Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. For previous chapters, see posts December 9 through December 11. I plan to collect the entire series into an e-book at the end.
THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, Part 2
More than anything, what separates the living from the dying seems to be our engagement with life. As long as we are fully engaged — attached to people, animals, projects, stuff — thoughts of death are usually pushed aside.
And yet, in the midst of our daily busyness, it may behoove us to learn how to stop. Just stop! Stop what we are doing and pay close attention — to now. Right now. To this one moment.
For if, submerged inside this one long elastic moment, we dare to contemplate our own personal death, and do it in a more or less sustained manner, a profound choice emerges from the shadows and carries with it the capacity to dramatically alter our entire perspective. This choice is usually buried so deeply that we don’t notice it, and yet it can surface in a single beat of the heart.
It may be that if we dwell long enough in the zone of the present moment, that this sustained focus in itself invites awareness of Death. And/or, it may be that acute awareness of Death locks one into Presence, where time slows and life assumes a silent, dreamlike quality — something that happens, for example, during a car crash, or upon hearing of the death of a loved one.
Ultimately, conscious contemplation of Death invites its opposite. Death, when held in full awareness, provokes us to fully choose Life. Instead of walking with head down, myopically focused on this or that, we engage in an opportunity that is always there, but usually realized only in those rare rare moments when we narrowly avert sudden death — or when we are, in fact, on our deathbed. At these crucial times our vision widens to take in our entire life as a whole. We stand outside ourselves, viewing our trajectory over time, and how this trajectory is situated within the whole of creation. Questions surface. Why do we do what we do? Where are we heading? What do we drag along behind, unfinished? How do we want to feel about ourselves when we die?
Our society tends to view those who are fascinated by death and dying as “morbid.” In this way, we unconsciously collude to keep ourselves from discovering conscious awareness of Death as the key to full aliveness. High-risk athletes know this. Climbers who inch up near-vertical cliffs without protection, for example, must enter the “zone” of the present moment and extend it for the length of the wall. While “in the zone,” they feel completely present and alive, their movements flowing mindfully from hold to hold in communion with the cosmos.
To consciously and deliberately invite Death into our awareness and allow it its rightful place, “sitting on our left shoulder,” as the Toltec shaman Don Juan Matus told author Carlos Casteneda, far from being a morbid preoccupation, transforms into a great and startling gift. The door opens and we leave the limited world of what Don Juan called the tonal for the infinitely powerful invisible world of the nagual. From the standpoint of the nagual, the tonal tends to shroud our awareness from birth until death. Yet, just as we access the material tonal world through our five outer senses, nature endows us with the capacity to access the invisible world of the nagual through our inner sensing of the whole. “The tonal begins at birth and ends at death, but the nagual never ends. The nagual has no limit. The nagual is where Power hovers.” — Carlos Casteneda, Tales of Power.
The nagual has no limit. Any decision we find ourselves needing to make, any crossroads or dilemma, widens to encompass a field of infinite possibilities when we keep our own personal death in mind. No longer afraid, we break through whatever illusory barriers that we, or our culture, sets up to make us think that we can’t do it, can’t go there, can’t. We let go of no, and say yes to Life. We engage fully and meaningfully, with mind and heart and soul, until done.
Inside this larger, more spacious matrix, we recognize that a lack of engagement, especially when it translates to letting go of material preoccupations, is a major indication of being done, of beginning the descent/ascent towards death. An example here is my 90-year-old mother, a former shopaholic and in the early stages of what others call “dementia” and I call the dismantling of personality — held together by memory — to reveal the essential nature. Mom no longer wants to receive gifts. “What do I do with them? Why do I need more stuff? she says, “I have no more need for stuff.”
In responding to my mother’s remark, I laughed and told her I could just see her looking down at us humans preoccupied with the weird business of handling material objects and passing them back and forth with others. Just how strange it was, that humans are so preoccupied with stuff!
She looked at me astonished. I had read her mind! My 92-year-old father, his hands busy with the stuff of breakfast preparation, paused, turned around to look at me, at her — and then turned back, silent.
