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Using Death as an Adviser

August 24, 2009

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?

39 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2009 5:08 pm

    Yep, there’s nothing like death to put a perspective on life! My own spiritual journey started as a result of a NDE, and here recently, I’ve been using the thought of my death to answer my questions about life. Specifically, what should I be doing with it?

    This post is like the fourth or fifth synchronicity along these lines that I’ve had in the past couple of weeks, so I’m trying very hard to pay attention and learn the lesson the easy way! I’m still working through things, but I’m a little clearer with each step. Thank you for helping me along the way!

  2. August 24, 2009 5:38 pm

    You see this in most elderly people. How they begin to let go of what’s less important. My father-in-law, is 74 and not in his best of health, and I have seen him become more patint, tolerant, and less demanding. What seemed so important 5 years ago, suddenly isn’t.

    I don’t think about death much, it doesn’t bother me. However, now as a parent it bothers me in that I want to live long enough to care for my girl.

    We, humans, do take life for granted, and some of that is necessary, to be able to live in the Present. But most of us I believe take it too much for granted, thinking we’ll live ‘forever’ and subsequently immerse ourselves in what we would deem superficial – amassing wealth, reaching the top of the corporate ladder, flippant in relationships, etc.

    When death touches us, as it did my FIL with a heartattack, suddenly all that seems so trivial, so meaningless. We understand it on a very conscious level – our time here ends.

  3. August 24, 2009 5:41 pm

    I don’t really talk about it, but I thought I was going to die when I was 15. I was certain of it. I even wrote out a will. lol
    It was startling for me to read your account of Ramana Maharshi’s similar experience.

  4. August 24, 2009 6:18 pm

    As soon as you said that Christianity lacks this death meditation, I thought “Wait! The Catholic mystics certainly spent a ton of time on this!” But you got there! 🙂

    I think, also, in Catholicism, of the Hail Mary. A simple prayer that all Catholics learn when they are very small, which ends, of course, “pray for us…now and at the hour of our death.”

    When I was small, that part felt so…dangerous, I guess is the word. Frightening. But as you age with that prayer, you also mature with your own immortality.

    It’s good stuff, that.

    And the repetition of it in the form of rosary is, as one author says, “a training of the heart.”

    Yep.

  5. August 24, 2009 8:22 pm

    When we are faced with our mortality as you and your fellow travellers did on that flight, we are jolted into putting our priorities into perspective.
    I like Don Juan’s advice to Carlos Castaneda, to always act as if death is hovering over your shoulder. When I remember this, I feel more alive and able to sustain the practice of mindfulness. I also contemplate that I have done this many times before; entering and leaving the earth plane is just another act in the Play of Consciousness.

  6. August 24, 2009 8:42 pm

    Lisa,
    This is so, so interesting…especially the timing of this post. Just this morning, I was out on a bike ride on the bike trail near our home. It’s a place, especially in the quiet of the morning, that proves to be a very contemplative one – and freeing for me to explore into my soul a little deeper. It’s not so much the physical benefit of biking that is so good for me as it is the deeper moments that present themselves. Anyway, back to this morning. I spent nearly the whole time envisioning myself on my deathbed. It was on one hand so difficult what I let the realization of a possible end in, and it was also so freeing, in seeing (with my heart) what mattered most. It was such a moving experience this morning. And death…it was comforting, and it also wasn’t. It was sad, and it was joyful. Really, though it shook me at my core – especially to the thought of “am I doing with my life what I really want”. Lisa, this was such a difficult question to face. And it also led to taking some steps today in a very deliberate direction – that is so much in line with my deeper self. All, so good. And yet, your last question – do I fear death? I do. And I’ve thought about this recently too. And especially I’ve wondered how I might feel were I to know my days were numbered. And then I tell myself…my days are numbered. For us all, they are. We just may not know that number. It’s still so hard for me to grasp. Thinking about it today, though, really put focus on what matters. And if I’m doing that, maybe, just maybe death won’t be quite so fearful… Time shall tell…

  7. mommymystic permalink*
    August 24, 2009 10:06 pm

    Wow, thanks for much for your comments everyone, I’m glad this post struck a chord.

