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.