Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Reader comment on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's passage ...

Death: the Key to the Door of Life

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.

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