Sunday, January 22, 2012

Always Dying

Death and Impermanence in Mind-Body

Excited conversations often veil a deeper, darker meeting of psyches.  If you listen closely, you will betray yourself, as will your partner.  Midway through a hike, I wondered if our debate about living forever masqueraded our attitudes towards our own death.  I was explaining my view on why living forever sucks -- from my teenage reading of Anne Rice's vampire novels.  Living forever, you lose your family and your empathy with the prevalent culture, until life itself is meaningless.  But underneath the intellectual fa├žade of our debate, I was really just dramatizing my own relationship with death.  Death was my everpresent companion since I was a 7-year-old afraid of the dark, spurring cycles of spirituality and atheism, approach and avoidance, deconstruction and denial.  For 20 years, death eked its way out of the dungeon into recurring thoughts, fears, and even the way I loved.

When I first realized what death was, I was terrified.  I was all of a sudden paralyzed by my own insignificance.  I had the sensation of energy draining from my body -- that "sinking feeling".  Sometimes it felt profoundly selfish or narcissistic.  Why was it so important that I was here for the world?  But more often fear made the world feel profoundly unreal, meaningless, lonely.  The relationships I made, the good or bad things I did, all for naught.  My life itself would soon be extinguished by a neverending, dreamless night.

I craved signs that there was something else.

The Headless Horseman
In my teens, I was consoled by various afterlives, whether a heaven above, or a cyclic reincarnation back to earth.   A way to bring something from this life onwards, to retain consciousness and self.  In India, where belief in reincarnation is common, reincarnation stories abound.  A husband who died prematurely would be re-born in a nearby village -- his first words inquiring about his orphaned family.  In America, ghost stories of redemption after death are more common, from stories like the Headless Horseman to movies like Ghost or The Sixth Sense.  And let's not forget TV shows about the "white light" heaven of near-death experiences.  I devoured all of these stories.  Each one would give me some temporary relief from my temporariness.  I could imagine for a few days or weeks that there was some magical extension to my life, that my life mattered.  I even synthesized Hindu reincarnation into a Judeo-Christian heaven at inter-religious summer camp when I was 12.

But the more I thought about the afterlife, the more it didn't satisfy.  Your body does not go with you.  Your memory evaporates along with your mind.  You lose your family (unless you are Mormon.)  So what exactly was the point of afterlife if you lose all the familiar stuff?  It's not really "you" any more, it's your impersonal soul at best.  In Hinduism, your soul tallies karma, a cosmic accounting of good and bad deeds, to determine the quality of your next life.  The more I thought about karma, though, the more it felt like an oversimplification for humans anxious to makes sense of a random world.  The popular conception of a Judeo-Christian heaven for do-gooders likewise seemed simplistic.  We love a causal world where good begets good, and bad begets bad.  A Santa Claus for spirituality.  But I wasn't buying it.   I lost eternal life, I found mortal pain.

Eve and the Serpent
This was no merely philosophical argument with death, it was personal.  Some of my more logical friends insist that fearing death doesn't make any sense.  They say, "Why fear death?  You won't have any consciousness of being gone.  It's only the people you leave behind that will care."  Sure, that's true, but it doesn't make mortality any less scary.  Mortality triggers deep survival anxieties, and surfaces self-destructive tendencies -- the heritage of Freud's life and death instincts.  Even the vitality of our sex drive urges us towards self-annihalation, if only for a moment, as we dissolve into another.  Other hedonistic pleasures like drugs or alcohol can also distract us for a bit.  But death continues to lurk in the space between our thoughts and in the awkward silences of a conversation.  Our mind wants to fill it up.  Wouldn't it be great if we had some other, lesser insecurity to obsess about than death?  Some suggest that's exactly why we have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Sometimes we cope by imagining the end of the world.  We go to blockbuster movies about aliens, epidemics, asteroids, robots or apes taking over.  We obsess on Nostradamus' apocalyptic predictions  or the Mayans predictions about 2012.  It's more comforting to know that when the light goes out for you, it's gone out for everyone else too.  There wouldn't be anything to live for, after all.

Sometimes we cope by pretending that we will live forever.  We optimistically report on the science of longevity, hoping for the time life expectancy improves faster than our bodies decay.  If all else fails, we can pay millions to freeze our bodies in the hopes that we will get resuscitated sometime in the future.  We pay homage to science in place of a God, for in longevity lies a flickering hope for meaning in our life.

After two decades of unsuccessfully avoiding death, I embraced it.

