It is our struggle against death that renders us invulnerable to life, and love. Death is not the enemy. Death teaches us the art of surrender, which is the essential energy that opens us to receive the abundance awaiting our opening. Death is our teacher, our advisor, our friend.
But we treat death as the enemy. I love the story that Bagwan Shree Rajneesh shared in his book, “The Art of Dying; “When Rabbi Birnham lay dying, his wife burst into tears. He said, “What are you crying? My whole life was only that I might learn to die.”
Describing death as a friendly force goes against the grain of our cultural conditioning. We have been taught to see death as what we fight against, run from, win over, or somehow prevent, or at least forestall, even when doing so prolongs suffering. We think of death as the opposite of life and therefore it is seen as bad or wrong; as something unnatural, ugly, but most of all, terrifying. Some “new age” thinkers even promote the idea that death is some kind of personal failure, especially if it occurs through accident or terminal illness. For these thinkers, to get sick, or die suddenly indicates that you are guilty of self hatred or low evolutionary consciousness. Death is thought of as a punishment or a crime, something to be railed against and fought tooth and nail.
We constrict around death because we have no control over it. It is that inevitable and scary entrance into the great unknown which we both dread and fear. Unconscious fear of death is behind every neurosis, every demand or attachment that we have. Whether it’s the fear of abandonment, rejection or danger of any kind; all can be traced back to the root fear of all; death. It rules us, though most of us don’t even know it. For the first half of life, we as humans tend to live as if death is something that only happens “out there”; to other people, but “not me”. As young people, we believe in our own personal immortality, often taking foolish risks that push the limits. We “live on the edge” and treat our bodies as indestructible forces that will last forever. Then somewhere around mid-life, it changes. All of a sudden we are conscious of time “running out”. Our bodies begin to show signs of wear, and fear takes over. From that point forward, we are in a race against the undefeatable opponent, death. We know who will win in the end, but we still secretly hope that somehow we will manage to get out of here alive; that “we shall overcome”.
Many turn to religious promises of “eternal life”, for consolation, which for some means that the body will live on, or at least be returned to them after Judgment Day. In this way, religion becomes an antidote or prescription for death; the only “cure” for the otherwise inescapable. Here we begin to see the big part that the fear of death plays in religion. Too often, rather than emphasizing right relationship with our Creator, religious doctrines instead play on people’s fear of death and then promise their doctrine as being the only guarantee against it. This is what sells. If you believe and do what the church prescribes, then you will have eternal life in heaven, versus eternal death and damnation. Raised with such ideas, we learn to connect death with the devil. No wonder we are so terrified! We are indoctrinated to think of death as the domain of all that is evil and against life
As a result, mass consciousness is not as interested in authentic and harmonious relationship with their Creator, as they are with trying to buy a favorable bargain against the Grim Reaper. I wonder how many of the religiously pious are so because they are afraid of eternal damnation rather than from a true love of God. Rather than serving out of an intense inner desire or longing to know God, these “good Christians” are motivated instead by guilt and fear. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the fear of death can be a powerful motivator, used for centuries by the church to swell their ranks. The use of such fear, as a way to enforce the church’s moral code and bring people under subjugation is an age-old ploy.
There are cultures, however that teach a different approach to death. They see death as being a natural part of the life cycle, as is birth. They understand that something always has to die before there can be a birth of any kind. Birth and death are recognized as intricate aspects of life. Without death there cannot be life. There has to be some kind of relinquishment, or clearing away, before any new thing can come into being. Something has to be surrendered. Surrender is synonymous with dying.
Death and birth are so closely linked that dying is even an intrinsic part of the biological birth process. Consciousness research initiated by scientists such as Stanislav Grof,(“Adventures of Self-Discovery”) have found that the fetus actually goes through a death phase when being born. Grof has determined four stages, or matrices, of the birth process. The second birth matrix occurs when the contractions of the mother are forcefully closing down on the fetus, but the cervix has not yet dilated enough to allow escape. In those moments, sometimes hours, the fetus faces its’ own demise. There is no way out. It is being hammered with relentless fury by the very same walls which, up to then, had provided a safe-haven. From that universal experience, we all have encoded death as a force to be reckoned with over and over again. Even those who were deli6ered C-section, thus avoiding the struggle through the birth canal, have been found to carry the genetic code for all four stages. The death/birth cycle is part of our very DNA! Rather than overcome death, our challenge becomes to learn how to surrender with grace. Warriors of the Yaqui Tribe in Mexico, as described by Carlos Casteneda in his writings, develop an intimate relationship with death.