    Jay – yes, that good old ‘synchronicity’! I remember one of your posts where you talked about your near-death experience, and it was very powerful to read. I think we are changed forever by a brush with death like that, and we unfold its meaning over time. So I’m not surprised you are being called back to it again, as you try and dig deeper into yourself right now.

    Mon – That is so fascinating about your experience at 15. I do think there is something about adolescence, and our first awareness of our own mortality, that can trigger something like this, but most of us brush it off. That you actually made a will shows you didn’t do that, and I wonder how much facing death like that developed your own sensibility of the other side and the subtler parts of human awareness. As I mentioned to Jay, I do think we are forever changed by facing death. I also had a death-type experience, but I was younger – 11 I think – and didn’t really process it consciously at the time, but later came to realize that it probably triggered my interest in spiritual and occult subjects in my teens and twenties. The other thing I resonated with in your comment was that becoming a parent had changed your feelings about death. I felt like I had gotten to a place where I didn’t particularly fear death, but now as a parent, I find myself thinking much more about the length of my life, and wanting to be sure I am around for a certain amount of time. At times, when I hear about some mother in her forties with kids diagnosed with cancer for example, it actually triggers a new kind of fear that I didn’t used to have, and I have been thinking about this a lot, on the heals of my friend’s unexpected (and still unexplained) sudden death at thirty.

    Christine – I am so glad you contributed your thoughts on the Hail Mary prayer, and maturing towards immortality with time and spiritual practice. I am always a little reluctant to speak on Catholicism, since I have never been a practicing Catholic (at least not in this life!), but I have read so much about various Catholic practices and mystics and have always interpreted them through my understanding of Eastern religions and contemporary Christian teachings such as A Course in Miracles, which I studied at one point. I think the reason I like your blog so much is because of the connections between yoga, personal growth, and Catholicism that you draw. And I love this phrase ‘a training of the heart’, thanks for that.

    Miruh – Yes, I also find that thinking even for a moment of death can bring me right out of whatever ‘story’ I have going on and into the present. It is like an instant stripping away. And being able to see ourselves as part of the lila, this ‘play of consciousness’ as you put it, requires a stepping back from our mundane lives in that way.

    Lance – you know, your comments on the Gangaji interview are what reminded me Ramana’s story, which I included here, so this seems to be a theme for you right now! I am wondering what triggered you to envision yourself on a deathbed, as that is actually a meditation taught in some traditions. I think your phrase about the thought of death – that it was both comforting and not comforting – is very honest and powerful. Sometimes I read that one goal of spiritual practice is to not fear death, but over time the meaning of that has changed for me. Now I think of course there has to be some fear of the actual process – why wouldn’t there be, when we really cannot know for certain how it will unfold? We have lots of versions out there, but there is no way of knowing for sure, or even if everyone goes through the same process. So some discomfort is normal. But on the other hand avoiding all thought out of it fear just leaves us semi-conscious. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story.

  8. August 24, 2009 11:50 pm

    Hi Lisa – I’m sorry to be read this.

    I believe that life is naturally expansive, and a thing of love and joy. There is no need to wipe ourselves out with depressions, and the lack of love which is the cause of death.

  9. August 25, 2009 12:26 am

    For a long time I considered death to be a step into the unknown and thus very frightening.
    The fact that it was seen as a reckoning of your life frightened me too. Death felt like a time in which I would be sentenced with no chance to defend or redeem myself. It felt like you had your chance, lets see if you blew it and if you did, you go to hell. Thanks for religion.
    Now I too can see it as Don Juan describes; be aware of the present moment and be aware that adding value always counts.
    I also think that now I know life is a flow and not a task that you can do right or wrong, I am a lot more relaxed about death. However it still hurts me to have people die on me and to think of the upset my leaving can cause. But I also know life goes on and that is good. It is interesting that only death has such a powerful way to make us conscious and humbles us as nothing else can as per the people in the plane.

