certainty of 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.
“On their deathbed some people look back on their lives and are overwhelmed by a sense of failure. They have a closet full of regrets. They become disheartened when they reflect on how they have overlooked the preciousness of their relationships, forgotten the importance of finding their “true work,” and delayed what some call “living my own life”” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
Somewhere during my forty-fourth year, one evening I was nurturing a question, about my unlived life – in the kind of territory which Stephen points to, in that quote. Although I hadn’t found Focusing, I had, by then, come to learn to ask intimate questions of myself, in just the way that I later refined in Focusing. That is, that night I asked my question with a gentleness, and with a pause for feeling into the ‘more’ which might come in the middle of my body, about the question. (Now that I think of it, I had been doing hospice training for a couple of years, so that probably contributed to this gentleness. My mentor spoke of listening to others in the manner of an ’empty bowl.’)
So, this night I was emptying myself for my own question. I asked: ‘What, if I died now, would I regret not having developed? What have I neglected?” I paused, and listened inwardly, in the soft middle of my body. And, from a long-forgotten place in myself came the knowledge which burst into tears: “The artist.” it said.
I began to bring art-making into my life, and even entered an art competition that year. In the next year, I enrolled in Art School, at the old East Sydney Tech; and held an exhibition with a friend, by the end of that year. I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that in that same year I turned the corner in my spiritual work, and I also discovered that I would never go mad. To honour who you are can come in all kinds of forms; for instance, just speaking your part in the meeting with the regional or departmental who-evers can lead to a subsequent spiritual opening.
I won’t pretend that I had a revolution. I’m still doing my best to let the artist live in me.
The point is that we can always make a start in honouring who we are. I posted something in this vein – about people’s end-of-life regrets – on my positivity blog, a while back. Here is a list, recorded by Australian palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware, in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
I wish I didn’t work so hard;
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Short as it is, it’s a formidable list of transformations possible. However, here I want to emphasise the spirit of the inquiry we can bring to our unlived life, the ‘being-with.’ What is your ‘being-with’ like, your way of being with the questions you ask inside? Do you drop them in, like small pebbles into the still pool of your precious body? Can you ask gently, curious about what might come – not knowing, actualy, what the ripples will be like, those intimations which may appear there? The Earth is groaning for want of our intimacy with bodily wisdom.
In a Focusing group which was exploring our relationship to death, Zen teacher Jan Hodgman suggested we visit a local graveyard. Joyce came with me.
What a complex experience this was. The first thing that grabbed me, at the front gate, was the signage presents us with the human habit of division. I stopped awhile to get the lay of the place: the map showed all the divisions – these causes for which so many have died throughout history. Over there is the Catholic section, over here the Presbyterians are buried; and there the Church of England; and, there’s a section for the “Independents.” (I found the only Buddhist in this section – a child’s grave with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum engraved on it).
Knowing a little bit about the painful convict role in the beginnings of my town, I took special note of where I would find the convicts’ graves – the men kept practically as slaves in the local stockade. Sometimes, when they died, they weren’t actually buried, because they weren’t looked upon as worthy of laying beside the citizens. They were discared in the bushland. The map had them down the back of the graveyard proper, behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I went there is made me sad, that they are still the neglected, the forgotten, down an unkept track, in the scrub.
Joyce and I separate for a short while, while I go down the bush track. I reflect that all that is dear to us, we part from eventually. That’s one clear message in this place. At the convicts’ graves, I reflect that their mothers’ couldn’t have wanted this end for them.
Back in the main graveyard, the poor were interred alongside the rich. Money might give us a bigger gravestone, I thought, but it doesn’t keep death away. Neither does your religion, or your place in the strata of society, obviously. Some large marble graves, alongside those that were merely piles of earth. This one with a rough, wooden cross askew. The convict scum, and the respected citizens.
I reflected that one’s body interred with others doesn’t make much difference to the certaintly of death. Down in Wentworth Falls, by the railway line, there’s one lone grave, of a young man killed by lightning in the early days of the mountains settlement. What’s the difference? Alone by the railway, or here in the Church of England section with your wife or husband’s bones?
The couples, families, children. Death comes at any age. I contemplated the ages at which people die. And, although a graveyard doesn’t reveal the causes of death, I recalled Atisha’s contemplations on death, and imagined that here in this place we would find numerous causes of death. (Atisha reminds us that the causes of birth are few, but the causes of death are many.)
I contemplated that my own death is certain. My dear wife’s death is certain. And neither of us knows the time. I’m breathing, aware of my soft belly, and this immeasureable life.