A Yaqui warrior learns to enter fully into life by staying ever alert to the possibility of his own demise. Not with morbid preoccupation, or with constant backward glances caused by anxiety-induced hyper-vigilance, but instead with a steadiness of purpose that comes from living every moment as if it were his last. Here there is a resolve; a calm acceptance that comes from having learned to view Death as a friend or advisor, as an “ally”. In this way ones every action is performed with what Don Juan(the old Sorcerer from Casteneda’s books) calls “impeccability”. From the understanding that life offers no guarantees; that this could well be one’s final moment, every act becomes infused with consciousness. If we were to allow ourselves the awareness, as Don Juan said, that death stands, ever present and ready to claim us, there would be little, if any, thoughtless words, or action. What an awesome way to live! Can you imagine how much less regret there might be if we all gave this kind of attention to our lives?
Socrates was known to remind those around him that one should always be “occupied in the practice of dying”. There is no way to fully live until we know how to die. This is true because death is about release. Life is made up of a series of contractions and expansions; of holding on and letting go. Our very breath demonstrates the birth/death cycle. Each in-breath is a “fill-up” and every out-breath an “emptying” of “prana” (spirit or life).
We fight death because we are afraid. We want things to stay the same so that we can feel safe and secure. But that goes against the very nature of being. Things that are alive move and change, die to the old and become something new repetitively. When something stops changing, it stagnates and inevitably dies. Change is the death/birth process.
I recently had a dream that illustrates this resistance/surrender paradox. In it I seemed to be standing in a pool of water watching a hand gently shove an infant under water and hold it there. At first, in the dream, I was distraught because I thought the child was being drowned, but then I noticed that the infant’s expression was one of relaxed contentment. There was no sign of struggle on its’ face. The hand would hold the child under and then release it at that critical moment when breath was needed. Later, I realized that the child in me was being encouraged to trust and surrender (die) to the “hand” (of God).
Whenever we resist, we are simply refusing to die into our next re-birth. Our challenge is to learn how to give up the struggle for control, to stop thrashing around in an effort to hold on, and instead surrender into the paradoxical death of birthing with grace. In this way, we learn to exhale life as fully as we inhale it. We learn to go with the grasp/release flow of life rather than “hold our breath” by hanging onto circumstances, or relationships that may need to be surrendered. We come to understand that being fully alive involves perpetual movement and change, which means the willingness to die to that which no longer serves us.
There will come a time when even our physical shell, to which we are so attached, must be relinquished. The mystics remind us that it is possible to drop the body like an old shoe. Then, at the designated time, we welcome death as the Great Liberator, rather than seeing it as the enemy. Death, then becomes an eagerly awaited friend, who comes to alleviate us from our earthly trials and burdens. Stephen Levine, author of “A Year To Live”, reminds us that no-one, in their right mind, would really want to give up death as an option. It is our “ticket” out when life has become too limiting, too filled with suffering. Then death becomes the much anticipated “relief bringer”.
I have a fantasy, strengthened by the practice of many necessary surrenders, that our final moments of life might actually be very like orgasm. Sexual release may be the closest we get to an experience of actual physical death. Like death, orgasm requires a full surrender into the moment if we are to have the experience of liberation it offers. It’s a feeling of delicious freedom for which we all long. This, I imagine, is what death must feel like; a free-at-last kind of ecstasy from all the constraints and bondages that go along with being trapped in a human body.
Even as I write this article, believing in the words said here with full force, I find myself up against the challenge of yet another series of necessary “let go’s” in my life. I notice my resistance, as I hold on tenaciously to what’s known and familiar, not wanting to “die” to it, even though I know it’s time. The human tendency to struggle against death is a natural one, even when we acknowledge it as a necessary and useful part of life. Perhaps the best we can do is remind ourselves of the ebb and flow of life so that we can perhaps release a little sooner, with a bit more grace than we might otherwise have done.
Death is a powerful force. It can be forestalled perhaps, but it cannot be overcome. It is not the enemy. Death is a teacher and a way-maker. It teaches surrender and prepares the way for what‘s to come. By practicing the acceptance of death as a natural part of life, we gain liberation and re-birth. It can teach us how to “be here now”, in this moment, “one day at a time”. As a result, our lives will become more full, abundant and productive. Yes, contradictory as it may seem, death can actually become for us a very good and true ally.