Getting, keeping, sharing, giving, storing, hoarding — all various modes of material exchange (or not) that, as long as we are engaged in embodied life, tend to absorb us, keep our focus “down to earth,” and deflect us from awe and wonder — hushed states of awareness that we all remember from childhood. These memories seep — or pop — out when we least expect or want them to; we shake our head, blink our eyes, try to dismiss them, turn back, silent, vaguely upset, to what we were focused on before . . .
I used to sleep outside. Snug in my sleeping bag, I’d stare at the stars until I whooshed out into the universe. Like spinning, it made me dizzy; like doing cartwheels, or swinging, I flew, but farther — out, and kept going! The sudden ejection from my body that widened awareness and liquefied space felt so scary and exciting that I always hungered for more.
I didn’t talk about swooshing to my siblings or friends. Certainly not to my parents. Either I intuitively picked up on the taboo nature of altered states, or I simply had no words for this peculiar rupture in ordinary reality that trumpeted a dimension more primal than either my dreams or daily life.
In childhood we learn how to shut down, or at least compartmentalize; from then on, we keep the two parts of life, worldly and otherworldly, in-body and out-of-body, separate.
Death, too, both scared and excited me as a child. Somehow, death united the two worlds; or it proved that they both exist; or it showed me the door between the two. Something like that. All I knew was that I was fascinated. I wanted, needed to see a dead human body. And my doctor father wouldn’t let me. Over and over again, he dismissed my strange, repeated, silly request.
Now, as adults, if we do not immediately shut out the tumult of feelings that cascade through us when we encounter Death, we find ourselves back in our sleeping bags, filled with awe and wonder. As my sister Kathy pointed out, when she came to visit a few days after my husband Jeff’s sudden departure from a heart attack and my mind was still trying desperately to make sense of it: “Death,” she intoned, locking eyes with mine, “ . . is Mystery.”
Yet how often are we actually able to be present to the mystery of Death when it, and the dying process, are medicalized? When we unknowingly collude in the mechanization of something that is, or could be, as natural and organic as the other end of embodied life’s spectrum, Birth — another usually medicalized process.
My crone friend Shauna echoed my mother’s material malaise as she neared death from cancer a few years ago. She had invited me to live with her for a week. Each day I would fix her enticing meals and try to get her to eat at least a little bit, but she felt nauseated and exhausted and said her mouth tasted like metal. She was still enduring chemo treatments, even though she told me that she was done, that nothing interested her any longer. On our final day together, while wheeling her down the hospital hall for what turned out to be her second-to-last treatment, I asked her why she chose to suffer in the last stages of her life. She replied, “Because if I stopped chemo, my friends would be too upset.”
They didn’t want to lose her. Yet these were women who called themselves crones, and so presumably aware of the continuity between life and death. Did they really think that if she died, she’d blink out? That they wouldn’t be able to access her wisdom, her compassion, her quirks that make them smile? It may more likely be that the thought of Shauna dying dragged their own deaths to the surface.
Since in our materialistic, medicalized culture we tend to identify a person with his or her body — unless we hold fast to a convoluted religious dogma that propels our souls (but not our bodies) to heaven or hell (and then re-unites body and soul on the final Judgment Day) — we tend to think that when the body dies, the person dies, too.
Regarding those who see themselves as religious, I have a hunch that some who believe strongly in St. Peter’s pearly gates and white robes and golden harps cling to their literal picture of “heaven” as a kind of Disney paradise to mask their terror of dying. As my brother-in-law, a long-time hospice nurse, mused, “It’s amazing how many Catholics are afraid to die.”
How to account for this fear?
Is it because they are afraid to get stuck in a static, boring paradise? I sure would be, given the usual view of heaven, a place where nothing ever happens — Talking Heads.
Fundamentalists might say that when people are afraid to die it’s because their beliefs are not strong enough.
Yet, given that fear of death is endemic in our society — and perhaps in most cultures, see Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death; given that fear infects the very air we breathe and that the fear of death underlies all other fears, I sense that this most primal fear cannot be overcome with any left-brained belief, no matter how strongly held.
From my own experience, I would say that what is missing is trust. Right-brained trust. Trust in the universe. Trust in the benevolence of being. Trust that anytime we fall, we land in the arms of love.