  10. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 12:31 am

    Hi Robin, I do appreciate your point of view, but I don’t think lack of love is the cause of death, although it may be the cause of depression. It’s interesting in Eckhart Tolle’s case, facing death in this way freed him from depression he had been suffering from for years. In fact, in all of these cases, facing death freed these individuals from the limited conceptions of life that had caused them suffering, and brought them a more constant awareness of love. I think fear of death is the problem, not death itself, which is just a passage. So it is interesting – I am drawn to your own writings because you are interested in breaking down some of the mind/body/spirit distinctions we often make, but it’s true I don’t quite get the emphasis on physical immortality yet, which doesn’t seem all that desirable to me. But thanks for commenting!

  11. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 12:39 am

    Wilma – Yes, religion has often used death, and fears of punishment or promises of reward in the afterlife, to control people, and many of us are now breaking free of those interpretations it seems. I love your phrase “life is a flow, not a task we can do right or wrong.”

  12. August 25, 2009 2:26 am

    Dear Lisa, Am I lucky that I’ve not faced death as closely as others in this thread? I don’t know. I think about death a lot these days. It’s probably not unusual that in my early ’50s I’m thinking about my own mortality. Frankly, I am afraid of dying alone. I just picked up the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (I’ve never read it). In the last year I’ve branched out and have been seriously studying and practicing different schools of yoga (I,, like most US yogis, am schooled in the Classical Patanjali yoga) and have experienced more points of view and opportunities to experience being one with spirit, embodying spirit, not separate. Living in the present with more vivid aliveness and sense of connectedness is helping me live more fully, so surely it must also help me to die, yes? Namaste, metta, love and peace to your and yours. Bess.

  13. Isha permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:50 am

    It’s not so much the dying process that worries me – it’s the idea of being dead forever. The actual dying from all reports is not unpleasant, it’s losing everything one has learned that I find terrifying and to exist no more. Even if rebirth is more than a possibility, the me that is here and now will be gone forever. I can find no comfort.

  14. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 2:58 am

    Bess, I really love the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, so I hope you enjoy it. I don’t think someone needs to face death in this way in order to surface the presence and connectedness that you speak of. In fact, I think discovering the deeper parts of ourselves without this is part of the purpose of meditation and yoga. But I do think facing death is one way that many people begin their process. If you are already thinking about death, then it is worth contemplating it I think, if only so that you are not paralyzed by fear of it, which I think is the real issue. Thanks for visiting!

    Isha – well, that is the scary part. I guess I think of spiritual practice at least partially as being a process of discovering a level of ourselves that is not transient – beyond our physical, emotional and mental selves. And I feel I have experienced that. So death does not scare me from that perspective. I more worry about the people I am leaving behind. Of course there is also the view that there is a way to retain all of our knowledge from life to life, or even to attain physical immortality, although that doesn’t interest me so much.

  15. August 25, 2009 3:18 am

    I had to come back… 🙂

    I have been thinking about this all day and have come up with other examples of Catholic death meditations.

    Relics! The whole point of relics is a meditation on our own mortality. We are bone and spirit.

    And, of course, (DUH, she says to herself!), the crucifix, which you only see in Catholic churches and protestants find macabre. But it’s a central reminder of our inevitable deaths. Every Catholic Church you walk into — front and center is a dying man hanging in pain on a cross.

    We are not afraid to remember that life can be painful, that everyone must die.

  16. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 3:33 am

    Christine – thanks for coming back and posting these. Now I am curious to learn more about relics, which I don’t know that much about. As for the crucifex, well that one is loaded I think. To me it represents suffering more than death, but I see your point. It honestly always bothered me a bit that there is so much emphasis on that image, on the suffering, instead of on the resurrection afterwards and all it represents. For me the whole point of facing death is for the realization of freedom it leads to, but I guess that is what the crucifixion leads to, so in that sense it is a contemplation on death in the same vein, if taken that way.

