by Leatrice Asher
The way we handle pain is a good indication of how we are likely to handle our own dying—both the anticipation of it and the process itself. Like pain, death becomes troublesome only if we are not present in the reality of it.
Death is something we can, even should, be preparing for every day of our lives. Any event that is regarded as stressful is a dress rehearsal for that final physical moment, because it is an opportunity to observe what we cling to and how we feel when the object of our clinging isn’t within our reach.
This clinging—the seizing on people, objects, and events in an attempt to make them fulfill us absolutely—is the very source of our suffering. By learning to loosen our grasp on these things there will be less tendency to succumb to fear or denial (which is often based on fear) when we have to give up that to which we are most firmly bound—the body.
The equating of death with letting go should be obvious. Whatever else we may believe about death, we can agree that the body is “let go” into the elements. After death, the “person” we knew is no longer there in the body. Death, as the ultimate act of letting go, is not only appropriate and natural, in many cultures the dying state is a confrontation with mystery, in the most auspicious sense. It is not an event to be dreaded or feared.
Death is a natural part of life. Just as our bodies continually change—old skin is sloughed off, cells are replaced over and over—eventually the body itself becomes obsolete, unable to function as a vehicle through which we can thrive and grow. We can easily observe that each death is not a matter of cosmic significance. Death occurs around us at every moment. (Consider what happens to organisms at a microscopic level!) And yet renewal and rebirth are an equally constant feature of this world. In fact, it is impossible to imagine this continuous dynamic state of renewal if death did not exist. (To give one example in nature: almost everyone who has ever seen the apparently total devastation caused by a major forest fire, and then come back a few years later to the same location, has experienced amazement at how much new life has come up—often far more than had existed there before the fire.)
By letting go—in our dying and in our living—we can feel more at one with this natural process of recycling or rebirthing at the level of the human spirit, and more able to benefit from the experiences given to us in our final days and moments in this body. If we go further and recognize our death as simply a phase of the ongoing cycle, which is our own conscious adventure, then there is even more reason to see the wisdom of letting go. For one thing, accepting death as a completely natural permissible part of life is to put it into a relaxed context—one that we need not fight against or turn away from. Also, as many sacred teachings and practices from many parts of the world indicate, relaxation into our own death makes the process itself easier and more auspicious—not unlike relaxing into childbirth.
The kind of death we have, and the kind of death others have, is in part determined not only by the beliefs of the dying person but by the beliefs that are communicated (however subtly) by others who are associated with the person at this time. One who has not faced up to his or her own mortality in the body, or who feels uncomfortable with it, will likely not be able to present a calm, available, reassuring presence to the one who is dying. Sometimes such individuals’ discomfort with the death process (or with the idea of death) is so extreme that they avoid seeing the dying person altogether—even if this person is a spouse, family member or intimate friend. This underscores how critical it is that we come to understand those things we fear—pain, illness, our own death, and the loss of others—and, through this new understanding, change the way we relate to those things.
We experience and survive countless little “deaths” throughout our lives. Each time we encounter some great difficulty we are faced with what often feels like the threat of extinction; if not of our physical existence, at least of all that is familiar and known to us. We tend to lose our bearings when we are separated from those people and things that are familiar and dear to us—losing a job, the end of a marriage or relationship, estrangement from a child or parent. Our self-definition is tied to these things, so we often feel our very existence is threatened when they change. If you have experienced this feeling and did not offer any opposition or resistance to it it is likely that you actually have less fear of death, less need to fabricate a false sense of comfort, because you have already had the direct experience of prevailing through those mini-deaths. Annihilation is probably the greatest fear of humankind.
Death: Staying Awake for It
It goes without saying that death and dying would be easier with more universal understanding that when the Doer exits the body there is a continuing journey that begins. But more exposure to death would also be helpful. Usually we are estranged from participation in this rite of passage because most people die in hospitals where, as soon as they take their last breath, they are tagged and put into cold storage until burial. This procedure has become the norm because most people want it that way. In other words, the reason so many agree to this is because, when all is said and done, we want death quickly removed from view because it frightens us.
