Is not most, if not all, religion and spirituality either an attempt to escape death, or at least come to terms with it?
My father died when I was 14. He died in bed in the arms of a woman who was a stranger to my mom and I, while supposedly on vacation with some of his airport buddies in New Jersey.
I remember being in the front yard of my house when a man dressed in black with a reversed collar, carrying a black leather briefcase, walked past me heading towards my house. He glanced at me for a moment and I knew he was the messenger of death. A few minutes later I heard my mother crying out and sobbing from inside the house and I knew my father was dead. Such horror I felt, like a black veil coming down around me cutting off all air and light.
I remember every morning I repeated the same process. I woke up, happy and unburdened, for maybe a second or two, and then I remembered that my father was dead. Suddenly the dark gloom once again descended all around me, cutting off my Life force. This period of severe grief lasted the longest time, and I hardly dare remember how long. What is going to happen now that my father and protector was dead? What will happen to all of us? These were my constant ruminations.
I remember getting the Tibetan Book of the Dead from the library, reading it, and talking to my dead father about the Bardo states he would pass through on his way to rebirth. But inside, I myself was dead. I felt no Life force, no ambition, no hope for the future, no hope for the present. My mother, who was always somewhat depressed, became despondent for a time, before finances forced her to get a job working as a retail clerk in a hardware store where I later worked as a stock boy.
My father’s death tore a hole in my soul. There was no peace anymore, the thought of death, the thought of impermanence, and the constant state of feeling unbearable loss changed my life forever.
Aristotle, in his Nicomean Ethics stated, “We ought not to listen to those who counsel us, mortal remember your mortality. Instead, in so far as In us lies, we should put on immortality and act in such a way as to always act in the highest, so as to elevate our soul.” But is this not also with religion and spirituality are, an avoidance of confronting our inevitable death?
In most forms of Buddhism, we escape death by attaining Nirvana, which is the state of release from all desires, all needs, all caring. We can do this either by looking into our desires and do practices to end them, or go to the root, and end our identity as a mortal human being, as a spirit encased in a physical body.
This is precisely also the aim of Advaita Vedanta, especially as taught by Nisargadatta Maharaj. First you disidentify with the body and reidentify as consciousness itself, then you see, feel or apprehend the total extension of consciousness which contains everything in our inner and outer worlds, and finally you disidentify with consciousness, leaving only the knower, which cannot itself be known, and therefore cannot be identified with. This is exactly the same mechanism or maneuver of the Buddhists, forget your mortality, and reidentify with that which does not change and is immortal, and thus gain freedom from death.
Huang Po, the Sixth Patriarch, stated, “if you die, before you die, then when you do die, you will not die.” This means if you die to your identity as a mortal being, then when you do die a physical death, you will not fear it, you will have beaten death to the punch.
This is how I see all of spirituality now really, an inability to accept one’s own mortality, and the driving need to disidentify with the body, and with mortal spirit, substituting universal consciousness, the absolute, or heaven as escapes.
But there is a different way to deal with death, and that is by embracing it, knowing at every moment, the next moment may not come.
What happens when you first think this way? Well to me it means becoming incredibly vulnerable, realizing I have very little power in this world or even over my own body. What happens then? Well, instead of seeking the absolute, or seeking universal consciousness and identification with it, and realizing how essentially helpless I am being carried along by the forces of life, and the ebb and flow of the Life force within me, just accept it. Just accept your own inevitable death.
With this stance of just being in the present and now, feeling my body totally, every quivering muscle, every passing breeze felt on my cheeks and my hair, every moment of arising bliss or the descent of deep grief is gratefully received as a gift in the moment. Merely to be held in the arms of someone you love, and to wake up in the morning next to her or him, is a gift.
Watching my cats play or argue with each other, and to be awarded the gift of being able to feed them twice a day, play with them, have them sleep next to me or on top of me, brings momentary joy, even though minutes later I will worry about the health of each of them if they throw up too much, cough, or appear to be walking with a limp. Every moment is up-and-down, and I can either take the position of being the witness, or of being the affected total owner of this body mind, which itself is not under the owner’s control. It is sort of like being captain of small ship with no control over the rudder, because that control lies entirely elsewhere.
Every moment is a small miracle being completely immersed in the mortal life. Emotions become more real. Hearing becomes more acute. Body sensations, hunger, sexual pangs, one’s own bowel sensations center one’s attention. Then there is the recognition of other persons, the one you love, the one you hate, the one you desire, the one you resent, the one you fear. All become very real to you, although the stories you tell yourself about them, the endless stream of consciousness thoughts, become muted and no longer the center of attention.
Sensual experiences, emotions, love and the need for love, totally dominate thought, and you sink into your heart, getting away from the brain which has sought escape mortality in the fear of death. Now that you have embraced it, your center of consciousness drops from the brain into your heart, and you realize everyone around you is in the same boat, and your choice is either to help them, or to help yourself, or both. And you have to find your own way through this decision.
At the center of the recognition of your own mortality what you find? The desire to make others happy, or the desire to make yourself happy, or the desire to escape altogether? What do you find when you look and feel inside?
Do not get me wrong. In pursuing spirituality and knowing yourself, you find whole new worlds which most people never know. You get to know the great Void; you get to know the all pervading light of consciousness, with all its shades and colors; you get to know endless bliss and flowing energies; you get to know yourself as the totality of consciousness with no separation between your sense of self, your body, or the world around you; you get to know your sense of presence, as an energy body that pervades your body and extends beyond it; you get to know the great Causal Body, the body of the void and of forgetfulness of body and world. Most importantly, you get know yourself as love through the act of loving others. Eventually you get to know yourself as the absolute, where the absolute cannot be known because you are it and it is the end of the line of experience. The buck stops there. That is you seek the absolute then you get closer and closer to it, until you become it, and when you become it, you turn around so to speak, and become the knower knowing your body and the world, but you have realized you are altogether outside of consciousness.
Yet when you take the position of a human being is through identification with the body mind, as an incarnation of spirit, of the divine, but in that incarnation, you forget your divinity, and become an ordinary mortal once again. You have traveled 360°, you have known emptiness, you have known the fullness of energies and bliss; you have known yourself as love; you have known the totality of consciousness, you have known the absolute, and now you know all of that and can set them all aside, and once again become a mortal having coffee in the morning, feeding the cats, and holding your partner close by while you listen to chanting or watch television, and together share a deep silence, a deep abiding in each other’s presence.