Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
– Steve Jobs
When the mind thinks of death, it looks at nothing and calls it something, to keep from experiencing what it—the mind—really is. Until you know that death is equal to life, you’ll always try to control what happens, and it’s always going to hurt. There’s no sadness without a story that opposes reality.
– Byron Katie
As seems quite common in this process, a primal fear of death has come up for me for a while now. It was very strong for some months up to about a year ago, and now comes up a little less intensely.
What is is about?
It’s about the death of who I take myself to be, and this takes two forms: (a) The death of identification with images and ideas about who I am – a human being etc. (b) The physical death of this body. And the latter is of course really about the former. If I take myself to be this body, then the death of this body is perceived as the death of me. It’s all about identification and beliefs.
The invitation here is for two things:
(a) Open to the fear and the impulse to recoil from it. Take it as an inquiry and notice what happens when I recoil from it, and what happens when I open to it all. Ask myself, is it true I cannot take it? Is it true it’s too much? Is it true it’s (the fear, the impulse to recoil) is not already allowed? Not already opened to?
And (b) identify and inquire into (i) the beliefs behind this fear, and (ii) the beliefs behind the resistance to the fear.
(i) It’s terrible to die. I will die. Death means…. What I fear the most about death is…..
(ii) It’s overwhelming. It’s too much. This dread/terror means something terrible has happened/will happen. It’s easier to recoil. Something terrible will happen if I open to it. I am not up to the task. I need to be up to the task. What I am most afraid would happen if I open to this dread/terror is….
The fear of death is the last smokescreen for the fear of love. The mind looks at nothing and calls it something, to keep from experiencing what it really is. Every fear is the fear of love, because to discover the truth of anything is to discover that there is nobody, no doer, no me to create suffering or to identify with anything. Without any of that, there is just love.
– Byron Katie
Every time I fall into one of these pits, I want to curl up and die. Yet I’ve noticed that they invariably precede a breakthrough of some sort. They seem to be a means of emptying me so something new can fill my cup. In this sense, longing for death is a psychospiritual congruency and precisely what I need. Despair returns us to ground zero, to the place of nothingness which seems barren but is in actuality a realm of dormancy, a wintering of the soul without which there can be no spring.
– El Collie in Branded by the Spirit, chapter 14
When things seem especially dark and hopeless, there is often a draw to death. We want whatever causes the pain to die, and that’s a natural, innocent and even healthy impulse.
We may want our own human self to die, or the situation, although one is a bit drastic and the other is temporary. So what’s a kinder and more lasting solution?
What’s really at the essence of this is the death of identification – with the identity or story creating the suffering. This identification may wear off with time, it may suddenly drop away, and we can align with the process by inquiring into the identification or story.
Michael Dowd’s most recent blog post reminded me of the gifts of death.
Death at all levels allows for something else to arise. The death of individuals allows for new individuals. Death of species allows for new species. Death of ecosystems allows for the emergence of new ecosystems. Death of stars allows for solar systems.
My existence as a human being is made possible through the death of individuals – both humans and nonhuman. Without the death of individuals, the earth would quickly fill up. And the death of plants and sometimes animals is what makes my life possible right now. My existence is made possible through the death of species – without the death of the vast majority of species that have existed, most of the species here today wouldn’t be here. My existence is made possible through the death of stars and the heavier elements created and dispersed through this death.
I read an article in Aftenposten on what representatives for different religions think may happen after we die.
They are clearly playing with their own hope/fear imaginations, sometimes recognizing it as imaginations and sometimes not. It is a good mirror as I do the same.
Most of these representatives took a healthy agnostic view, as this Christian theologian:
I kristen teologi har dette spørsmålet ofte blitt møtt med henvisning til at dette kan vi ikke si noe endelig om.
In Christian theology, this question is often answered by pointing out that we cannot say anything for certain.
And ironically enough, the one who seemed most certain of his stories was the Buddhist representative! Of all the traditions, Buddhism is the one that explicitly reminds us to (a) not believe anything we are told and (b) check it out for ourselves, as in this little Zen story:
A monk asked a Zen master, “What happens when you die?” The Zen master replied, I don’t know.” The monk said, “What do you mean. Aren’t you a Zen master?” And the Zen Master replied, “Yes, but I’m not a dead one.”
Here are some ways of relating to stories of what happens after death:
This is something I usually don’t write about or mention to anyone. Mainly because it is irrelevant to what is really important in life, and also because it is such a magnet for projections and misunderstandings. Also, it has little to do with the point of this post. But it does belong to the background info of this post.
When someone dies young, it is a reminder to investigate our own life and beliefs.
What beliefs come up in me when it happens?
Here are some typical ones in our culture, which most of us have absorbed to some extent:
It is unfair. Life should comply with our wishes. Life should make everyone live a long life.
