M A Y 2 0 2 0
Let’s talk for a moment about death. It’s a dark and fearsome subject for many of us, especially these days when we’re all trying to hide from a fatal pandemic that’s stalking the land, and every headline and news report counts the dead and reminds us we could be next. Death, usually in the background of our lives, is now in the foreground.
The desire to live, to avoid disease and death, is baked into our DNA — and it’s a good thing it is. We mourn the death of those we love and do our best to save people we’ve never met from death. The cruel deaths of war are an abomination to us. It’s understandable that death has a dark and fearsome reputation.
But what is it? What is death? Is it possible to understand it in another way, along with its dark reputation?
We may find some clues in the words of spiritual mentors, contemporary and past.
You probably know the story of the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi, that when he was dying his disciples pleaded with him, “Master, please don’t die! Don’t leave us!”
Ramana replied, “Don’t be silly, where could I go?”
Whenever I’ve repeated that story in a gathering, the reaction of nearly everyone has been an immediate smile or laugh. We get it. We get the joke.
What do we get? What do we know? After all, death is the big goodbye, the last farewell, the end of life.
Or is it? Why do we smile when we hear Ramana say he’s not going anywhere?
When we look at death from the standpoint of our individual lives, it certainly looks like death makes people “go away,” depart, vanish from life. But Ramana wasn’t looking at death from the standpoint of his or our individual lives. Our particular lives do end; we have to accept that. Rather he was looking at it from the standpoint of our original, ever-present nature that doesn’t go anywhere.
That may sound very spiritual, but what does it mean? What is our “original nature?” Is it alive? Is it not subject to death?
In Tibetan traditions, guidance is read aloud to those who are in the process of dying or who have just died, as in this verse by Padmasambhava:
Thine own awareness,
shining, void, and inseparable
from the Ground of Radiance,
hath no birth,
hath no death,
and is the Immutable Light.
As Ramana Maharshi testifies, we don’t have to wait until death to recognize the Immutable Light that is our original nature. The essence of our awareness right now has no birth, no death. When we get a glimpse of this truth directly, an old tension that’s been stretched tight in us relaxes and opens.
A profound gladness fills the human psyche
when it knows the part of the self that does not die.
— Coleman Barks
And from Rumi:
We have such fear of what comes next. Death.
These loves are like pieces of cotton.
Throw them in the fire.
Death will be a meeting like that flaring up,
a presence you have always wanted to be with.
This presence is our original nature, present here and now, yet hidden from us because we’re entranced with the phenomena that appear in it. The profound gladness that fills our psyche when we recognize what we are, comes from the realization that it’s not simply “our” original nature but it’s the original nature of everything, of the All, of the One. We can’t fall out of it, even when we die.
Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says it:
Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes
it is water. At that moment, all fear of death disappears.
And Rumi again:
Let sadness and your fears of death
sit in the corner and sulk.
The sky itself reels with love.
There is one being inside all of us, one peace.
Sufis often meditate on one of the Names of God called Al Hayy, the Alive. Al Hayy means that “God” — the pure awareness that is our original nature and the original nature of everything — is Alive. Rumi’s one being inside all of us is Alive. It’s an Aliveness not dependent on organic processes, and as such it is not subject to death. When our individual lives end, our original nature doesn’t. As Sufi Inayat Khan told us, “It is death that dies, not life.”
When you experience this directly (through spiritual practice or through a moment of grace) or if you simply accept it on faith, your attitude toward death changes. You still do everything you can to avoid death and you still grieve the loss of loved ones, but death is no longer dark or fearsome. It’s a homecoming. You understand and can say with Walt Whitman:
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.