  17. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 4:10 am

    Hi all, check out this quote from Steve Jobs on The Jungle of Life, on how his own life has been impacted by his recent illness and confrontations with mortality:
    http://www.jungleoflife.com/2009/08/23/sunday-thought-for-the-day-66/

  18. August 25, 2009 4:31 am

    After my son’s natural birth, there were complications, and I learned upon awakening from emergency surgery six hours later, that I had nearly lost my life on a couple of occasions. Birth and possible death together made for a double-whammy on my perception of life. I kept thinking to myself, “That was unexpected. That could have been it. It would have been that easy; that quick.” For me, of course, but not for my loved ones left behind. That was where the pain remained. I no longer have the fear of my own death, only the suspended sadness over the suffering of those left behind. Of course, as Mon alluded to, the thought of anything happening to my son is terrifying. I think that one’s a given as a mother, no matter what we believe about death and transition.

    As for purpose, this experience didn’t really poke much at my reason for living. If I’d died, then I would assume that my reason for living at this particular time would have been fulfilled, and that my death would have brought about its own gifts and triggers for other events that needed to unfold. I’m glad I’m still around, though. 🙂

  19. August 25, 2009 5:04 am

    In Sufism there is a word – “fana” – for the sense of the dissolution of self that can occur in mystical experience. It was a spontaneous experience of this kind that literally changed my life forever overnight when I was twenty three.

    It was really something! At the time I hadn’t studied religion or spirituality, thought life sucked and considered killing myself on a daily basis. Ironically the experience of this profound feeling for my own passing immediately ended all thoughts of suicide. It brought to an end what I later realized had been several years of clinical depression and was the most energizing, creative moment of my life.

    I’m still in awe of whatever happened that night – still feel that there was far more to it than I’ll ever assimilate.

  20. August 25, 2009 5:25 am

    I have had a similar experience when I flew back from my retreat a couple of weeks ago. Interestingly, I was flying back from LAX (stopover) back to Singapore. I was booked on a non-stop flight. But our plane had to be diverted somewhat to Japan when a 30+ year old man got unconscious. No one on the plane complained nor made any rude remarks on having a delayed flight. I was sending healing and loving thoughts as much as I could to the guy.

    I have been “compelled” to face issues on mortality when I have one of my past life memories surfacing. Invariably, it is almost always a death scene.

  21. August 25, 2009 7:01 am

    I don’t fear death, just the pain of dying. I figure if something is strong enough to kill you, it has to hurt, because the life force itself is so strong. On the day my father died, he said to me, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this bad.” Two hours later he was dead, but it took him months and months of suffering to get there.

    After he died, my mom sold the lake house and moved back into town. I’m convinced someone must have died in her guest room because both times I slept there I had nightmares about dying, and I never have nightmares. In both cases, I was unable to save my children.

    Not my favorite subject, but I love your seminars.

  22. August 25, 2009 9:44 am

    Hi Lisa,
    So, what was it that triggered these thoughts for me, of being on my deathbed? I think the timing of it all relates back to earlier this month, when my father was diagnosed with a disease that seems pretty bad. That’s the bad news related to all of this. The good news is that the strain he has isn’t so bad (still not a good thing, but much better). Anyway, that all had me thinking about this, especially in relation to what you’ve written about. I think yesterday’s thoughts of this deathbed experience were a continuation of this, for me – especially given what I’d shared on my site (thanks much for the link).

    And really the whole experience was almost like an out of body experience – like I was looking in at me on my final days/hours (I’m not really sure the timeframe). Comfort came, so much, from the people who visited. The discomfort, the fear – is like you’ve said – do we truly know what’s beyond here? No, I don’t think any of us do, for sure. We may have ideas, we may have beliefs we follow and stand behind. The truth, though, is that what’s beyond is not something we can just go and look up in some factbook, or ask our neighbor across the street, or our local librarian. It is just so unknown, as much as there’s been written about what comes next. We have our faith, yet it’s not something we can reach out and touch. And that, that is the part for me that brings up fear. It feels like the ultimate unknown. The biggest change we’ll have in our lives. And one we’ll all take some day. Jump and the net will appear?? I wonder, in this biggest change we’ll face in our lives, what that net holds for us? I just don’t know…

    Well, Lisa – I’ve written a long dialogue to basically say I have some fear issues with what lies beyond here. I have a strong faith, also – and maybe that should be enough for me. Maybe my faith isn’t as strong as I’d like to think it is. And I’m finding when I put myself in this “meditative” state and really think about death – there is some comfort in going through this process. And some closure to these fears. Although, I’m not sure they’ll ever fully go away.