He didn’t get to live a full life. She wanted to do so much more.
I wanted to have her in my life longer. My life will be miserable without him. I can’t make it without her.
A friend of mine from the Zen center is in prison and is given a death sentence. I and others of his friends read through the documents but don’t understand it all at first glance.
When I woke up following this dream, I took the opportunity to be with the experiences that came up, including a slight sense of dread. Allowing the experience gave a sense of softness around it and a sense of sweetness mixed in with the initial emotions. It then opened up and the experience shifted into a sense of a nurturing fullness, mixed in with some sadness and a sense of being sobered up.
After a few minutes, I explored how this is true for me. How am I already in a prison? In what way am I given a death sentence?
I keep having dreams where people die, either separately or in groups. These people are often close to me. And over time, it seems that just about anyone close to me in waking life has died in my dreams, including myself, and an even larger number have died who were close to me in the dream but unknown to me in my waking life.
My days are numbered, and I don’t know that number. I can never know that number for certain.
Yet, it often makes a big difference if we think we know that number. For instance, our doctor may tell us we have only six months to live, and we plunge into despair.
When that happens, it is a clear indication that we haven’t taken our mortality seriously. We haven’t acknowledged to ourselves that our days are numbered. We haven’t experienced it as real. It only becomes real when we think we know that number, for one reason or another. Usually because our doctor tells us, or we are getting so old that it is a good statistical chance we won’t live much longer. (Also, it shows that we don’t take seriously that we really don’t know the number, whether we have a doctor that tells us a number or not.)
So before I think I know the number, I can imagine – as vividly as I can – that I know the number. I can imagine that I know for certain that I will die in one year, one month, one day, one minute, one second. Feel it. Take it in. See how my view reorganize. What happens to my priorities. What happens to my identification with this body.
It won’t be as real as if my doctor tells me a number, but it can still be very helpful.
I keep coming back to death practice.
For instance, I can visualize my own death – in as much detail and as vividly as possible, and take time for it to sink in and notice what happens.
What if I knew for certain that I would die in one year? One month? One week? One day? One hour? One minute? One second? What happens? What would I like to use that time for? What is important? What happens to my identifications with this body and this human self?
I can visualize my body as already dead. With the flesh rotting and falling off the bones. The skeleton itself disintegrating.
I also sometimes go to graveyards and visualize the disintegrating bodies underground, and my own body as if already there disintegrating.
And I can remember people and animals in my life who are now dead. I will be dead like them before I know it. My days are numbered, even if I don’t know the number. Everybody I know will be dead in just a few decades. All of humanity will eventually be dead and gone.
These types of practices can have many effects.
Facing death squarely can have a few different effects…
In terms of growing up (healing/maturing as who I am, this human self in the world), facing death invites in a motivation to grow up. I have limited time here, and want to make the most of it. Similarly, facing death helps me clarify my priorities. I am invited to clarify what is most important for me, and align my life with that.
Facing death at this level happens mostly within the dynamics of stories. I realize that everyone and everything I love and know, incluing myself, will die. I see it. Feel into it. Find genuine appreciation for it. (After all, death at all levels of the holarchy of the universe is what makes life possible. We are made up of stars that died a few billion years ago. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the whole process of life and death that went before us, at the levels of stars, species and individuals. Also, life is dynamic, dynamic=flux, flux=death.) Make it alive for myself. Allow it to work on me and reorganize me as who I am.
In terms of waking up (noticing what I am), facing death may invite in a motivation to wake up. This human self is around for only a limited time, and I want to make use of this opportunity to invite what I am to wake up to itself.
Equally important, I can explore death – or rather, impermanence – here and now, through the sense fields. I can notice how anything happening within each sense field is flux, guests living their own life, coming and going on their own schedule. There are no stable anchors within content of awareness that I can place an “I” on. But still, there is a sense of what I really am not coming and going. What is it that is not coming and going?
Working with death is like working with anything else.
I can visualize my own death sometime in the future and see what comes up. What if I knew I would die in one year, a half year, one month, one week, one day, one hour, one minute, one second? If I make it as vivid and real as possible for myself, what comes up?
I can notice beliefs and stories coming up an take them to inquire later on. I can fully allow and be with emotions, as they are, in a wholehearted and heartfelt way.
I can allow myself to reorganize within this new context of knowing that my death is imminent. How would I live my life differently? What becomes more important? Less important? How can I bring that into my life here and now?
I can do the same with the death of those close to me. I can bring up the memories of people in my life who have died. I can visualize those alive dying in the future.
I can do the same with human civilization, the earth and this universe. I can visualize it all being gone, which it will be – first when my human self dies, and then when it dies.
