I’ve been thinking about death. A lot. This kind of thinking is not bad, in my opinion. Death has been something I’ve contemplated frequently in my life and from a very early age. I’ve had some powerful learning through the deaths of people close to me and talking with clients about their suffering, experiences of loss, thoughts about, and fears about death.
Coming to terms with death is important because it is one of the big existential truths and challenges of being human. Rooted in what poet John O’Donohue described as our clay vessels, our physical biological bodies and ego usually are squarely focused on survival. Everything becomes measured against death because it is perceived as the end of our existence – a tragedy to be avoided at all costs.
Except that, death is misunderstood. It is one of those invisible mysteries of our earthly physical existence. Many of the major spiritual traditions teach that our energy and essence survive beyond the physical body. Physics shows us that energy cannot be destroyed only transmuted – suggesting that we leave our signature on the universe indefinitely.
We suffer greatly in grief as we fight against the loss and against what is. This is not a failure on our part. Grief is a powerful human emotion that we are forged in, repeatedly. We can move more deeply into life through our experiences with death, loss, and grief. We can discover that the connection to our person is not lost because of death and we are not lost because of death. There is nothing to fear in death. Ram Das says, “death is perfectly safe.”
It is one thing to understand this intellectually and another to embody this knowing. I certainly am not there in that fearless place, yet. It is worth contemplating and meditating with regularly and consciously.
I want to share some reflections. I wrote the following about 10 years ago after a weekend meditation retreat.
Death doesn’t matter
I drove out into the Ozark hills heading for what turned out to be a lovely, if intensely rustic, retreat center. It seems I’ve always had thoughts about death – as early as age 6 or 7 as I recall. In these last few years there seem to have been many events drawing me to encounter and contemplate death. The sudden death of my best friend 10 years ago. Many friends’ losses of mothers and fathers. My housemate hospitalized for 8 months waiting for a heart transplant. My father’s death last year. More recently, I’ve sat in meditation weekly for six months with a man with ALS who could not speak and now apprehends his breath through a ventilator. I am a Hospice volunteer and contact my patient and caregiver at least once a week but not without some internal struggle. I talk with my psychotherapy clients about suicidal thoughts and simple wishes for death as freedom from the suffering in their lives.
A few weeks ago, I woke up hearing my mind matter-of-factly saying, “you’re going to die of cancer.” Certainly, since my encounters with cancer the thought of recurrence floats through my mind from time to time. And yesterday, I was on my way to a retreat center run by a woman who spent many years as a grief counselor and Hospice worker. And, today is Father’s Day.
As I headed down the steep gravel drive deep into the forest I had these people in mind, with an aching heart, and tears in my eyes. I thought to myself, “I guess this weekend is going to be about death.” I pulled up, got out of the car and felt an immediate relaxing. I smiled and the tears dried away.
I settled in with the bell for the first sitting period subtly, or not so subtly, trying to bring death to mind so I could just get on with it. No such luck. The mind being what it is would not cooperate with my will so I gave up and tried to focus on my breath. At the end of the sitting and in preparation for the walking meditation the teacher asked, “What is walking?” I heard a deep and familiar voice say gently, “flowing.” With the voice came an image of my body flowing through space and time in a fluid, watery-like way. Yes. The experience, significantly beyond words, felt that way with a sense of continuity and connection like a stream. No rigid boundaries but different currents nonetheless.
As mindfully as I was able, I moseyed outside to find the “perfect” walking spot and quickly decided on a shady area of the drive. Not that it was perfect but it seemed silly to spend too much energy finding a walking place since my work could be done anywhere. I stepped into the shade for my first few steps and again heard that deep and familiar Knowing voice, “Death doesn’t matter.” Startled. YES! I knew on an intuitive level how absolutely true that was.
But, what did it mean? If death doesn’t matter what does matter? What does that mean about life? If we aren’t afraid of death, then how can I argue that someone would want to aspire to a good life or to stay alive? Again, the knowing voice expressed more in feeling than words shared, “Life is meaningful in its own right.” I thought of the many-layered first precept we recited as part of the opening ritual to prepare our minds and hearts for retreat, “Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow to protect life.”
So, I asked myself, “What am I afraid of, if not death?” “Suffering?” The teacher talked about sitting with an experience until one settles in to the “core of love” that witnesses to all experience even the deepest wounds. No reassuring, knowing voice came this time – just more questions.
Part 2 next week……