How do we surrender? By saying good-bye and grieving our losses. Grief is the energy of let go. One of the ways we refuse to face death in our everyday lives is through avoiding closure of any kind. It is a common practice to leave relationships, jobs or towns where we have lived without closure. We simply move on to what’s next without acknowledging that we’re leaving something behind. This is a life-sapping practice, especially when we do it with a relationship that has ended painfully. Even though we (or they) may walk away, some part of us remains plugged in to what was left behind. We have not really let it go. Although we may push it to the back of our minds, we continue to carry it around with us, where it stays in the back of our minds in a putrefied state.
A client Josh, exclaimed to his support group; “I’m lousy at saying good-bye to anything! I leave friends and situations behind, often without ever mentioning that I’m leaving, simply because I hate farewells. Then I feel forever guilty about it, which keeps me from re-connecting with old friends or being able to go back to visit places from my past. If I happen to run into someone from back then, I’ll even try to avoid their seeing me, because I’m so sure they have hard feelings about the way I left!” Josh soon learned he was not the only one who dealt with goodbyes in that way. Most everyone in the group was able to relate a similar tendency. “I wonder, I mused to the group, “if the reason we have such difficulty with good-byes is because they are a form of death, which is seen as bad or unacceptable in our world. Therefore we refuse to properly bury that which needs to be relinquished and instead, latch on quickly to the next thing that comes along.”
This sets us up to walk around burdened down with useless, excess baggage, hanging heavy, like the proverbial albatross around ones neck. Like the parents of the child whose puppy dies, and who then quickly get her a new one so she won’t suffer the loss, we too move rapidly away from the carnage of our past. However this doesn’t work quite as well as we like to think. We may find ourselves involved in a new relationship to replace the last one, only to find that we end up projecting our unresolved “stuff” onto the new partner or situation. For without giving ourselves a “season of grief” for that which has passed, we cannot truly invest in what’s to come.
Don’s wife of twenty-two years, left him, taking with her their children and most of their material and financial assets through a vindictive and messy divorce. He was left feeling bitter, betrayed and distrustful. When I met him, some two years after their break-up, he could not talk about a subject, no matter it’s content, without steering the conversation back to the anger and betrayal he felt. He would rail on about his ex, and women in general. Even though he had recently met a good woman who obviously cared for him and to whom he was much attracted, he found himself constantly reacting towards her as if she were his ex. He would interpret things his new partner said and did with suspicion. Of course, his tendency to put his ex-wife’s face on his present partner led to feelings of hurt and anger on her part. She would react with indignity and insult, which only served to validate Don’s feeling that no woman could be trusted. He was fast recreating his previous relationship misery simply because he had not let go. He was still carrying the baggage of his past to the point that it was destroying any new possibility. Don’s challenge was to allow to surface the feelings of hurt and loss that he had buried under his perpetual rage towards his ex. His unacknowledged grief was like a poison contaminating any opportunity for positive relationship.
Don’s situation is more common than we might think. Many of us are at this very moment carrying around unacknowledged remnants of loss that deplete our vital life force, causing depression, lack of motivation, and heaviness. It is as though we are carrying a corpse through life, which indeed we are. Though not literally, we, nonetheless carry the unburied contents of all our failed, or refused good-byes.
Karen complained of a malaise that assailed her days, making it difficult to even get out of bed most mornings. She cried easily, and blamed herself continuously for what she saw as being a failure at life. Her father had died when she was nineteen, some six years previously. Towards the end of his illness, he had encouraged her, as his oldest daughter, to “stay strong for your mother and younger sisters”. Karen had interpreted this as a prohibition to grieve. She obeyed her fathers dying request, maintaining an upbeat facade for the sake of her grieving family. The price she paid was tremendous. Although it wasn’t until she sought counseling that she realized the cost to her, not only of refusing her need to grieve the loss of her father, but of the many other unresolved burdens she carried.
It came to light, through her sessions, that she had never been one to let go of things. “I have a rented storage shed full of memorabilia from people and places in my life that I am afraid to let go of”, she confided. She realized, through personal exploration, that one of the reasons she held onto literal “scraps of paper, movie stubs, and gas receipts” was because they served as reminders to herself of who she was. “If I throw these things away, I won’t have verification of where I’ve been. No-one will know who I am!” She could not release her past, as unhappy as it may have been, because it established her identity. Without that she might not exist. Yet the need to drag it around with her was depleting her life force, leaving her numb, depressed and without the motivation needed to create a positive future.