    Lisa, thanks so much for listening and for providing this space for the conversation to develop. Really, talking this out is so helpful for me, too.

  23. August 25, 2009 1:41 pm

    Two other sites of ours reflects the world I have lived in –as a NDE experiencer. I am now 69 and coming to completion in my work, path and journey. I understand so much more today than in all life before. The world is getting ready for something spactacular. Rose

  24. August 25, 2009 5:46 pm

    Death is the ultimate letting go of identity, isn’t it? Early in my practice, I tried meditating on my own death, but found it was yet another form of striving for me. The only real fear I have of my own death is that I am still working with guilt after all this time. When I put it aside long enough to appreciate the true self, I can let go.

  25. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 10:25 pm

    Wow, everyone, thanks again for your comments.

    Alexis – you really had quite the life experience, with birth and death all rolled into one. On the philosophical level, I think much as you do, that whatever happens, it will create some sort of tapestry that is as it should be, so my death, or anyone else’s, is not a ‘tragedy’ as such. But on the day to day level, of course, it doesn’t always feel like that. I think the spiritual journey is partially about getting better and better at living on both these levels.

    Paul – Your description has made me even more anxious to read your book, which sadly I have not gotten to yet, although I had planned to by now. It is on the top of the pile at this point, although I still have a couple more promised reviews to finish. I think in a way I have been saving it, as I don’t want to start it until some of my ‘obligatory’ reading is out of the way and I can truly spend quality time with it. But it is interesting how similar your experience was to Eckhart Tolle’s, coming on the heels of depression, and freeing you from that altogether. My own journey has unfolded differently, which maybe I will begin to share here someday.

    Evelyn – I’m glad someone raised reincarnation/rebirth, as I hadn’t gotten to that yet, and would love to do some probing posts on that as well (I have written about it at BellaOnline, but not in a blog format.) Readings I have had – psychic, Akashic and astrological – all inevitably have surfaced death scenes as well, although independent past life memories I have had have generally not been in that vein. But either way, this sense of our continuance really changes our relationship to death, I think.

    Brenda – I just visited my 96 year old grandmother, and it definitely surfaced some of these fears about the dying, and aging, process for me. Although, many meditative traditions teach that we can learn to choose when we want to leave our body and it doesn’t have to be so trying. And of course healing methods are getting more sophisticated too, so that the dissolution of our body does not have to be so painful, at the very least, and we can move on peacefully – like changing clothes of sorts. As for your psychic impressions, that has happened to me too. I once had terrible nightmares in a London hotel, and later learned it had been a hospital during WWII.

    Lance – thanks so much for sharing more of your feelings and process on this, I hope many people read it. I do think although it is uncomfortable that facing this ‘big’ fear of death ultimately helps free us from all our ‘little’ fears, as that Steve Jobs quote you posted on your blog said. Although it is also essential not to get to morbid, of course, but you have never struck me as the morbid sort:-) The questions you raise about faith are really interesting, and I think warrant a post by one (or both) of us also. Does true faith mean having not doubts, especially about something as mysterious as dying? I don’t think so, but some would disagree.

    Rose – Sounds interesting, I loved reading about NDEs in some of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work long ago, but have not explored it much since. I will have to check it out.

    Mermaid – Yes, death really lays bares those layers of identity that we cling to, and in that sense contemplating it can free us. I know what you mean about ‘striving’ in practice. Personally, I like to mix it up a bit, and do include some techniques that might seem like ‘striving’, including chakra work, because I find it has other benefits. But in terms of discovering our essence, and letting go, I know what you mean.

  26. August 26, 2009 2:31 am

    Lisa, I really appreciate this post. I also just read Sylvia B’s new essay on death in the Shambhala Sun blog. I loved it. This is such an important thing to think about and, truthfully, I have been thinking about this death/impermanence thing a lot. I turned 56 and something happened… I am cherishing life so much more. Cherishing my husband and loved ones with enormity. It all feels so fleeting, so fleeting on some days it takes my breath away. I am actually doing some inner processes on facing life without them…what that would feel like…the first step towards looking deeper at what I feel about my own impending death…someday.