In times past, people of this country were not so far removed from death. Those close to the deceased often attended to the preparations for burial, such as washing and dressing the body. Oftentimes a family member made the coffin. Today, we hire professionals to do just about everything—from the growing and preparation of food to the care of our children to the manufacture of clothing—and, of course, taking care of the whole messy process surrounding death. As with so many things in our high-tech lives, it has simply become easier to hand over the responsibilities of taking care of the newly departed to someone else. But to forgo participation in this natural process is to deny ourselves the gift of dealing with death, at an incalculable cost to our own growth and even our very humanity.
In many cultures death and pain are faced every day more starkly than we can imagine. One summer I took my then 13-year-old daughter and her friend to a resort in a rural area of the Yucatan in Mexico. The road into and out of the compound where we were staying was bordered on one side by a densely forested area that, I had been told, was the habitat for dangerous or potentially lethal snakes, insects and other small animals. When making excursions into the small village we would often see personnel from the villa where we were staying walking into this very area. Curious, one day I asked our driver why these people would chance walking there if it was so dangerous. His reply was that it was simply the shortest way for them to get home. He further explained that, having lived all of their lives in these surroundings, the possibility of encountering harm would not be a concern. Upon further questioning, I learned that a few people actually had died from choosing this route. But danger was obviously not something these people avoided at all costs; it was a part of their landscape, as natural as traffic is to us. (Interestingly, our perceptions of danger are very selective. We may feel great trepidation crossing a field of snakes, yet don’t think twice about getting in our car, even though automobile accidents are by far the most frequent “unnatural” cause of death.)
In our modern-day culture we seem to have refined ourselves to the point that we can no longer tolerate any danger or rough edges (excepting those that we have been able to selectively eliminate from our awareness, such as the perils of automobile driving). This is unfortunate because it is often those rough, even dangerous patches of life that are the environment where we test ourselves in necessary ways. Of course, we have not really made ourselves all that safe; we have merely created a culture where, rather than accepting the inherent dangers in life and acknowledging our vulnerability, we drive these things out of mind. We become unnaturally fearful of certain things and blissfully ignorant of others. About death and our inherently vulnerable state in the universe, it seems we are willfully ignorant in our efforts to hide our underlying fear from ourselves. But anything we refuse to face will break us while anything we face courageously and fully will strengthen us. The terrorist attacks on the U.S. have probably contributed to a more dramatic change in the Western mental landscape about “danger” and death than anything most of our populace has experienced to date.
In the Buddhist tradition, death is not regarded as the end but as a passing, so effort is made to assist the dying, both during and after death, with that passage. When death occurs the body is left untouched for three days in the belief that the departing entity is still connected with the material world during this time. Attempts are made to speak to that entity and assist it on its journey. (These practices are explained and codified in The Tibetan Book of the Dead— a manual for living and dying.)
Many years ago, when I was living in a Buddhist monastic community, I had the privilege of helping to care for a dear friend who was in a terminal state. I was with him daily during the months preceding his death and I was also alone with him at the moment of his final breath. I would like to recount what then took place because I think it a departure from the usual manner in which our culture deals with death. Because he died at home, those of us who had been close to him during the months before his death were able to then attend to his body in an unhurried fashion and in the manner we chose (which had been discussed with him in his final, more lucid days), which included washing the body. His body was then covered with a sheet and left in the room where he had been cared for, and died, with the window open wide to the apple tree in full bloom outside. Flowers were placed everywhere about the room. Incense burned continually. Friends and relatives visited during the three-day period. My children, who were three and nine at the time, also came to say their farewell. Although they were told the circumstances before they arrived, my daughter told me years later that she didn’t know that he was dead until she actually touched him. This provided her with a straightforward and palpable experience of death alongside an eloquent homage and farewell to the passing of a life. (One of the most destructive things we can do is shield children from the reality of death. The very best time to allow correct information to reach their consciousness is when they are young and without the cultural taboos and inhibitions that later cloud our perception of death.) Here, also, one could witness exactly what remains when life leaves a body. Embalming may tidy death up for us but it also further removes us from the rugged and powerful actuality of it. On the fourth day his body was taken to a crematorium. We had covered the plank where he had been placed with every kind of flower in bloom outside the house. At the crematorium we were permitted to view the furnace that was ready for the body to be incinerated. We then went outside and sat on the lawn and watched the smoke that was his body billow from the chimney. The bone fragments that remained were, at a later date, placed in the ground in a Buddhist ceremony with friends and family.