In all of these cases – visualizing my own death, the death of those close to me, and the death of everything I know and appreciate – I can work with what comes up in the same way. I can notice beliefs coming up and take them to inquiry. I can fully allow and be with emotions in a heartfelt and kind way. I can allow my human self to reorganize within this new context, seeing how priorities and motivations change, and see how I can bring it into daily life.
Daily life offers other opportunities to work with this, such as when death is a theme in the news and movies.
These are all ways of working with death and impermanence within stories.
But there are also ways of working with impermanence outside of stories.
The simplest I have found is to explore impermanence within the sense fields. I bring attention to the sense fields, one at a time, and notice the impermanence there. Each sense fields is flux.
The appearance of permanence is only a mental field overlay of a story of permanence, whether it is an image or discursive thought, or a mental field memory/mimicking of sense fields such as touch or taste.
While in Norway, I watched a story on people adopting dogs for the two first years of their life. After that, they are trained and work as guide dogs for the blind. According to the people organizing the adoptions, it is less difficult than most think for those adopting the dogs to let them go, because they know they will only have them for two years, and also have had two years to prepare mentally for the separation.
A basic practice in most spiritual traditions is just this: to prepare mentally for the death of oneself and those close to us, to reorganize our worldview in general to align with the impermanence of everything in the world of form, and also see impermanence directly here and now outside of any thoughts.
And this in turn is a part of the basic orientation of any genuine spiritual practice: to align our conscious view with reality, and see, feel and love reality as it is.
A simple way of reorganizing within the reality of death is to imagine the death of ourself or someone close to us in five years time, one year, six months, one month, a week, a day, an hour, a minute.
If I know for certain I will die in a week, what happens? How do I reorganize within that perspective? What becomes more important? Less important? How will I like to live my life? Can I be with the experiences that come up when I imagine that I will die in a week?
And there are also plenty of reminders in daily life to explore this…. The death of friends or relatives. Reports of deaths in the media. Stories on possible flu pandemics wiping out large portions of the world population, which we know will come at some point.
Our days are numbered for each of us, but we don’t know the number. We may think we know the number, through astrology, premonitions or a medical diagnosis, but that too is just a story. The reality of it is that I and anyone else can die any moment, and that I don’t know when it will be.
If I investigate the beliefs that comes up for me around this, what happens? If I fully allow whatever experiences comes up in me around this, what happens?
The second basic practice is to see impermanence directly here and now, outside of the realm of thought. To pay attention to sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts… seeing how they come and go, living their own life, on their own schedule. The world of form as flux. Everything arising as new, different, fresh. Even a thought with the same content as a previous one, completely and utterly fresh, new, different, itself only.
All of this may lead to another basic practice: If the world of form is in flux, then who or what am I? When I look, what I am don’t seem to come and go, yet everything within the world of form comes and goes… What am I then?
Investigating impermanence in all of these ways… including inquiry into our beliefs around it, being with whatever experiences comes up in us around it, seeing impermanence directly here and now, and exploring what I am if the whole world of form is flux yet what I am does not seem to come and go… is in many ways the royal path to healing and wholeness as who we are, at our human level, and to noticing what we already and always are.
A quick look at death and what continues…
First the obvious one: Our human self, with its personality and quirks, dies. It is gone forever. At most, some of its influences on others and society continues for a while, but then that is gone too.
And another one, which takes a bit of looking: What we are, this awakeness that all form unfolds within, to and as, is free from form, space & time. It is that which form, time and space unfolds within and as. It is always and already here, whether it notices itself or not (temporarily taking itself to be a portion of its own content). This one is not “personal”, it does not seem dependent on this human self. It is existence itself, temporarily functionally connected to a particular human self.
As Big Mind, that which goes beyond and embraces all polarities, it continues on independent of any individual self. Or rather, it continues to allow form to unfold within and as itself.
Finally, maybe the least obvious one: Our soul self. This alive presence. This one that is not quite personal and not quite impersonal. Not quite in time and not quite outside of time. Not quite located in space, and not quite outside of space. This too is content of awareness, so it is possible to either identify with it and make it into an “I”, or see and appreciate it as just content, similar to the human self. If something continues on an “individual” level, and if there is a vehicle for – for instance – rebirth, it seems that this could be it.
(And finding myself as awakeness, it doesn’t quite matter. Continuing or not are just two different flavors of awakeness itself, two flavors of experience.)
When I do impermanence practices, visualizing everything and everyone in my life – including this human self and any state and experience – as already gone, it seems strangely familiar. And it is not only because I have done it before.
When I explore, I see that it is because it reflects my daily first person experience of the world.
Deepening into what we are is a process of differentiating 1st and 3rd person identities of ourselves.
My third person identity is the identity of this human self in the world, and it has a purely practical function. It is the identity of this he, she or it.
