by The High Priest of Prickly Bog
As we get older, we all start having thoughts about approaching the latter part of our lives. This essay is inspired by some of the conversations I have had recently with friends and family. For me the subject is not so much about dying as it is about understanding reality to start with. My intent here is to replace the "scary" stereotype of death, and its comfortless and gloomy stigma, with a more balanced and satisfying evaluation of it's true nature.
I have broken this subject down into these following categories
1. How we perceive our life.
2. The judgements that we make about our reality.
3. So what are we frightened of.
1. How we perceive our life.
In order to think of death in the way that most people do, we are usually required to accept the material substantiality of life. Here we all are, our bodies are living solid objects, that breathe and think and have experiences. And although we think of our material bodies as real (along with all those other material things: our house, our car, our country, our army) we do not usually consider the experiences we have as quite as real or material. Love, art, thoughts, ideas and feelings… these things we consider conceptual, somehow… non-material. And we rarely acknowledge that without these conceptual processes we would not be able to experience that which we call material.
In addition, most of us believe strongly that there are such a things as good, and evil. And even though these are really conceptual ideas, we often treat them as if they belong in the "material" category.
This belief system tends to lock us into a view of life that is very concrete and brittle, and doesn't respond well to change. It doesn't allow us to think in a flexible way and live harmoniously with the flow of events that naturally surround us. We have the need to control things that we actually cannot control. We cling to the concepts that have been ingrained into us by our families or our culture, and we find it difficult to accept concepts that we are not familiar with.
For these reasons among others, death – which we cannot help but believe will change every material things that we cling to – is, to most of us anyway, a particularly uncomfortable thought. It doesn't help to know that, in the final reckoning, it is an experience that not one of us will escape.
How could it not be uncomfortable to believe that all these familiar concrete structures that are so much part of our existence will one day come tumbling down, and all the beliefs that we presently hold so dear may stand for nothing anymore? We wonder what will become of us after death. All we have ever known is life. What will we have to hold on to? We imagine a dark place with no material things. A place where we have lost everything and everyone, and where we will yearn for only one thing… to be back here. We imagine that the transition from life to death will be a painful and horrifying experience, or at best an unpleasant one. It is a scary proposition when you look at it that way.
But perhaps there is a different way to look at it.
Firstly, let us agree that it is the way we look at life that governs the way we look at death. And let us examine how we define what is real, what is material, what is conceptual.
Modern science tells us that light is nothing more than a series of vibratory patterns, which do not actually have any visual significance until our brain assigns a value to them. This is also true for sound. So in other words, things don't really look like anything, or sound like anything until we make a subjective evaluation every time we hear a piece of music or look at a work of art. Whoever it was that said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," must have been a scientist.
What about the solid objects around us, then? Are tables and chairs nothing more than a subjective experience? Perhaps. Well, we know that atoms are more than ninety-nine per cent empty space, which means that every solid object made up of atoms must be equally empty. Things are definitely not what they seem.
On the other hand, if somebody takes a swing at my head with a baseball bat I will duck, because if it makes contact I'll definitely have an experience of it. Hmmm… the experience of pain is very real, but my definition of reality regarding the baseball bat itself has been called into question by this "ninety-nine percent empty" thing.
So the perception of the solidity of objects is really very dependent upon our experience of them. We need to be able to categorize the building blocks of our reality in order to deal with them every day. So we create a sort of easily digestible metaphor that simplifies the nature of reality. An operating system, if you will. A Mac OSX, or a Windows, which brings color and graphics to allow a bunch of numbers and codes and wavelengths to be experienced in a more "user friendly environment." Some scientists believe that even the core elements of an atom… the electrons, neutrons and protons, are not solid, but more wave-like in their structure. So perhaps there is no such thing as a solid object.
Yes the pain of being hit with a baseball bat is real, and so is the bat, and so are we… but not material in the way we usually think of it. It is easier for us to see a table than to see a collection of trillions of spinning atoms, and so we create a metaphor of solidity to explain the connection we feel with other things when we touch them. We humans love metaphors, and we have got into the habit of using them, not only to describe events that are hard to understand, but also to perceive every aspect of our lives, including our feelings and our experiences.
