Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How to Prepare for Death And How to Die

All religions and philosophies try to prepare their adherents for death. Their views of death and their ways of preparation are numerous, but few really begin where they should begin- in the acceptance of inevitable death.

We all know that we are going to die, even those of us who don't think about it much, or who are in deep denial. It's not enough to hear that we are going to die, or to accept that biological organisms must all eventually die. You have to accept that you yourself are inevitably going to die, and the day of your death could be today or tomorrow. This is a further step that most people never take until it is far too late.

Stop to consider all the things you love, all the things you've worked for, and all the everyday habits and expectations you have; we all have hundreds, if the count were done correctly- maybe even more. Consider the joy and the comfort you gain from knowing that these things are with you, near you, and around you, and then consider how you would feel if you had to leave every single one of them behind forever.

Because that's what the experience of death is going to compel you to do. Few people can honestly say that such an experience wouldn't shock them, frighten them, disturb them, or horrify them. Few people can claim to be ready for it, right this moment.

But if you aren't ready for it, right this moment, you have left a vulnerability in your mind and soul that can, in an instant, turn into a terrible experience.

Take some time to reconsider your life, then consider what you would do if, at this moment, the messenger of Death came for you with that inevitable and immovable look on her face. The line is drawn; there's no going back. Are your loved ones able to get along with out you? Are there projects you're working on, right this moment, that you've been putting off? Is there someone you badly need to speak with, some enemy you've been meaning to seek peace with, or someone that you've hurt that you need to apologize to? Consider the fact that time is not guaranteed to you. Consider how you spend your time.

All this begins when you just sit down and truly admit to yourself that you're going to die- you- your name, your genetics which no other human being has, your thoughts and memories which no other human being has, all this uniqueness, this Fateful event you call your person, it is going to vanish from this world, and everything will change for you.

Do not be afraid to tell the people you love that you love them, and tell them that if you were to die tomorrow, that they have made you very, very happy, and that you will carry that love away with you, into the experience of death and whatever may come afterwards. Make sure they know what they need to know- that you appreciate them and that you would stay with them forever, if you could. But death is not a choice. Let them know that you are satisfied with your life with them, including any ills or hard spots- but make sure you honestly mean that. If you don't mean it, talk it out. Get clean. Get honest.

Let them know that if you were to be taken tomorrow by death, that you are prepared- that you accept death and that you are appreciative of them, every moment you have with them. Tell them not to mourn you over-much; tell them that we humans can do only so much to prepare for these things, and we can only do so much to live our time well with one another.

Does this sound too grim for you? It isn't; it's the work of joy and reality; it is the work of awareness; It is the work of the essential human being. Don't let your life slip by you without considering life's twin, death. Death should be used as a resource to bring your life into strong, clear focus. Your moments are not anonymous little things slipping by you without number; they are precious jewels. If you consider that you may only have a hundred minutes left to live, or two hundred, or even a thousand, they suddenly become very precious.

Before you read this, maybe you hadn't considered that your minutes are numbered. If you wish to think in a strictly linear fashion, and for the purposes of this example, we will- then they most certainly are. What will you do with the minutes that remain to you? Don't let your remaining time turn into a blur; let it flow in crisp awareness. Consider your actions and how you spend your time.

Once you have accepted death as inevitable, then you must consider what you will do when death actually arrives. At this point, religious beliefs and other similar things step in and try to present models, in strictly human language and terms, of the experience, as a guide to the dead.

This is fine, and important. But don't forget that models are just models, and death is a universal experience, not just a human one. There aren't special rules for human beings; all beings must face what death brings on equal terms. What makes the death experience different is, of course, the differences in the minds of each one dead- what emotions they bring to the experience; what hopes and dreams they have; what they fear; and what debts they owe to themselves, to life, to their fellow man, to their conscience, and to this world.

It sounds like a lot to bring, but it isn't- it's the baggage you carry around with you everyday. You don't pack up for death; you take what you have on at the time of death, figuratively speaking. This is another fine reason to dress light every day of your life. Pay those debts; resolve those emotions; clarify those hopes and dreams; and don't let your love for people, things, or places become weights that hold you down to this life.

