The Role of Death

He who isn't busy being born is busy dying -- Bob Dylan

Perhaps the fact of life most conducive to living fully as a person is an honest awareness and acceptance of death.

Death has no secrets. If we are willing to look, it constantly makes us aware of itself. It is everywhere, even at the first sign of life.

Children seem to have some personal fantasy of death as early as they can conceptualize, though it is not until they are approximately nine years old that they seem to be able to verbalize its true nature and especially accept its finality. Still, death is shrouded in its own mystery. One can never know beforehand precisely how or when it will come. No matter how prepared we are, it always seems to take us by surprise. Even forewarned we seem unable to contend with the shock or accept it without experiencing deep feelings of fear, superstition, anxiety and isolation. It's always the other person who dies. The dead are not even permitted to remain dead -- they are too often resurrected through the guilt of the living.

When one is fully functioning as a person, death is neither a threat nor a horror. Rather, it serves as life's greatest ally. Death tells us that we must live life now, in the moment -- that tomorrow is illusion and never comes. It tells us that it is not the quantity of our days, our hours, or years that matter, but rather the quality of time spent. Every day is new. Every moment is fresh. Time has no meaning in itself unless we choose to give it significance. Moments pass swiftly or as eternities depending upon our state of mind -- or rather how we are willing to suspend our minds. It is often said that there are those who can experience more in a moment than some can experience in a lifetime. Time is relative. It is ours, given freely to spend wisely or squander idly, but never to be hoarded. Time past is gone and all the moaning will never bring it back. Perhaps the most irresponsible phrase in the language is "I should have". The main import of the past is simply as a source of learning through experience. Since each experience has new and different significance, it can only be used in a vague and general sense when applied to the future. But the future, too, is illusion, a type of dream which in most cases never comes to pass as dreamed. So much of our pain is based upon the disappointment of the reality not living up to the dream.

Death also teaches us the impermanence of all things. All things change. All things die. This is true in nature as well as in human life. Even granite mountains crumble into dust just as the most beautiful of past kingdoms have left only silent stones to surround their mystery. To be attached to things or people, both of which will surely vanish, can only bring despair, for eventually one is left with only a handful of dust or a frail memory. Life that is free of attachment lives in the moment and makes not demand that the moment last. Life's concern is not with the future but with the present. To wait for life is to love to wait, nothing more. Life understands that death brings with it change and that the only reality is to live both the future and the past in the present, accepting it with the joy of the moment and letting it go when the time is right; embracing it with all one's energies before it leaves, but without expectations of permanency. The Buddhists teach the futility of attachment of any kind and seem them as being the root of all suffering. They say that as long as we remain attached we will live despairingly. They speak of three types of attachment states -- attached, unattached and nonattached. They tell a beautiful tale which illustrates their meaning. They ask us to visualize ourselves in a very isolated situation where the only fresh water available must be carried from a great distance (a common situation in many Asian towns and monasteries). Water is therefore treated as a most precious commodity. It is place din a large pot, used sparingly, and kept shaded under trees, guarded and carefully covered.

After having worked hard all day in the blazing sun -- we look forward to that refreshing stop at the water pot. We lift the lid carefully, take the scooper in hand and dip into the precious liquid. As we are about to drink we notice an ant has somehow settled into our pot and onto our scooper. We are furious! How dare the ant be on our island, under our trees, in our water pot, on our scooper. We immediately crush it under our thumb. -- Attached.

Or we might stop a moment to consider that it is a hot day even for ants. The ant has done what is instinctively right for it -- it took refuge in the only cool, damp and comfortable place it could find. We see that the ant is not really harming our water, our trees, our scooper or our pot. After deep, moral consideration, we drink around it, replace the scooper in the cool pot and cover it carefully. -- Unattached.

Or, when we see the ant in our pot we stop neither to consider what is the ant's or what is ours, nor what is moral or immoral. We respond above morality. We naturally feed it a lump of sugar! -- Nonattached.

Death teaches us that in the long run nothing belongs to us. Even if we desire to form permanent attachments or possess, we in truth cannot. Things will break in spite of us. People will depart when it is their time no matter how loudly we protest. Ants will invade our water pots with no regard to our barriers. A knowledge of death can give one a deep feeling of freedom -- both from attachment to self, as well as attachment to others and to things. The less we are attached to, the less we have to worry about.

The last words my mother ever spoke to me were very insightful. As I stood quietly weeping at her bedside, she lovingly took my hand and said, "Felice, what are you holding on to?" I let go and it made all the difference to both of us. We even attach a sense of guilt to the dying for leaving us!

Death is too often bound and gagged. Children are discouraged from attending funerals and given meager answers to their questions regarding it. Death is kept a dark, frightening and often totally devastating mystery, as if it were some intruder to be excluded at any cost.

I recall my extreme shock and horror upon arriving in Benares, India, for the first time. There before me was unmasked pain, hunger, and blatant death. A parade of exposed cadavers were moving continually down the crowded streets toward the Holy River Ganges. Everyone watched as bodies were publicly cremated in colourful ceremony. The streets were lined with the crippled, lepers and beggars. When I recovered from my first impression of horror, I began to find mothers with shining eyes nursing their smiling infants, glowing smiles on the faces of old men and women, unbridled joy in young boys and girls who sprinted along the streets and a spiritual sense of peace and acceptance on faces such as I had never before witnessed. What I was seeing was the panorama of life -- all at once, nothing hidden. I realized how sheltered I had been all my previous years. It is the Western way for most people to experience their real existence almost entirely behind closed windows and locked doors. We cry alone, we become ill alone, we are born alone and most of us will die in some sterile hospital room, alone. How can we know or accept the natural cycle of life when it has been hidden from us? How can we ever learn? How can we ever accept?

When we can embrace death as simply another aspect of the life cycle, we will give appreciation and value to each life encounter knowing that it will never occur again. And each of these moments will be the source of what we shall know as our lifetime.

Death is the greatest of life's teachers. It is only the ignorant and those who are afraid to live who fear it. The wise accept Death as their intimate friend and most gracious teacher. To be fully active and fully functioning as a person we must make death a lifelong friend.

Perhaps the fact of life most conducive to living fully as a person
is an honest awareness and acceptance of death.