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.
Why have I chosen the word ‘experiencing’ as the most fundamental touchstone for my inquiry? Firstly, I have looked for language that is experience-near. I’ve needed this for my own practice. I have needed to be very concrete in understanding my experience; so, I decided in the mid-seventies that if I was going to examine my experience in the light of the Buddhist teachings, I wanted a language that was precise and which resonated with my life. (And, this word has a special role in the work of Eugene T. Gendlin. So, as a ‘focuser’ it suited me, there.)
Then, to communicate with others, I’ve looked for terms which non-philosophers could – with a little effort – use. For us to dialogue about our everyday experiences, non-jargon is preferable, where possible. The word ‘experience’ suits.
Then, I was moved by Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s understanding of the teachings, in her Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder, when she said that the focus of the teachings is on this indisputable feature of human existence: “that we all have our own perception of the world of experience, or, more simply, our own experience.”
That resonated with me. Everyone has experiencing going on, whatever the differences between us. For that reason, the focus of the Buddhist teachings is to understand human experiencing, so that human bondage is dealt with appropriately. We need to understand how we function for freedom to be realized. Inappropriate handling of our experiencing is the root of all the violence we have in the world. This makes understanding experiencing central to human flourishing.
Hamilton-Blyth’s understanding of the Nikāya Buddha’s quest echoed the question which had bothered me since childhood (having grown up in a violent culture), too; which was: “Why (is this violence happening)?” I didn’t have the language, but intuitively I knew there was something wrong with experiencing. The question became particularly cogent during the years of the Vietnam War, when I was in danger of being drafted into killing in a wrongful war. “Why is human experience the way it is, and how can I contribute to the change so obviously needed?”
These were reasons to do with our communal life. However, the thing that I particularly love about the word ‘experience’ – despite, or maybe because of the philosophical problems which it can raise – is that experiencing is so fundamental to us as individuals. A useful thing about the word ‘experience’ is that, in most contexts, ‘experience’ is synonymous with ‘knowing.’
It carries the sense that some basic all-encompassing kind of knowing is present in us, a basic knowing which makes us human; by which I mean, there is knowing present in, and relevant to, every possible situation and every possible aspect of oneself and one’s world (loka). This use of ‘experiencing’ is meant to point to something prior to the subject-object, self-other, and inside-outside distinctions. As such, it is not a ‘thing.’
Some might say that if experiencing is not a thing, then it is ‘process’; and, I’m okay with that provisionally. One good thing about the ‘process’ approach is that we can suggest that process can go either way: awake in process (wisdom), or asleep in process (non-wisdom), as I have suggested. So, why provisionally? Process (like experiencing) can’t be found, except upon reflection. It can never be a direct object. Who would be experiencing ‘process,’ after all?
It is in misunderstanding the ‘knowing’ quality of our experience that the hardened, dualistic divisions which limit us arise. The knowing goes astray with the introduction of a fictional entity, the false, thought-based separate-experiencer. That’s “the one inside me that’s in charge of the show” (as I heard someone say recently, when explaining what they meant by the word ‘self’). I call this the ‘false self’ – experiencing gone astray.
There are ego-processes of a healthy kind, and there are the ego-processes contaminated by the clinging to a false version of self. This I refer to as ‘everyday narcissism.’ This is important to understand, in terms of what or who dies; and in order to understand our fear of death.
“In being a process, rather than a static entity, knowledge is always in danger of becoming divided against itself by taking its intentional operations concretely and – even before it glides off into the rigidity of a subject-‘here’ and an object-‘there’ – setting up a counterfeit image of itself which actually is the source of any duality.”
– Tarthang Tulku. Time, Space & Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality