Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Death: the Key to the Door of Life

--by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (Nov 16, 2009)

There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are. Every individual human being born on this earth has the capacity to become a unique and special person unlike any who has ever existed before or will ever exist again. But to the extent that we become captives of culturally defined role expectations and behaviors – stereotypes, not ourselves, -- we block our capacity of self-actualization. We interfere with our becoming all that we can be.

Death is the key to the door of life. It is through accepting the finiteness of our individual existences that we are enabled to find the strength and courage to reject those extrinsic roles and expectations and to devote each day of our lives – however long they may be – to growing as fully as we are able. We must learn to draw on our inner resources, to define ourselves in terms of the feedback we receive from our own internal valuing system rather than trying to fit ourselves into some illfitting stereotyped role.

It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and meanwhile, each day is lost. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings. […]

Use this growth not selfishly, but rather in service of what may be, in the future tide of time. Never allow a day to pass that did not add to what was understood before. Let each day be a stone in the path of growth. Do not rest until what was intended has been done. But remember – go as slowly as is necessary in order to sustain a steady pace; do not expend energy in waste. Finally, do not allow the illusory urgencies of the immediate to distract you from your vision of the eternal.

--Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, from "Death: The Final Stage of Growth"

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Previous Reflections:

On Nov 16, 2009 Naumadd wrote:

I've always rejected and will always reject the idea that life acquires its value or acquires more value because it comes to an end. This is like saying the sports car is valuable because it runs out of gas, breaks down, rusts and whithers away. No. The sports car is valuable for what it is and can do rather for the fact it will at some point lose that existence and abilities.

Sunsets are wonderful not because they end because they ARE sunsets and affect us in a particular way damned near every time we see one. We react to flowers because of what they ARE rather than the fact they whither. The apple is sweet because it IS sweet and delicious, NOT because it will sour and rot. The same is true of a human being and of anything that's living - we are valuable or acquire value because of what we ARE and what we can DO, or say or may do or say in the future. If our value or the value of life was derived from the fact of death, it would stand to reason we could increase our own value or the value of another simply by accelerating toward that moment of death. A healthy man would be nowhere near as valuable as the man bleeding profusely. The healthy woman nowhere near as valuable as she dying of cancer.

Focus on death as the root of value, in fact, decreases life's value rather than the reverse. Sure, knowing that death is or is almost a certainty establishes a timeline for planning and or deciding what can and cannot be fit into that period of time (roughly 100 years or less), but the timeline itself doesn't give life its value. It is the specific experiences of life, the explorations and discoveries, the knowledges and understandings and wisdoms acquired, the talents, the skills, the insights, the pleasures, the chances to create something that has never existed before - THESE are the values in life, these are the wonders, the awe, the miracles that make life such an incredible adventure EVEN if life has no end and, it is my belief, that longer life equates to MORE value than less. After all, additional time to live means additional experiences, additional opportunity to live what has no already been lived.

Naumaddic Pieces

On Nov 17, 2009 Danny wrote:

I have a dream want to live in the countryside in America and enjoy peaceful moments in rest of my lifetime.

Time past so fast and i do not know if i can realize my dream again.


On Nov 18, 2009 Patsy wrote:

This is wonderfully put. While there is certainly nothing wrong with planning and thinking of the future, the knowlege that there may not be one after today can be beneficial. The acceptance of the impermanance of our life removes fear; it removes the need to control; it can even lift depression.

You just don't know what will happen until it does. Really! Every day, every moment anything can happen. This should be a cause for openminded anticipation, not fear. When death is not feared, what is left to be afraid of? How freeing this is! How easy now to put every aggravation or disappointment into perspective, also each joy and success. Ah, yes, fear not!

On Nov 18, 2009 nuschke wrote:

re Naumadd's comments.

I think your ideas and the blurb from Kubler-Ross are not in actual opposition.

Another way to express the point is to say that we tend to carry an unconscious, general attitude of "eternalism" - i.e. we don't live as if life will end.   Because we don't have a sense of impermanance (which is an accurate, true sense/view), we do not fully experience our lives, see the sunset, taste the apple.  Rather, we experience through a cloud of conception, that worries about the past and future.

So fully tasting the apple or seeing the sunset is the same as experiencing life from the insight/view of impermanence.  Just two ways of saying the same thing.

So it is not a "focus on death" but a relinquishment of the cacoon of eternalism that I think is the point.


On Nov 20, 2009 Somik Raha wrote:

This Wednesday was rather special - a smaller group with deeper reflections. A different vibe was in the air.