This account may fly in the face of what many people consider “proper” behavior around the deceased but I feel that this form of acknowledgment can be very meaningful, not only for the survivors, but for the dying individual. The sense of non-estrangement and fullness that each person feels is in sharp contrast to the empty sense of loss and taboo against proper grieving that surrounds our culture of death. This is an example of how it’s possible to honor and commemorate that important passage. It also allows those close to the deceased to directly witness and participate in his or her final moments.
The death of someone close to us can be a stark and raw experience that tests us in many ways. We can begin to assuage the pain that may accompany this experience by changing our relationship to that pain. As we come to recognize the self that is the real life force of the body we take the first step to change that relationship. With this understanding death becomes, like sleep, a time of rest and renewal rather than a final ending.
Another means of transforming the pain of death is to remind ourselves that the time, manner and circumstances that surround it are simply another appropriate and reasonable manifestation of the outworkings of our thoughts and actions. And, in this respect, it is not fundamentally different from any other event in life. Not only are those particulars germane to the lessons of the departed, they also have relevance for anyone whose life is entwined with that person and who will be affected by the manner and circumstances of their departure.
Just because we better understand death doesn’t mean we will no longer grieve it. Sadness at the departure of a loved one is not unhealthy. Grief can be purifying. But if those feelings are denied they will likely find their way into our lives again. When we feel the pain, while understanding we are responding to sensations, we increase the likelihood of penetrating that which stands behind the pain; in other words, we make sense of it. This puts us in command of our faculties rather than a victim of them. We have the ability to free ourselves from doubt, soothe our disquietude and bring composure, comprehension and order to our skepticism and confusion.
I have been near death three times in my life and was given the “Last Rites” twice—as an infant and also later in my childhood. I mention this because throughout my growing years no one ever spoke to me about this, except to reluctantly acknowledge, when I asked, that yes, I had been near death twice. In our family death was a word that was not spoken without someone crossing themselves in the Catholic tradition. The very mention of death was cause for a quick change of subject, as if an unspoken code had been violated by just the utterance of this dreadful and abhorrent word. I remember my mother scolding me or one of my siblings whenever we mentioned death, or even skirted close to the subject of dying. “Don’t talk like that,” she would say, and the tone of her voice communicated to us that death was not only taboo, but also the worst thing one could possibly experience. This illustrates how much fear and uncertainty exists around death, so much so that we can’t even talk simply and honestly about this natural event.
I think that growing up amid this shroud of secrecy, repugnance and denial around death, and also not being able to put my own near-death experiences into a larger understanding, actually helped push me in a direction where I needed to understand death better. It became an absolute necessity for me to try to find out what was so loathsome about death that it elicited such an extreme response from those around me.
We are in a process of eternal and continuing ripening. The dying of our death is also the unfolding of our particular story. If we don’t consider it as such we will not want to stay awake for it. Perhaps this is one reason why drugs are so routinely administered to the terminally ill, not just to ease pain, but to palliate our awareness of what is transpiring as well. It’s like Woody Allen said: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But death happens to everyone, and that is a reality that drugs cannot alter. Renewal will take place regardless. The more we can be participants in our dying, the better.