    I also had a very big life/mind/heart shift in 2003 when I fell and hit my head on a rock in Hawaii on our honeymoon. I had a near death experience which I have never written about. Perhaps someday I will. It was profound, something I do not take lightly, nor discuss with others on a casual basis. Suffice it to say, your life does flash before your eyes and you are never the same….Life is a rare gift…

  27. August 26, 2009 3:42 am

    HI there Lisa – just a point of clarification… That Steve Jobs quote on Lance’s blog was something he said in a speech many years ago. Steve’s life-threatening health issues happened after this – as far as I’m concerned, is is not at all surprising this happened (I believe it to be a dangerous practice)

    I honestly don’t understand why people need to think about death in order to appreciate that they are more than their body – this is something I have always understood – I wonder how much proof do people need?

  28. mommymystic permalink*
    August 26, 2009 2:16 pm

    Jan – Thanks for the Sylvia Boorstein recommendation, if anyone else is interested, here is the link: http://www.shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=11655 . Jan, I would love to see you write about your Hawaii experience some day.

    Robin – I don’t think people HAVE to contemplate death to realize they are more than their body, but it is interesting to me that it is the impetus for so many people’s spiritual transformations, or the initiation for their journey. Illness of course is another one, as many people go through profound transformations as they search for and hopefully discover alternative healing techniques, and therefore come to realize all the levels of energy and awareness that they are truly composed of (I am thinking of our mutual friend Jenny Mannion as I write this, but have known many others with similar stories.) I think letting go of our attachments to other levels of identity, the physical, psychological and social ones we are conditioned into, can be hard, and facing our death sort of lays it all bare. But I do think it is the facing the fear of death, not meditating on death itself, that is what’s helpful. I think when we face our fear of death, we end up contemplating what really dies anyway, and what doesn’t, like Eckhart and Ramana did in the stories in my post. I actually think meditation is itself another way of doing this, of touching these other levels. Each person is different.
    I do agree it can become morbid, and that can be dangerous. I don’t know whether that’s where Steve Jobs was coming from or not. Based on everything I ever read about and from him, he never struck me that way. I tend to think the energy component of his illness was more likely to have been the incredible attacks he was under from others throughout this career, the pressure he put himself under, and the hours he kept. I know he has spoken a bit about this, and about how he had neglected his physical health for many years and considered his illness a wake up call. But of course, who knows? From the outside, it’s hard to say. But it is interesting that in many Buddhist cultures where contemplating death is part of the practice, it doesn’t seem to hasten people’s death, but on the contrary among spiritual masters, seems to help prolong it.
    In any case, you have definitely peaked my interest in the idea of physical immortality. We share the idea that our bodies are only a small piece of who we are, and over the years I have read a lot of Tibetan and Indian texts that talk about immortal teachers that exist forever to teach and guide us. I always interpreted this metaphorically – meaning they continued to exist on another plane after their death, and manifested in visions, etc. but had shed their physical bodies. But I see now their are many ways of looking at this idea of ‘immortality’. I do hope to get to the Oprah series next week and read through all the questions and answers in the comments there.

  29. August 26, 2009 6:35 pm

    Lisa, human beings also confront the prospect of death through the death of loved-ones. When someone you love passes on, you have opportunities to reflect on your own mortality, to dissolve regret and focus on the vibrational energy that makes you what you are.

    At soul-level, we each carry individual knowledge and creational experience. The prospect of losing hold of familiar existence is something that triggers fear or relief, as well as other emotions, not necessarily because of possible death. Everything depends on your level of awareness and perception.

    The higher self encourages you to embrace every change and prospect of transformation with love. Only as a person learns to vibrate consistently with a high level of joy, at all times, can one move out of a lower vibrational state of fear. As you vibrate at the highest potential rate, you align with the highest self. This connects with source energy and built-in abilities to vibrate at high creative levels. Low states of energy vibration prevent you from reconnecting with your potential. Free will enables you to switch focus and consciousness anytime.

  30. mommymystic permalink*
    August 27, 2009 1:26 am

    Liara, yes it’s certainly true that many of us go through this same process of shedding false identities when confronted with the loss of others. I certainly agree that facing death is not the only way to discover our other dimensions – in this post I just wanted to explore some whose journey was triggered this way. And like you I believe death, or what happens to us at death, is a choice, and a passage of sorts, not an end. And we can do that through love, as well.

  31. August 28, 2009 12:13 pm

    Hi there Lisa – just dropping in here to let you know I’ve read your reply. And I hereby announce that I am going to stop ranting (sometimes I wish I’d shut up). I’d love to hear what Steve has said about his illness – I’ve never seen anything from him on it. I’ve followed his story for quite a long time now – being a mac fan from way back (wasn’t it you who dropped your new macbook in the kitchen? – did you get it fixed?)

    (this is not a rant it’s an explanation – in another paragraph of Steve’s speech he said he made a practice for over 20 years of looking in the mirror every morning and telling himself he might die that day – or something like that – this is what I was suggesting is dangerous, if one believes in the power of thought, and that we need to be careful what we think about – and that sort of thing)

    love from Rob

  32. mommymystic permalink*
    August 28, 2009 3:45 pm

    Robin, thanks for coming back, I didn’t consider you to be ranting at all! Actually, your replies really got me thinking, because I do believe in the power of our thoughts. And I am very interested in the idea of immortality, which is why I read your blog. But I tend to think more in terms of another kind of energy body after the passing of our physical body (like Akemi wrote in a post this week, where she mentions your Oprah post), and I think some version of that is alluded to in practically every world religion (and as I’m sure you know I am very interested in the theologies and teachings of all the world religions, as I think they all contain truths.) So when I look at these practices contemplating death, I think of them in terms of shedding our attachment to our fixed identity in this life, including our physical body, in order to discover our broader being. (I am fascinated with this idea of physical immortality though, so I do want to spend some more time on this at some point.)
    BUT, I think you are right, this could be a very dangerous business. If someone’s contemplation of death is not about working through their fears and fixed identity, but instead becomes fixated entirely on the end of their physical body, that might impact their relationship to their physical body, their mind/body/spirit connection, negatively. Or if someone comes to dislike their physical body, viewing it as betraying them in some way, which I think has happened all to often in many teachings too, where the body is presented as either unreliable or evil, that can’t be good. Those kinds of teachings bother me a lot. So your comments really got me thinking, and I think if I were to write this post again, there are certain things I would say differently. Hopefully, people will actually read these comments for clarification (but I know that’s asking alot). Maybe you or I could write more on this someday too.
    And re: my Macbook, yes I got it back! AND I now have an iphone too! (My Verizon contract expired in July and I was eligible for an upgrade to an Iphone!) So I am now 100% Apple, and loving it I might add. Steve Jobs IS a fascinating person, on many levels – a real visionary. I will try and find his comments on his illness, which are very rare. He has been very private about it, which seems smart to me. I am interested to see what he does next.

  33. August 29, 2009 9:07 am

    This is a really interesting post to me. I’ve come back and re-read it before commenting. Not that I have anything profound to offer! But I did “die” (well, technically) for about a minute when I was 20, and had to be, er, brought back to life…hehe. This was as a result of an infection that resulted in blood poisoning.

    Anyway, I won’t go into what I experienced here, but I did experience something. And at other times, when I have had very high fevers, I often hear music – exquisite, achingly beautiful and often complex music (symphonies even) that I have never heard before. I always kick myself afterwards for not being able to write it down. And it feels as though it comes through me never from me.

    I realise this all sounds a bit loopy, but there you go. As to death, I’m not afraid of the idea of it, but I get anxious at times about how I’m going to go out – I fear suffering to be honest. And I also fear not being able to do what I want/need to do before I go.

  34. August 30, 2009 2:34 am

    Ah, how interesting to read the comments, esp the exchange between the two apple lovers, Lisa and Robin. (And how interesting to see myself getting mentioned)

    My 2c: I think the word “death” is used in a few different ways, depending on the context and the speaker.

    And I am writing my own post on death and mortality, so I will say more there.