Death makes us reconsider the idea of love. I would never stop loving my wife, my daughter, and my friends. The inevitable approach of death doesn't change my love; it clarifies it, makes it stronger. But caution is needed- love for someone doesn't mean that you can or will stand by them forever. Love for someone means that you will do the best for them that you can, as long as you can. I will love my family and friends as long as I am humanly able; how long that is, precisely, is a mystery to us. But what I do know is that for as long as I live I can love. I personally believe that after I die, I can love as well, though it may be in different ways or on different terms after that experience.

Either way, I won't give up on my love. But what I will give up on is the idea that my life here in this world with my loved ones can go on forever. I want to stay here forever with them, but that is not my choice, in the end- and it isn't realistic. Nothing was meant to stay here forever; the weave of Fate doesn't let things abide in eternal stillness forever. No human, no tree, no mountain, no God- nothing abides forever as we know it now. All must move on to the common destiny that we all share.

Consider for a moment an experience that you dreaded, but which you had to undergo. Maybe you hate getting shots or inoculations, but had to get some. You knew the day of your appointment, and you dreaded the wait. You dreaded driving to the doctor's, and you felt your trepidation grow to a fever pitch while in the waiting room. Your heart fluttered a bit when your name was called; your chest felt warm with controlled dread. You sat in a chair; they wiped you with alcohol, and its awful clinical stingy smell, and then they approached your bare flesh with a long, sharp needle.

You might have closed your eyes tight, or tensed up. You held your breath. You felt the sting- maybe it wasn't as bad as you thought, or maybe it was all you dreaded. You felt pain, discomfort, or maybe it ended faster than you imagined.

Either way, you walked out, glad that it was over. Things returned to normal.

You can look at death in precisely the same way, except when you are done with the experience- whatever it will be for you, things will not return to your old life; they will reintegrate in a new way, but a way that is completely related to precisely the sort of person you were before, and related to the fateful ties, experiences, and powers that were acting on you in the moments before your death. Our ancestors discussed this transition in terms of people journeying to other worlds. That model is perfectly legitimate. It is all about transition, self-revelation, and finding a new place.

What you must remember to do is this: you've accepted the inevitability of death; now accept that you will experience it. It may be a long experience, or a short one; it may be peaceful, or frightening. Whatever it is, you must bring only one thing to it: clarity of mind.

Death must be considered an experience, for indeed, it can be nothing else. To any experience in life, you should bring clarity: be very aware of it, observe how you react to it, but do not let it invade your better senses and defeat your wits. Common people see something disgusting on a television screen and they are overcome with revulsion; they can't think straight for a few moments; they are overcome. They shudder, screw their faces up, tense their stomach muscles, and, in reality, they go "bleary minded" for a few moments.

That sort of reaction is not suitable for a person who wishes to prepare for death, or live a life of wisdom. The next time something is about to strongly crash against your senses, and you know it is coming, take a single moment to compose yourself, and prepare to receive it. Don't prepare to shield yourself; prepare to receive it. You'll be surprised what happens. Let yourself know that you are about to have to view something, experience something, receive something that you won't like, but that you will receive and observe, simply and clearly.

You may still feel revulsion, but the difference is, you'll be aware of the feeling arising in you. You can watch it, study it. You can see the object of your revulsion, and instead of just seeing something disgusting, see what is really there- is it blood or gore that disgusts you? What is blood and tissue but earth and water? See it that way; a totally natural thing, a configuration of sacred elements, driven by Fate to be mixed and arranged in a certain way. Realize your kinship to it.

If you can do this, become an observer who doesn't lose his wits, and who can feel negative emotions with some degree of awareness, instead of losing awareness because of them, you have gone a long way towards preparing for death. For this is precisely the way you have to face death and all of death's experiences. Prepare to receive whatever will happen to you as death takes you, and don't lose your wits, regardless of what you see or experience. Accept whatever feelings or visions you may have as your destiny unfolding, for that is exactly what they are. Take refuge in full awareness, and acceptance of the moment.