Gil shared a story from his childhood about the loss of his family’s crystal wine glasses. At age seven, he related, he was already very aware of classmates of “higher standing”. Their family’s ran the mill where Gil’s father was employed, and he wanted nothing more than to fit in. His family owned a set of crystal goblets which his mother kept in a special cabinet. In his mind, they were the one thing that lifted his family to the status of his more affluent peers, showing that his family, too had class. And so, it devastated Gil when his little sister accidentally overturned the cabinet upon herself, breaking the goblets to smithereens. It wasn’t his sister’s well-being he was concerned about, but the loss of his own identity which got smashed along with the goblets on that never-to-be-forgotten day. Many times we entangle our sense of worth and identity with our possessions, little realizing the cost. Often it is only in letting go of those very things that we are able to find liberation. Sometimes, when we don’t let go willingly, the Universe will step in and take it away from us.
We rationalize and justify why we should stay, when, in fact, it may have been time to let-go long ago. “I need to work it through”, we tell ourselves, or; “I may need it again someday”. We want to pass it on to our children or have something to show for the struggles we’ve endured, we say. Not that these arguments for staying are without merit. Sometimes it’s not right action to let go. We can suffer as much from the opposite tendency; of prematurely letting-go, as well as hang on too long. It’s a matter of balance… that of determining when it is time to hold on versus time to let go. And we must weigh our rationale for holding on against the cost of doing so. If hanging on is keeping me from saying good-bye to something that is long dead, then it may not be worth it, whether that be a relationship or extraneous paraphernalia.
In my youth, I had a six month encounter with a man who called himself a medicine man. I was young and gullible and he was magnetic and powerful. I was irresistibly attracted to his way of life so I became his “apprentice”. He taught a lot about the danger of attachment, not only to things but to our personal history; our identity, as well as to others, family included. His words made sense to me. I was living in a small apartment in Northern California at the time, and, under his tutelage, I went through a ritual of putting all of my personal belongings on the curb for any who might find and want them. I gave away all but the bare essentials for living. I then destroyed personal memorabilia, like my pictures and papers, anything that connected me to a past, including social security papers, my birth certificate, etc. I took on a new name given to me by him, and practiced the art of speaking only of the present, carefully refusing to speak of who or where I had been before. In other words, I took myself through a voluntary surrender of worldly attachments.
I began to travel, hitching a ride from town to town, totally dependent upon the “gifts of Spirit” that were offered along the way. And they were plentiful. Inevitably what I needed was provided, whether it was a meal, a place to sleep, to bathe or simply rest. The lessons I received were many, but specifically I learned the value of release. While it’s certainly not something I recommend doing today, I do not regret the opportunity it gave me to experience life without attachment. In the words of Janis Joplin; “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. It is indeed so, for once you have known the liberty that surrender grants, clinging to anything loses it’s appeal.
Learning to relinquish with grace, when necessary, is important if we are to have fulfilled lives. We cannot fully experience this vital moment, if we are bogged down with the trappings from our past. Dying is an art we must practice if we are to live well. We learn to see it as liberating, as well as necessary. We must train our attitude to recognize death, not as the end, but always as the preparation for what’s to come. The Bhagwan Rajneesh said,
“You cannot live if you stop dying…. Life exists because of death … it is in fact a process of renewal. We think that life is good and death is bad. We think that life has to be desired and death is to be avoided. We think that somehow we have to protect ourselves against death. This absurd idea creates endless miseries in our lives, because a person who protects himself against death becomes incapable of living. He is the person who is afraid of exhaling, then he cannot inhale and he is stuck. The he simply drags, his life is no longer a flow, his life is no longer a river.” (“The Art of Dying”; pg 5; Bhagwan Rajneesh)
This sums it up. With awareness, such as this foremost in our hearts and minds, death can bring eager anticipation for the new, that which is yet unborn in us.
Whenever we feel stuck, complaining that we feel bogged down, unable to move forward, then it is time to ask; “What haven‘t I surrendered?” “What needs closure or relinquishment?” Practice building a relationship with death as advisor by imagining yourself in your final hours of life. Lying on your death bed, in your mind’s eye, allow yourself to reflect on your personal affairs and ask yourself questions, such as; “What are my regrets?” “What would I do differently?” “What important relationships are troubled or unresolved?” “What is my unfinished business?” “What can I do about this right now?” These questions can help us identify areas of our life that need immediate attention and clearing.
Through practices such as these, we learn to recognize the continual life process; that of dying to each past moment so as to be born again and again into the future. We started out with a quote about the Rabbi who had lived only so that he might know how to die. Perhaps it is equally as important that we each learn how to die in order to live. May it be so.