  35. August 30, 2009 6:26 pm

    Okay, my post is up now. For anyone interested, it’s:
    Death, Afterlife and Immortality

    I think, what Robin means by the word “death” is the unconscious transition. Because this is what most people go through, we can call it “death by default”.

    When Lisa talks about death (and I often use the word in the same way), we have expanded its meaning to include the conscious transition. In other words, “death” for us is simply a transition.

    What do you think?

  36. mommymystic permalink*
    August 30, 2009 7:46 pm

    DW – this music thing is absolutely fascinating to me, and I am sure I have heard it before, but can’t remember where. I do know that in the book Women of Wisdom (that I keep mentioning as it has been my ‘big read’ this summer) the author Lama Tsultrim Allione describes going into a coma of sorts at one point when she is visiting Tibet, and experienced a ‘dakini’ world including music, and that she was forever able to access it in meditation after that. And it also makes me think of elves and Mists of Avalon, and all that sort of mythology of ‘parallel’ worlds, because so often it seems like hearing strains of music is one way the worlds are connected. So to me this story doesn’t make you loopy, just more interesting (although some might consider me loopy, so not sure that’s very reassuring.)

    Akemi – Looking forward to reading your post. The comments on here, and Robin’s latest post on physical immortality, and more reflections I did on immortality in Christianity (prompted by Blisschick’s comments) really got me thinking about death as a transition, and what we really mean by ‘death’. And the possibility that ultimately we have several different choices regarding this transition, including adopting a light-body, ascending to some other ‘heavenly’ realm, reincarnting, or actually keeping a physical body. So that all these ways of thinking are perhaps not in conflict, but actually different choices we can make if we are conscious enough.

  37. robinscloud9 permalink
    September 1, 2009 5:28 am

    What is it about Apple fans and immortality? (perhaps I’m making rather a leap). You got an IPHONE! Frank got one about a month ago and he absolutely LOVES it! He keep buying apps -he has got about 59 guitar tuners.

  38. September 1, 2009 10:18 pm

    I am not sure if it is due to my mindfulness practice, my advancing age (I’m 39 now), becoming a parent, recently losing my last living grandparent, watching my mom go through lung cancer treatment last year, or a combination of all the above, but I have been feeling much more intimate with death than I ever have.

    I have never felt very frightened of dying… like Mon, I wrote a will when I was 15 after being convinced I was going to die (though perhaps it was just a more awakened awareness of my mortality). Also like Mon, I keenly feel the sadness if I were to die and leave my children “motherless.” Not to the extent that I obsess, but I do notice it and sit with it. Another aspect of this is that a deeper realization of my mortality has also helped me accept the idea of karma; that we are all on our own journeys; that my children have their own karma.

    One place I feel stuck is in translating this “knowing” of my mortality into greater or kinder or more skillful action. Perhaps my actions are more skillful than they have been in my past, but since my awareness is also greater, I often can feel disappointed that I don’t live more fully, more freely, more joyfully… knowing what I know, why not? Perhaps it is just force of habit and it is taking much longer than I thought to develop new habits…

    I also thought of a Sylvia Boorstein essay when I read your post, this one is the story of her being on international flight when a passenger died. Living in the Divine Abodes.

    Blessings,
    Stacy

  39. mommymystic permalink*
    September 2, 2009 5:19 pm

    Stacy, thanks for Sylvia Boorstein link, I had read that story in Happiness is an Inside Job and loved it. I know what you mean about a ‘knowing’ of mortality not translating into a more instantaneous, permanent change. For me it’s like the difference between spiritual experience and wisdom. We can have these moments of knowing, of letting go, of joy, triggered by mortality, nature, meditation or whatever, but then we get back into our everyday and its triggers and it doesn’t feel we have changed. I think it’s a matter of cultivating both these openings and everyday vigilance/practice, and some traditions are better at communicating one side of the equation than the other. You need the openings for the inspiration, the opening, and the vigilance/practice for the actual change to gel over time. But I also think maybe we don’t see the changes – perhaps we are living more fully, more freely, more joyfully as a percentage of our day/week/month, but we can’t see it because it still feels interrupted, it is still not something we know all the time, and we focus on those periods of interruption rather than the overall gradual shifts that occur more quietly.

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