Our society has liberated many taboos but death still remains largely hidden away both in our society and in our minds. Yet it is one of the few certainties in our life. There are many conjectures about death and many people have written about what happens to us after death but since we have not travelled that journey ourselves we cannot know for certain who is right and who is wrong. People often think of the Tibetan Book of the Dead when it comes to Buddhist thought on death but for us on this side of the great divide it can only be conjecture. Some of us have had a close brush with death in some form or another; be it a life threatening accident or illness; but we have survived and whatever our experiences it was not the finality of actual death. Perhaps, however, it has served to make us aware of our mortality and the fragility of our human life.
It is, I think, no bad thing to contemplate the fact of our eventual death even if we hope to live a long and active life before we reach that moment. What can we know about death and how can we prepare for that moment? What does the fact of death have to tell us about our life?
Some of us have found ourselves in the position of supporting someone through the dying process and I can say, that for myself, it has been an awesome and demanding privilege to do this even if it has been personally very instructive. Observation of the process of dying, especially of someone who goes through the process as a result of age and slow degeneration of the natural functions, reveals a lot and the following thoughts of mine reflect Buddhist teachings on this subject. We can see that as things fall away they are not anything that will survive death. The body certainly goes, it is easy to see that is not us. The deterioration of the mind is a harder thing to accept. With an illness like Altziemers we can see that the personality, our memories, our mental abilities are all just functions of the brain. As the brain, the physical organ, breaks down so the mind goes with it. The best Buddhist teaching directs us to see in this that all we think of as ourselves, which they call ego, is just an illusion, like a picture on a television screen. When the set is switched off the whole drama of that self just stops. That which is real, that which is eternal, is not personal. The awareness, or basic consciousness, on which our lives are projected has no characteristics, it is of a universal function like time or space, of which we are one temporary instance.
This is not easy to understand or experience but once we live in that truth the worries of the world fall into place and our knowledge of our oneness with all things expresses itself as natural compassion.
You may have noticed that this article on dying starts where the previous one of exploring the spiritual life ended and that is not without reason for the qualities that we develop in life are the very ones that we will bring to our death. And the first thing we have to recognise is the unreal quality of our ego, our sense of individual self.
Seen in this light our death tells us that we are one with all things and that we are no better than our neighbour, or indeed any living thing. This compassionate view of the universe must inevitably lead us to try and practice virtuous behaviour. As time goes by we find ever new ways to help others and as we find out more about ourselves and the depth of illusion in which we live and the pain that it brings us we become more skilled in our practice of compassion.
This mindfulness and awareness will gradually make us more peaceful in our life and eventually in our death. It can only be good to come to death not with the dubious bravado of being able to say, ‘I did it my way.’ But rather with the quiet knowledge of who you truly are.
And finally we can see that in order to practice in this way we need to develop a strong determination so as not to be knocked off course by life’s unruly waves and storms. This determination can be built up by regularly reminding ourselves of the fundamentals of existence, meeting with good people who are travelling the same path (But not to the exclusion of people in every state of existence), reading and studying the way and meditating on our basic awareness. That sort of meditation, which entails resting in Being and allowing the mind it’s freedom to Be, rather than trying to force the mind into some state of reverence or ecstasy, is death of Ego itself, which is ultimately the only thing that will die.
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