My first person identity is very different. When the third person identity is seen as third person identity, seen as he/it and not I, then my first person identity reveals itself more clearly. Now, I find myself as awake void and form, and that is it. There is no center there, no I with an Other, no exclusive identification with any content of awareness.
Together, there is freedom from identification, yet also the ability for this human self to function in the world. In first person experience, I am awake void and form, released from identification with any particular content. Yet, this human self has a third person identity (as an he) which helps it function in the world.
This also helps me see that in my first person experience, the world steadily comes and goes, it dies and is reborn here/now and always. People vanish, places vanish, thoughts vanish, perceptions vanish, states vanish, content of awareness as a whole vanish.
When this human self leaves a room, the room vanishes. When someone is no longer around, they vanish. When it closes its eyes, the visual world vanishes. When it dreams, any familiar content sometimes vanish and a whole different world appears. When it goes into dreamless sleep, any content of awareness vanishes.
So death is intimately familiar to us, in our first person experience. It is what happens here now, always. The world dies, and is reborn, in innumerable shapes and combinations.
It is only in my third person identity that something appears to stay around, and then dies with a death certificate. In my first person experience, it is only in the realm of thoughts that someone is still alive, or something is still around, even if it is no longer here in perceptions.
And it is only in the realm of thoughts that there is a difference between someone or something gone in perception but most likely coming back (“alive”), or gone forever (“dead”).
In first person experience, it is really only in the realm of thoughts and stories that someone or something is alive or dead.
So death is intimately familiar. In my immediate experience, the world dies, and is reborn, here now and always.
And as usual, if this is taken as a belief, it looks weird… it can become a defense against grief, a denial of death, a resistance to fully experiencing and being with what comes up when someone close to us dies.
But if it is a living experience, a living realization, what we notice in immediate experience, it is a freedom… a freedom from identification, a freedom to experience grief fully when someone or something dies, and a freedom for gratitude to surface more easily… gratitude for it having lived and been in our life.
As soon as we (our human self) is conceived, we receive our death sentence. From our first day of existence, our days are numbered.
Typically, we are OK with this in a vague and general sense, knowing (at some level) that we and those close to us will die some day, that our days are numbered yet not knowing exactly what that number is. But we are not OK with it when the days have already run out (when somebody close to us have died) or we (think) we know about how many days are left (as told to us by a doctor, or statistics).
And that is a clear sign of denial, or rather, of not having explored this more in detail, bringing our three centers into the explorations process of seeing what is already more true for us than this.
The more this is explored, the more clarity and differentiation there is for us around life and death, at the three centers. And the more ease there is around this issue in general.
There is definitely more for me to explore around this, but what I can see from the exploration I have already done is…
- A reduced sense of split between life and death… seeing one embedded in the other. Seeing death included in the birth of situations, individuals, states, experiences, any content of awareness.
- Seeing the beauty and necessity of death as included in birth and life… without it, the universe would immediately grind to a halt. For there to be life, there has to be change, and for there to be change, there has to be death and birth at all scales of form, from the largest whole down to the smallest.
- Seeing and feeling the (inevitable) death of this human self, and those close to me (it). And from this heartfelt being with, there is even a love for it, a sweet tenderness.
- A shift from wanting it to be different (from death to not be) to gratitude and appreciation for the life that was, and is. A deep sweet tender gratitude for these temporary guests… for situations, experiences, people, animals in my life, and for this life as well… the temporary life of this particular human self.
- A more easy allowing of whatever comes up around death, including reactiveness, grief, denial, and so on. A heartfelt being with it all, whatever comes up from this human self. (And a seeing of how this inevitable when this human self is identified with, when the “I” appears as an object in the world.)
- A sense of connection with the flow of the larger whole… seeing how situations, experiences, the life of those close to this human self, and this human self itself, are all part of that flow… the whole world of form is flux, and these are temporary and local manifestations of that flux. We are all in it together… galaxies, solar systems, living planets, ecosystems, social systems, individuals, cells… we all come and go, we are all temporary guests… death is inherent in our birth… it is all a process of formation and transformation… one appearance shifting into another.
- A deepening and heartfelt sense of empathy with all beings… death is there in our birth, for all of us… we are all in the same boat.
- A seeing of how the world continuously dies in my immediate, first person, experience. My wife is here, then not. My parents are here, then not. This human self is here, then not (in dreamless sleep). It is that way with everything. Something is born into awareness, and then dies from awareness. It is a continuous process of birth and death. So when someone is dead in the way that requires a death certificate, it is really not so different. It has already happened throughout my life. I am used to it. The only difference is the thought saying “they are gone forever” and whatever that brings up for me.
- An initiation to see what does not come and go in the midst of all this coming and going. An invitation to notice the void, and to eventually notice myself as this void. This awake emptiness all forms come and go within and as.