The passage sparked several thoughts. A teacher once said, "Real death is when you forget yourself." 
Medical science has now shown that my body right now has no cell in it that existed prior to seven years. There is constant birth and death within my own body, and this will continue even after "death" happens to my body. If I am cremated and the ashes immersed in a river, the fishes will be served by them. And if I am buried, then the worms will be nourished. Either way, my cells will help in the procreation of other species and this incessant cycle of life and death will continue. And yet, I live with no awareness of this tremendous phenomenon.
A wise king was once asked what the most wonderful thing on this planet was. He replied, "People are dying everyday, and yet they think that they will never die." Some call this confusion Maya. This confusion wreaks havoc in our lives. We extend the confusion of our own mortality to others, by forgetting that they are mortal too. If everyone is here a short time, why expend hatred or anger? Why waste time with grudges? Why not just love? 
The confusion also extends to my creations. When I am mortal, and so are the things I use to create, then how can I expect my creations to be immortal? And yet, "sustainability" is an important idea in our society, which gets taken to obscene levels with the notion of "too big to fail." We act with great fear of death and cannot imagine what will happen if the world around us changes. Well, the world will change inspite of our best efforts.
How do I stay out of this confusion? One method I've found useful to imagine what it would be like if I were immortal. The thought disgusts me. I would know more than I'd ever care to know. I would have an advantage over others that I don't want. I would take up resources that could have gone to others, and suck out space from newer and fresher perspectives on account of my age. I would see all my loved ones die in front of me, and never have someone who would live to miss me. Now, what if everyone else was immortal too. That is as close to the idea of hell that I can get. Very quickly, we'd use up this planet's resources, cause stagnation, and only spread misery around us. After picturing all this, I am so utterly grateful that I will die. And I am very happy that no one one this planet will be subjected to the torments of immortality.
This reflection is not unique to me, but really is ageless. The mythology that surrounds Alexander the Great has it that when he was in India, he found the river of immortality. Just as he was about to drink from it, a bird on the perch of a tree called out to him, "O fool, wait before you drink." When Alexander looked up, the bird narrated how it had made the mistake of becoming immortal. No fire would burn it, no sword would cut it, and it had tried unsuccessfully to end its life, but could not, for the rest of time. The enormity of this curse struck Alexander, and he refrained from drinking the water. The same sentiment lies behind this myth.
I liked Viral's emphasis on the ending of this passage, that although we have to be mindful of the fact that we are mortal, we have to go slow. I may be hurtling toward my own death, but I have time, for time is a construct of my mind. This connects beautifully with last week's passage, The Problem of Time.
After we went around the group, I was deeply inspired by the personal stories shared by many members. Many thoughts were sparked.
Different cultures have a different take on death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that death is not a single point as we would consider, but a process that takes a while. Well, we are living and dying right now. Tibetan and Hindu philosophy both caution us from mourning when someone is passing on. They exhort us instead to create a powerful and holy atmosphere, where the one who is passing on is reminded of the important, and is sent off with love, strength and courage. When growing up, my father used to tell me that it was important not to be sad, as the soul who has passed would feel my pain and would be deeply pained. Whether this is true or not, what is certainly true is that my sorrow would affect those in front of me. The source of my sorrow is the love I have received from the one who has departed. Then, why not pay it forward to those around, by reminding them of the importance of this love, loving them in that moment, and wishing the universe the very best?
This is all easy to say, and there is more to it. When my grandfather was passing, my father's instruction was foremost, and as that was the first death which I saw at close quarters, I assumed it was the norm to do what my father had instructed. I felt no sorrow at all. Somehow, I knew for sure that his time had come. And two days before he died, while he still had some level of consciousness in the hospital, I was deeply concerned that he should remember who he was. So, I whispered in his ear that he should prepare himself. When we brought his body back, on one end, my father stood in an ocean of calm, absorbed in the chants of freedom that were sung, while my mother had completely broken down. She had always connected with her father-in-law as her own father. For a long time, I thought it was her weakness. But now I know that it was her humanity. And I am so grateful that she is the way she is, and that my father is the way he is.
Death connects us with our own humanity. The other day, I was on the phone with someone who had tragically lost her brother. Before taking the call, I told my wife about it as I'd known this earlier. She heard only my end of the conversation as I listened, and responded to the space I was in. After I hung up, I looked at her and saw that she was in tears. Death had overcome incomplete information, and connected my wife to the pain of someone she did not know and would probably never meet. I felt blessed to see those tears, remembering my own humanity.

On Feb 11, 2012 joy wrote:
 from the first book of hers I read when it first came out, I knew I'd found a teacher. It helped me greatly in my private work with the dying and their families. I wish to express my life long gratitude for her teachings....
'today is a good day to die!'

On Apr 5, 2013 Amy wrote:

 I am with Joy!  Thank you for this read!  
That I may follow . . .