‘self,’ ‘person,’ and so on, mean? It’s about the process of designation and it’s relationship to experiencing. Well explore it, later.)
Now, Guenther’s “…brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for…” is sweet, because the boundless, empty, still (paradoxical) presence is full of the magic of living. It’s called ‘ordinary mind.’ And this magic unfolds. Hence: “…the importance of this very moment…”
With this invisible matrix informing them, concepts can return, or function, to be a part of the unfolding, a servant of the bigger life, which is full of meaningfulness. This is a matter of ‘not two.’ It’s not about something on one side called the conceptual present which is different from the still, luminous, non-conceptual openness\on the other side. Not at all. The stillness doesn’t reject concepts, and concepts can serve the still field of possibilities.
This won’t make sense right now, but we’ll explore later: how the unfolding happenings (’time’) are never outside (or, never leave) the implicit, the invisible (timeless) womb of reality. (They never fully form, either, into ‘somethings’. In a sense we are experiencing virtual reality, already.) This will make sense of the Buddhist idea of ‘the Deathless’.
But, I’m getting ahead of our content. Returning to Guenther:
“…the real possibilities that are still before me.” So, this moment, purely present as it is, is full of possibilities, unfolding, “out of” this implicate matrix. It’s a poor metaphor, given what I’ve said about ‘not two,’ but refer back to your present, undivided momentary experience, and you’ll get a ‘feel’ for this. This ‘matrix’ concept is difficult to experience directly at first. Just get a holistic feel of it, be experiential about it, and in time it’ll gel. It will be integral to understanding how the Nikāya Buddha can say, “The attentive do not die.”
This no-inside/outside, always-happening unfolding includes the person who is aware, who is “the unique occasion” for the bigger life’s unfolding possibilities. What magic is that! I’m sometimes drunk on the wonder of it. It makes me laugh, and it calls Rumi to mind: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.” (Coleman Barks trans.)