Death is a part of life. Yet we spend much of our lives dancing around this truth and denying it. The Yoga Sutras speak to this natural human tendency in describing the five afflictions (kleshas), one of which is a fear of death (abhinivesah):
2.9 Even for those people who are learned, there is an ever-flowing, firmly established love for continuation and a fear of cessation, or death.
(sva-rasa-vahi vidushah api tatha rudhah abhiniveshah)
The ever-flowing and firmly established love for continuation is a part of who we are, yet when we are attached to it we suffer. To relieve this suffering we can balance this natural tendency with an understanding that everything arises, exists and passes away. Practicing establishing our awareness in impermanence (anitya), or the quality of momentariness, builds our capacity for moving through life in a more easeful and present manner.
Our natural human tendency of avoiding impermanence and mortality has become culturalized. We are constantly exposed to a deification of youth and ever-lasting freshness as the ideal, and are encouraged to avoid the inevitable by purchasing a slew of anti-aging products. More subtly, many of us are robbed of the necessary and healthy opportunity to witness death as cremation and closed casket funerals have become the standard norm. My father died when I was 16 years old and I never saw his body in death. For me this created a strange sense that he just “went away”. I never had the opportunity to sit in the face of this challenging truth that he had died. I was aided and abetted in my avoidance and dissociation. For me this triggered a pattern of using substances and projections to avoid the pain of the present moment at all costs. It has taken years and lots of practice for me to understand this and begin to unwind that pattern.
This month I have been unexpectedly dancing with death and sitting with all of the feelings this dance elicits. On January 21st a mentor and friend, Arin Trook was suddenly killed in an avalanche. The shock of learning this news and the knowledge that Arin is no longer physically on the planet was devastating. I experienced strong anger, bewilderment and an ocean of sadness for the loss of such a bright human. As I sat with it longer on some level a sense of calm came to me. This was due in large part to the fact that Arin had a very strong spiritual practice and was an incredible yogi. Some would argue that all spiritual practice is preparing us for a graceful death. If that is the case, then Arin of all people was as prepared as one could be.
The morning that Arin died, and before I knew, I met another teacher. His eyes sparked vitality and an invitation to fully experience the moment. I felt inspired and comfortable in his company. We were participating in a workshop together, and the following evening we were invited to share the dharma that we are dancing with in our lives at a personal level. He began his share with the words; “I’m dying”. A shockwave of ice cold went through my chest. In full presence I listened to his sharing about having rare and aggressive Stage 4 cancer. I noted two things in myself; a fear around how to dance with this information and this person, and a desire to dive into relationship with it and with him. After the session I inquired if we could walk together and this evolved into open chatting, laughing and deep sharing. I am grateful to have met another great teacher and to have the opportunity to practice being fully present with him without clinging to the illusion that he will be here forever. None of us will. Buddhism reminds us that “Death is certain, time of death is uncertain.” How do we live more fully in this truth moment to moment?! Life seems to give us the lessons and teachers we need at just the right junctures.
My new friend’s words “I’m dying”, are true for all of us. Yet he is facing them in a very immediate and tangible way and doing so with courage and authenticity. For me this is uncharted territory, and I am completely humbled by the immensity of this dance. May we all have such strength and surrender as we dance with the truth of our own impermanence. May we all deeply savor and celebrate each breath of life as a passing and brilliant gift.
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.