In light of these facts, is it so hard to believe that the way in which we look at things is what makes them seem the way they are. Each of us have our own metaphors, our own operating system (no two exactly alike), mostly as a result of how we have been programmed by our parents, our teachers, our friends – and our enemies – to view this life we're in. All the good experiences of life, and all the bad ones are nothing more than a carrot and a stick to drive us in the direction that we are going. A set of rules and restrictions that define the boundaries of an elaborate competition we are striving to win. Yes, it is a game of sorts. A game for which we can see no choice but to play.
But there is a choice.
It becomes easier to evaluate our choices when we can actually witness the game going on around us. There are many ways to do this. The School of Practical Philosophy teaches a method called the "reflective practice" which requires us to sit down and witness what is actually around us. It doesn't break down the metaphor of solidity, but it allows us to just accept what is… without infusing our reality with previously held judgments. It's amazing how different things start to look when we see them with a different eye. Of course other organizations have different meditations on similar subjects, the point being that there are plenty of ways to take ourselves (mentally) out of the game in order to be able to grasp the nature of our reality more clearly.
And if we do take the time to begin shedding some of these pre-existing beliefs we hold, and start to view each moment with an unbiased eye (or as much as that is possible), what we start to see… is that life – just like all the material reality it contains – is more than ninety-nine per cent empty space.
For some people, that in itself is a scary thought because, just like the idea of death, it topples all the structures of our belief, and appears to leave us with nothing to hold on to. But space is actually a great thing to have. It leaves us the room to think in the many different ways that it is necessary to think when reality hits us with its many different baseball bats. It lets us realize that we don't actually need anything to hold on to, that we will be safe floating within the fluid structure of our existence. It allows us the freedom of movement to be agile and navigate the zigs and zags of this game we suddenly realize that we have been playing all along, floating within the constantly changing reality around us. And as a result, we start to see that all the fears, and all the tribulations, and all the competitiveness that we have indulged in throughout our lives were just an unnecessary part of this game that we were led to believe was life.
To have achieved that awareness is a liberating and blissful experience. No one can take anything from the permanent you. Only the temporary you will change, and that has been doing so all along. Take a look in the mirror. Death is nothing more than the loss of one particular metaphor. You will find many more.
2. The judgements that we make about our reality.
Most of us have spent a lot of time thinking about what we believe to be right, and what we believe to be wrong, we have had those concepts forced into our brains since early childhood by well meaning adults – and, of course, a moral code is a very necessary thing in life for many reasons. But an inflexible morality can become problematic when the reasons for our belief in what is right and wrong are unclear or confused with other subconscious reasons, such as personal advantage or denial of painful memories.
When our judgments are locked dogmatically we tend to believe that right and wrong are constants, that the opposite of what is right must by definition be wrong. But that means we have actually stopped using our judgment. We have given ourselves permission to no longer have to think about it any more. It's all settled, and that's all there is to it!
Trouble is, that like everything else in reality, what's right and what's wrong are very subjective viewpoints, and judgment is a thing that needs to be flexible. It needs to be updated regularly, and exercised and tested as new situations call for it. No two people in the world will agree on everything, and most people disagree on most things. Dogmatic and inflexible judgment is most likely to result in the demonization of others, and quite often in the demonization of ourselves.
Certainly most people are aware of how the dogmatic moralities of certain religious groups around the world cause them to demonize other groups. But demonize ourselves? Why would we do that?
Well, we don't do it consciously of course, but we all do it to some extent. We all have that little voice inside us that was implanted by some moral authority way back there somewhere in our past, who either approves or disapproves of every little thing we do. And needless to say, there are some things we do that are found wanting by that measure. These may be things that we do regularly, but feel conflicted about. We don't want to stop doing them, but somewhere deep inside we believe it is wrong to do them. So somewhere inside, that little voice… which is ultimately our own voice, is making negative judgments about us.
But the trouble is, that by judging our own actions in a negative light, we make it more difficult for ourselves to engage thoughts about our past mistakes. We will often glance quickly at our failures, and turn away just as quickly, because we are worried that if we examine our past too carefully, we might see something that we have a negative judgment about. We might even say this to ourselves, "What I did wasn't so bad… no worse than what others have done," but in doing so, we don't allow ourselves to delve deeper into what we really believe we are capable of. We compare ourselves with the people around us in order to justify behavior that we otherwise may not feel comfortable with. And in this way we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. As a result we get into a spiral of making the same mistakes over and over again, and denying to ourselves that we have a problem with it.
