Using Death as an Adviser
Just getting back into the blogging world after spending last week in the midwest visiting my family, and something happened on our way there that triggered some thoughts for this post…
About 45 minutes into our flight, the flight attendants all rushed towards one part of the plane, and then the pilot asked if there was a doctor on board. There was, and it became clear that an elderly man was having problems – the doctor asked for a stethoscope and defibrillator, and several men on the plane moved the semi-conscious man to a place where he could lie down. Soon after, the pilot told us we would be making an emergency landing for medical reasons.
The man left the plane with help at the stop, and we continued our trip. I don’t know what happened to him, although he was conscious at the time. What was amazing was the complete shift in mood that occurred on the plane when everyone realized what was going on. In the airport I had been quite dismayed at the thoughtless and ‘me-first’ attitude of everyone we seemed to come in contact with. We had to arrive at 5am – no one’s favorite time – but the airport was already very busy, and LAX is an old airport with not enough room for modern baggage and security lines. With three preschoolers plus luggage we weren’t the fastest of travelers, and there were audible groans and frequent eye-rolling whenever anyone got stuck behind us in a passageway or line. Several times someone just pushed right past us – or over us, I should say, as the kids were almost knocked over more than once by a traveler in a rush. I tried to let it go, but I couldn’t help feeling very despondent over the more self-absorbed aspects of human nature.
All that changed instantly when the pilot asked for a doctor on the plane. We learned later that over a hundred passengers missed their connecting flights as a result, and most of them knew as soon as we were delayed that they were going to arrive much later than planned, or possibly not even get to their destination that day. But there was not a whimper of complaint or single groan at the pilot’s announcement. Everyone realized the potential seriousness of the situation. Someone’s husband, or father, or brother, or grandfather, or friend, was seriously ill, maybe even mortally so. And in light of that, any other concern or complaint was simply petty.
I thought then about how death and facing mortality throws everything into perspective, showing us clearly what matters, and even more importantly, what doesn’t. It’s a theme that comes up over and over in both personal development and spiritual teachings, and I think there is great power in facing our inevitable death head-on. Not in a morbid way, just in an honest one.
The title of this post comes from a teaching of Don Juan, in the Carlos Castaneda books. Don Juan urges Carlos to use his own death – which Don Juan describes as a menacing shadow always perched just behind him – as an ‘adviser’. He is always trying to get Carlos to let go of his ‘pettiness’, and live his life in a larger context, and teaches that maintaining a constant awareness of death is a powerful method for doing so. Of course, being Don Juan, his approach is quite extreme and his way of helping Carlos to become more aware of the reality of his own death is to scare him at night in the desert to the point where he actually believes he’s going to die. Not a gentle approach for sure, but an effective one, as anyone who has had an actual near-death experience can testify.
Eckhart Tolle, in his preface to The Power of Now, described his own near-death experience of sorts, although it wasn’t triggered by any actual physical danger. During an intense depression at thirty years of age, he came to a point where he felt he couldn’t live with himself any longer. But in the midst of that feeling, he suddenly wondered “But am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with. Maybe, only one of them is real.” As he puts it, the ‘strangeness’ of this thought started him on a trajectory that triggered a profound spiritual experience. His subsequent attempts to understand and explain that experience completely transformed him, and his life.
When I first read The Power of Now, this experience reminded me of the genesis of Ramana Maharshi’s spiritual quest. At sixteen, he was suddenly struck with an intense feeling that he was going to die. He was not in any mortal danger at the time, just alone in his room. But instead of seeking out others for comfort or distraction, as most sixteen year-olds would probably do, he just laid down and investigated this feeling. He asked himself, ‘who is it that is going to die?’ and gradually moved through the different layers of his sense of selfhood – his body, his emotions, his thoughts, his sense of ‘I’ – until he was plunged into a deep realization of something beyond or beneath this. Soon after, he left home, traveling to the area where he would spend the rest of his life meditating and eventually teaching.The question ‘who am I?’ became the root of ‘inquiry’ in his lineage.
According to legend, an awareness of mortality was also one of the triggers for the Buddha’s flight from home and spiritual quest. His father had created a fabricated kingdom for the young prince Siddhartha to live in, shielding him from all contact with illness, death, or pain of any kind, in an attempt to prevent his spiritual inclinations – which were predicted by a seer at his birth – from surfacing. But Siddhartha eventually became curious about life outside the kingdom, and on a trip outside the gates, was confronted with a funeral in progress, and learned of mortality for the first time. Transience or impermanence is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhism, and confronting death is a powerful theme in many traditions. Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions include practices performed in funeral grounds or while contemplating a decomposing body, to emphasize the impermanence of the physical world.
Although because of the belief in an afterlife traditional Christianity approaches death differently, and doesn’t have any death contemplations such as this that I know of, in the last few years I’ve been reading quite a bit about various Catholic mystics, especially medieval ones, and have been struck by how many of them experienced profound spiritual transformations during life-threatening illnesses. Their descriptions – of white light, endless love, an expansiveness and union beyond their own personal identity – correspond to the experiences of those above, although their ultimate interpretations of what those experiences represent is different. The commonality of both near-death and meditative experiences across cultures has always fascinated me, and speaks to the universality of mystic realization.
So an awareness of our own death – a real awareness at a deep, visceral level, without plunging into morbidity – enables profound transformation. It helps us let go of our self-absorption, our pettiness, and focus on what really matters. It shifts our perspective and helps us to ‘not sweat the small stuff’. It humbles us, and awakens us to our smallness in the grand scheme of things – which ultimately is a relief, freeing us from our imagined restrictions. And spiritually it can help us touch the deepest part of ourselves and reality, whatever we interpret that to be.
So have you faced your own death? Do you contemplate mortality, or do you shy away from thoughts of it, as many of us are conditioned to do? Do you fear death?