Suicide: The Illusion of Freedom
No discussion of death is complete without acknowledging that one’s own life can be taken voluntarily, and that in circumstances of extreme physical, mental or emotional pain, the urge to suicide can be overwhelming. Similarly, friends may find this solution to be preferable to the alternative of intense suffering. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are increasingly viewed as humane alternatives to many different forms of suffering. But if life is difficult, our pain immense, it would be imperative to ask what role our thinking plays in this. Are we still not responsible for all of the products of our thinking? Does killing ourselves mitigate the circumstances that were ours to confront? Our body is only the external manifestation of our being. Killing it does not free us from those lessons. Sometimes suicide is opted for as a way to say “no” to the manner and circumstances of the death that is ours to die. Once again, intentionally killing the body may give the illusion that we have skirted around the pain connected to that death, but it does not mean that we are then absolved of the lesson death had in store for us. We know that the greater the resistance the more intense the lesson becomes as it takes on the added strength and power of that withholding.
The pain of our dying often seems larger than we are and we don’t like what we feel we cannot control. Perhaps suicide gives us the illusion of being in control. But the ability to surrender, to be willing to give up that control and offer ourselves to a greater wisdom is itself a lesson of dying. The particular circumstances that we find so objectionable that we want to kill ourselves may not change; but we can change. To opt for death prematurely is to be deprived of this momentous opportunity. If someone has told you that you should never have to suffer, be suspicious. Suffering is not some random helter-skelter turmoil that managed to wrangle its way into our lives. A large part of suffering is what we do when we think we cannot handle our life!
The desire to be free of the physical pain of a broken arm, the emotional distress of an aging body or angst about death, clearly illustrate our inability to accept change. Aging, in particular, is something many people fear and abhor. Nowhere is the natural and necessary process of aging more reviled than in our Western culture. Many other cultures celebrate the changes that accompany aging, the wisdom that can accumulate from so many years of experiences, even the delicate beauty in a body that grows old gracefully. We in the West, however, tend to think aging is our nemesis and will use any means possible to retard it. But what we are and the kind of body we have at twenty, forty and eighty are all necessary experiences relevant to our growth. When we lie to ourselves about these changes by trying to configure our body into what it was in the past, and then pretend that we are that twenty or thirty-year-old person, we are also in all likelihood living a pretense at deeper levels as well. Keep in mind that if your body, which is the vehicle by which you present yourself to others and even to yourself, is lying, you probably are too. And most importantly, you are lying to yourself. The tragedy is not just the peculiarity of the plasticized facade, but that we suspend our inner development and preparation for the continuing passages in our life—including death.
An acquaintance once told me that he would rather die early than age. This attitude must affect his relationship with his parents as well as with a large segment of the population he passes on the street. (Does he actually revile all these people who are aging before his eyes?) And what kind of message are we communicating to youth, that we idolize them and hate ourselves? That we think there is something abnormal about the way a person looks after age twenty? That we essentially are our bodies . . . and nothing more? No wonder we hate aging: If we believe that we are only our bodies then aging is only bad news! If we have not matured beyond the level of a twenty-year-old because we have not worked on ourselves (beyond the stage of trying to improve our bodies or our abilities), then by the time we’re fifty or eighty we will still feel like a twenty-year-old—a dreadfully aging twenty-year-old!
To try to arrest the course of nature in our bodies is like putting plastic flowers in the planter box when the natural blooms start to fade. It’s our thinking that creates the nuances of our physical form, including the need to age—and die. If we want to change that process the best way to do so is to direct our attention to developing a balanced state of being. Our thinking created the form of our present state of being, including all our lines and furrows. Our attempts to alter that process from the “outside” only distances us further from the truth of ourselves. If we can only love and appreciate life when it’s in its youthful vigor we will not unfold into our fullness, and we will not comprehend the cyclical nature of life. We will remain half-developed, an entity with no seasons. We will be immature children to our own children rather than someone they would feel like looking up to. There is value in each stage of our becoming. If we insist on denying those stages we will become alienated and estranged not only from our body, but from our inner operating system as well.
(Published in The Word magazine Summer 2011)