Don't get overcome with revulsion or fear, because death is as natural as blood or tissue. It's part of the human experience. Even frightening visions at death, nightmarish or hard, are more configurations of Fate, natural forces, as natural as your breath or thoughts.

And just like any of those things, you have no need to be revolted or frightened by them. You CAN overcome any fear associated with them, if you just bring the needed element of awareness to the situation. If you simply lose consciousness, and have no thoughts or volition, you have nothing to worry about- that's easy.

When you find yourself in full awareness, or in dream-like states, be aware and observant. Confusion may come; don't die imagining that it's some great puzzle that you have to figure out; it isn't. Just be okay with anything that arises to you, and then, there's no confusion at all. No expectations one way or the other, and acceptance of whatever happens to be there, means no confusion.

You may experience feelings of guilt or anger or frustration or sadness. That's common enough. The only time you can prevent this is before you die- get your mind and affairs in order. If you came to death (or if Death found you) living with the right attitude to death, and living rightly next to your loved ones and your world, you won't have regrets.

However, should you still find yourself in negative emotional straits, take refuge in this fact: Fate is Fate, and you have been carried to this moment as you are for a reason. The task of some humans is easier than others; clearly, if you are in this condition, your task involves facing negative emotions, and you must accept that. So you're sad; mad; guilty; just observe those feelings and watch them fade away naturally, as they must.

If you did something terrible to deserve them, accept that you did it, and know that you have learned your lesson by the cost you are paying at this moment. Know that you will always remember to act better in the future, and really mean that- then your task is done, and you have done all that a human can be expected to do. Move on in peace.

Don't hang on to anything; let it fall naturally by the wayside and move on to whatever may come. Accepting what you have done and learning the lesson you needed to learn- how some actions lead to negative ends- is all you need to do. Those who are tormented forever are those who refuse this most human lesson, and refuse to admit their complicity or their deeds and own them fully.

To all this, in the death-experience, you must be brave. Bravery is not just for warriors; it's for everyone. Living a human life- any human life- requires you to face frightening things and uncertain things, so being brave is never a lost cause. It's a good investment, on both sides of the curtain of life and death. The final thing you can remember from this day forward is that death is an opportunity for new experiences- spiritual allies you had in this life are still there in death, if they were real allies; your ancestors, they are very real, regardless of what you believe about them- it has been long believed that they will come to the aid of their own kin in death.

The spiritual guardians of individuals and families are said to do the same, along with some among the Gods- will we see the Allfather? Perhaps. It is no small thing to take refuge in those sentient beings who have the best interests of humankind in mind, who are bound to us by a higher concern. But they can't face death for you; they can only offer their help, and you must keep your wits long enough to take it. My advice: prepare for it before your day arrives. And since most of us don't know that day, prepare for it now.

I don't particularly want to die tomorrow or the next day, or ever; but I know that I might. I accept that as Fate- but it still pains me to think of not seeing my daughter grow up, or not being able to share movies or dates with my wife. So, when my daughter, my wife, and I have time together, I appreciate it. I don't panic at the thought that we could be spending our last moments together; I treasure those moments. I rest in the fact that I have done good things for them and with them, and that they will be able to survive without me, and live on. I treasure the fact that they both know how much I love them, and that if I can, I will persist in some form to protect them and continue loving them.

That's all we humans can hope for. It's as though Fate is teaching us to stop wishing for the impossible and do what is possible as well as we can. There's no peace in beating your head against Fate's closed doors; there's only peace in discovering which doors Fate left open and walking through them with dignity.

I could end this by telling you how my religious beliefs- in common with others- say that this whole world will be renewed one day, and that all who have died will live again, and be together again. I could go further and say that the dead will dwell together in the land of the dead, or that one day, all our spirits will dwell in a condition where there will be no more separation. I could tell you those things, but it wouldn't do you or me any good.

Those beliefs are fine, and I cherish them, but they don't exempt me from the more immediate duty of accepting death, and dying well. It's okay to die with better hope because of your religious beliefs. But don't let your beliefs become the reason why you didn't prepare to die while you had the chance. It is true that I know of something about mankind that doesn't fall victim to death- but each man and woman must still face death, and that will never change.