My walks through our town often take the same course. I go down one of the busiest roads in our area. It whistles and buzzes with the rhythmic swooshing and sporadic sounding of car horns. Then hanging a quick right I traverse through our town's cemetery before coming out on a road perpendicular that takes me back home. I suppose I could just take the sidewalk that lines the perimeter around the cemetery but, in all honesty, something attracts me to this seemingly grim place. In fact, almost every time I walk through there I wonder if someone might think me morbid for making such a custom of visiting an earth that is fertile with the decaying flesh and bones of individuals who once felt life pulse through them. That laughed and wept under the same sky that now breaks warm hues through my consciousness as it shines down upon our town's lake below, in its brilliance reflecting a world of impermanence.
Being there reminds of the ever changing nature of life. The only constant is change. I recently had a conversation where the purpose of life was discussed. It dawned on me that perhaps the primary purpose of life was not to necessarily love others or make a difference in the world but simply to live. To fully live. To meet each moment where it finds us and become completely immersed and saturated in the awareness of the interconnectedness that Is. Like a wave that rises to its full height, crest reaching towards the heavens , poised at the pinnacle of each moment conscious awareness of the present allows us to experience God in all His transcendent glory. When that happens all of the other notions we have of what makes life meaningful, like serving and loving others, follow because we want to nurture the interconnectedness that we experience. A deep empathy arises within us and spills out covering the world around us in God's love.
Should we fear death? What is death and what happens when we die? These questions have undoubtedly been asked since the first homo sapien capable of consciousness initially became aware of death. Perhaps this occurred after taking his first meal and feeling warm flesh grow cold and stiff, witnessing entrails staining emerald grass a ghastly crimson hue. A flash of revelation dawning on him that he was ending a life to preserve his own. Or maybe even from seeing the leaves begin to change color, turn an earthy shade and fall to disintegrate into the ground below. An intense fear must have arose the moment he realized that he would meet the same fate. From the earliest times religions have sprung up as a way for man to help make peace and reconciliation with his unavoidable demise.
I just finished viewing a documentary, "Flight from Death:The Quest for Immortality". It showed the results from many psychological studies that point towards the defensiveness individuals and groups have towards their versions of immortality which are generally embedded within their psyches through their religious beliefs. Myths and religious constructs, whether you believe them to be true or not, certainly have an affect in providing people with a sense of security and a deep sense of meaning to life which helps to make death less mysterious.
The beginning of the film was very interesting as it took the viewer from one culture's creation story to another. I found it fascinating. It then showed why tolerance towards other beliefs can be such a precarious goal. When one opens themselves up to accepting another person's belief as valid, it begins to threaten their own belief of immortality which provides them with their sense of meaning and purpose. That threat can shatter the very sense of their foundation of their existence.
When the foundation which is the basis for their belief of immortality is threatened, defensive measures ensue, oftentimes violent, as the studies and historical accounts reveal. The film noted historically that all other murders by individuals, like serial killers, were a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of killing and violence linked toward the defense of people's beliefs in order to maintain their sense of security over their perceptions of immortality. To feel like their sense of immortality is valid and true, and thus their eternal fates sealed and secure, people have been known throughout time to attempt to either conform others with differing views to accept their own or eradicate them. How tragic and utterly unnecessary.
In a book I'm reading, from Alan Watts he describes the anxiety and near obsession we have with death as being like that of a cat chasing it's tail. He chases his tail because he hasn't the notion of his whole self and sees his tail as a separate part of himself. If he could only realize that his head and tail were connected by his elongated and sleek torso he would realize that it were all one and lose his intense and rather distracting obsession with pursuing something he perceives is outside of himself and a completely futile pursuit. That is exactly the relationship life has with death. It is a different side of the same coin. It is a natural part of our existence, for to have an eternal life would, really , be near torture. A soul needs its time to rest.
We differ from the rest of animals in that our consciousness allows us to perceive and project our own theories about what the future holds. This can lead to intense fears and anxieties. We see death around us and know that it lurks around the corner of our life's story, not knowing which page will be the last, the ending a mystery that has been sought to be answered throughout time. In The Book On the Taboo of Knowing Oneself, Watts describes the transition from life to death as something not to be feared but more as an awakening of sorts to be welcomed as a natural course of one's existence. When a person is imminently facing their inevitable end with refusal and grandeur illusions of escaping it they are doing themselves a grave disservice in not preparing themselves to enter into a glorious awakening. Death should not be feared, but welcomed when it is time, as a natural course of things.
"In death we doff the persona, as actors take off their masks and costumes in the green room behind the scenes. And just as their friends come behind the stage to congratulate them on the performance, so one's own friends should gather at the deathbed to
help one out of one's mortal role, to applaud the show, and, even more,
to celebrate with champagne or sacraments (according to taste) the great awakening of death."
~ Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo of Knowing Who You Are p. 33
You might not feel that you obsess about death. I certainly don't think I do. The psychologists and neuroscientists in the documentary brought up the point that even though we might not seem to be dwelling on death consciously we are continually exposed to the reality of death. It could be from the evening news as we listen to an act of violence resulting in murder being reported. It could be driving by a bad accident and the thought of life's fragility flashing through our minds. Even if we seem to readily enough dismiss these occurrences our subconsciousness has been proven not to. The documentary further revealed through studies that the reminder of death in our subconscious mingled with our own interpretation of immortality effects the way we perceive events and participate in them. When death is subconsciously being thought of test subjects have been known to be less sensitive, even conjuring up malicious intentions, to those of different belief systems.
We can't really control, as far as I know, what our subconsciousness is exposed to or thinks. We can, however, begin to reconsider our notions of death and thereby start to build a more secure and healthy foundation for the way we approach others in the world. Realizing that even if we dare to consider another person's version of immortality, that regardless of either their version or ours, death is a natural process, comes to us all, and is merely an extended journey of our eternal existence.
The tragedy that happens to so many is that they are obsessed with their own mortality, as well as other meandering thoughts, that they fail to live in the present moment which is the only real kind of living there is. So some people die without really living at all. Perhaps our biggest fear shouldn't necessarily be death but should, instead, be whether or not the life we had to live here on earth was squandered. When we cultivate a habit of mindfulness, of living in the present moment, the abundant miracles and wonders of life begin to rise up and make themselves known. We live life fully. Living in the present moment ushers one into experiencing a deep sense of interconnectedness with all that is, and helps to vanish much of the unease regarding the turning of the last page of one's final chapter.
Thoughts? I'd love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments section. Thank you!