“Even more than our fear of death, we have a deep fear of grief,” writes Christine Longaker. Mmmm, I thought when I read that: what makes me afraid? Some say it’s not death itself but the circumstances of dying (such as physical pain or the indignity of being helpless). Most people with whom I raise the topic (not something to make me a popular party guest) prefer not to think or talk of dying. Not unlike Woody Allen, who says that he’s not afraid of death, just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.
Most every day I meet someone who’s come face to face with impermanence; undergoing chemo-therapy for cancer or grieving the loss of a loved-one, for example. I’ve begun to train myself to face death, not by thinking about it but by investigating my felt response to the notion of its eventual demise.
Stephen Levine introduced me to the idea of “conscious living and conscious dying.” From him I take it that fear of dying may be about a feeling of being alone, about “the loneliness of our separation.”
“When we sit quietly with that loneliness and let it float in the mind it dissolves into an ‘aloneness’ which is not lonely. But is rather a recognition that we are each alone in the One. It is the great silence of the universe ‘alone’ in space. It has a wholeness about it. But to change the intense loneliness of our personal isolation into an ‘aloneness with god,’ we must gently let go of control and stop re-creating the imagined self … surrender our specialness ….”
One contradiction after an another, each containing a kernel of plausibility: surrender your specialness … aloneness connects you with the whole universe … realizing that the big questions are out of your control will free you from the bondage of clinging, of trying to align the world with your personal desires.
Still, all these are words written by another: borrowed knowledge. What matters more, I think, is self-appropriated knowledge, certain truths that resonate from deep inside. As a child someone told me that if we were to dig a really big hole we’d eventually reach the centre of the earth (or China). And so it seems when I sit still and surrender to the sensation of breath, both inhale and exhale, gradually touching something that I call the essence. On a good day, there’s no-one there, no-one afraid, just space.
sources: Longaker, C. (1997). Facing death and finding hope: a guide to the emotional and spiritual care of the dying. Broadway Books, p. 101. Levine, S. (1982). Who dies? An investigation of conscious living and conscious dying. Anchor Press, p. 188. image: Woody Allen as as Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko in Love and Death (1975).