How helpful would it be if we could disconnect ourselves from this outside world of judgment, that has impregnated us so deeply that now our inner world is also saturated with judgment? Worse still… it is unconscious judgment. We don't realize we are doing it half the time, and even when we do, we don't realize why we are doing it. And we don't realize that it keeps us from thinking about things in a fresh and undogmatic way?
Of course, disconnecting from our judgment is a lot easier said than done. We have all had a lifetime of judging things in a certain way, and we know that any real inner change takes a lot of practice and hard work. But perhaps the work is worth the payoff. There is a feeling of bliss in discovering that we don't have to be the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong all the time (that in itself is a terribly hard job – with very little payoff). And now we won't have to hide things from ourselves any more. It is a lot easier to know who we are when we don't make judgments about ourselves. We can free up the internal flow of information and get to know ourselves a little better.
Perhaps we have done things that we don't really want to acknowledge – even to ourselves, but that's okay… so has everyone else. And anyway,we don't have to tell anybody else… just admit it to ourselves – we are playing to a very sympathetic audience. But acknowledging those things allows us to get over the stigma of our own judgment and move on.
There is another advantage to this: if we can learn not to judge ourselves so strictly, we may find that we are not judging others as much either. We may discover that other people are not as bad as we sometimes like to think. Just like us, they are going through their own troubles. And seeing others as much more like ourselves helps to make the world a better place, at least according to our perception of it. And after all, what is reality but our perception of it?
So what all this got to do with death?
Well, I am not suggesting these things from a perspective of morality, or because it makes us "nice people" to behave in such a way. In fact, I am suggesting that we stop thinking about morality altogether, as it tends to make us more judgmental. I am simply attempting to determine the most expedient way in which to perceive reality with greater clarity. The judgments we have are games that the mind has created to distract us from the reality of life and death. Our purpose here is to attain greater flexibility about life and death. My Auntie Koko was a midwife who used to teach her patients a series of yoga exercises during their pregnancy. She believed that greater flexibility ensured a less traumatic birthing procedure. I believe that greater flexibility also ensures a less traumatic dying procedure.
And by flexibility I don't mean playing games with the truth. I don't mean magical thinking. This is not a religious belief system. Quite the opposite, it is about adhering faithfully to the truth… especially the truth we try to hide from ourselves. Remember, life is all about constant change, constant movement. Death is the movement from one state to another. If we cannot let go of the beliefs that hold us here, then death must be traumatic. Whereas if we are flexible about how we see things in life, then there is no reason we should not move naturally and comfortably from one state of consciousness to another.
Letting go of the beliefs we have often entails letting go of the feelings we hold deep inside of us. But we cannot let go of the feelings and the thoughts that we refuse to acknowledge. I know it seems almost contradictory to say it, but thinking the thought is letting it go. Feeling the feeling does allow it to escape. When we don't allow ourselves to feel the painful feelings within us, they are trapped within, and that is when they can do a lot of damage.
So how do we know which thoughts those are?
That's easy, they're the ones we don't want to think about.
By freeing ourselves mentally of all the unnecessary burdens that we always believed that we had to carry on our backs, we can allow ourselves to move from one state to another in a more elegant and natural manner.
3. So what are we frightened of?
So this then would be the crux of the whole problem. As F.D.R. once put it, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Why should the state that we move into, be any worse… or any better for that matter, than the one in which we find ourselves? If we are responsible for the metaphor that is our own life, then in death we are simply exchanging one metaphor for another. The reality behind these metaphors doesn't need to change. The only thing that changes is the way in which we look at it – the metaphor… the operating system. If life is nowhere near as "substantial" as it would appear to be, perhaps the idea of the structures of our reality toppling down around us, is also not as substantial as it would at first seem.
Why should it be that life and death are these two completely opposite forms? Just like good and evil, and pretty much every other thing in creation, they are most probably just subjective ways of viewing the same thing from a different viewpoint. It is our own misplaced judgment that draws lines between them. It is no one else but we who create the horrors and the beauty of life. If we could only acknowledge that, then perhaps we would be better equipped to change the things that we can change, to accept the things that we cannot, and most importantly to know the difference between the two.
Each person's subjectivity is, by definition, different from every other person's. We create our own heaven and hell, and if we're being fair about it, life is never fully either one or the other. It makes sense to assume that death will be pretty much the same in that way. It also makes sense to assume that, just like life, death will be yet another temporary form of existence.
Even the term death, therefore, seems to be a misnomer. Just another life, then. Not reincarnation, not the transubstantiation of souls… but perspective change.