Suzuki, the great scholar of Zen, explained why death mastery was necessary for a Samurai swordsman.  In a sword fight, a moment's hesitation or fear can be fatal.  Good sword fighting, like good chess, is done intuitively, since logical thinking is too slow.  Of all the disempowering thoughts a sword fighter must avoid, the most fundamental is the fear of his own death.  So in addition to preparing physically and technically for a fight, the swordsman must prepare spiritually.  In order to fear nothing, he must give up everything.  In giving up the attachment to his life, paradoxically, he is able to fight for his life better.  He ceases to have an identity, becoming the sword itself.  Dying in his mind, he is able to live more fully, more freely, more in the moment.  This sort of mental conditioning can takes years of practice, but is as fundamental as any technique he must learn.  How do you learn to embrace death?

Tibetan monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche answered this very simply, in the biography of his youth he gave us at Spirit Rock.  As a 7-year-old, he started suffering from a panic disorder.  He feared natural disasters, a fear psychologically linked to mortality.  His first attempts at meditation at age 13 only made his fear worse.  Likely seeking to avoid or minimize his anxiety, his early meditation quieted his mind and made space for the fear to dominate.  He feared his fear, which continued to trap it in his body.  Resolved neither to allow this anxiety nor to fight it, he chose a third way. He chose to befriend it, to make it his teacher.  He locked himself in his room for three days, where he used his panic as a constant cue for meditation.  At the end of it all, the panic was gone, and he missed his old friend.

About six years ago I got to an acute stage with my fear of death.  I started imagining accidents all the time.  I stepped around a car and imagined a bus would be waiting to hit me.  I imagined falling off the balcony in front of me.  It wasn't quite debilitating, but it was much more than a nuisance.  Why did I keep having these thoughts?  About the same time, I became conscious of the curious way I moved through love and loss.  The silence after arguments I had with my girlfriend were unbearable for me.  Our intimacy's demise reminded me of my own death to come.  I returned to love with the force of resurrection, substituting love for existential reassurance.  I re-enacted a cyclical drama of insecurity.

Tibetan Vajrayogini
Transforming death into nirvana
I decided to bring death into my every day, for what became several years.  Wake up, brush teeth, think about death.  Commute to work, think about death.  Lull in conversation, remember my mortality.  Talk about it with my friends.  At night, when it's dark, obsess about it.  Write a diary entry about love and death, about sex and death, about my parents and death, ambition and death.  A friend my age died, and so I played a sad death song 1,000 times, and allowed myself to cry.  Believe it or not, this existence was no more morbid than before.  It just accepted and embraced my fears in the every day.  At some point, I even started to enjoy celebrating our finite lives.  The creativity in destruction, the phoenix rising from the flames.  I even joked about death with Andrew Bird's lyrics:
To save our lives, you've got to envision the fiery crash.  It's just a formality, just a nod to mortality, before you get on the plane.

And then one New Years Eve we went around talking about what we had learned in the past year.  I said, for the first time ever, "I've come to a comfortable place with death."  I later remarked how astonishing this moment was.  In many ways, it was the culmination of a twenty year journey.  It's not that I'm completely free of fear now.  It's just that the morbid, excessive attachment I had to fearing my death has lost it's grip.  I don't have to obsess over it.  My friend death doesn't ever have to feel left out.  My finiteness is understood in my everyday existence and integrated with my infiniteness. (See Einstein's related letter).

Greek Gaia
Earth Goddess
I can now intuit ideas I studied intellectually decades ago.  "Birth and death are mere concepts, not manifestations of reality…  Nothing begins, nothing ends, it just is."   We can identify with a larger organism -- Gaia, the earth or the universe or cosmic consciousness -- that will survive our body's dissolution.  Reincarnation can be rationalized as a give-and-take of the body with the environment.  While living, we exchange the atoms and cells in our bodies with our environment on a daily basis.  As the yin-yang symbolizes, every living thing bears within it the seeds of its own destruction, each dying thing the potential to give life.  When we die, we contribute our body back to the whole, where it can become another (in)sentient being.  I'm aware that these words are just empty concepts.  Nonetheless I hope it's worth sharing the idea of connecting with death's emptiness directly.

At the center of our fears, our pain, our thoughts, our bodies, is a profound emptiness.  From this emptiness, real joy emerges.  Emptying our thoughts, we find intuition.  Accepting our mortal death, we heal the little death preserved in our bodies.  Dissolving memory and identity, we find freedom.  


zoe lunch said...

come to terms w/dying? shoot, i don't even understand why i'm *alive* to begin with.

eudae said...

well said @zoe. for many of us, maybe death of the "why" can give meaning to life :)