Afraid of Dying? No, but Mr. Death's Still Gonna Have To Wait
Whisking Away the Fear of Death, Just Like Buddha
Do you have a fear of death? Take a tip from Siddhartha Gautama.
When the first Buddha was asked what he gained from meditation, he deftly answered with what he lost, among other things - his fear of death.
I can't say I ever really feared death. As a kid overexposed to horror movies and television, I did fear the pain and terror they used to keep fools like me glued to their seats. That was something else.
What I did have, as I got into midlife, was a dread of not being alive. What about you?
As you grew to appreciate the richness of life, did the idea that, one day, you wouldn't be around to be part of it make you sad? Love of life made me want to live forever.
When Burt Lancaster, in The Swimmer, looked exuberantly up on a clear day and declared, "Look at that sky!" that was how I felt. I was thrilled to be alive and hated the truth that I would not always be.
Knowing I'd lose that passion, knowing it was inevitable, brought an unshakeable sadness with it.
It would all be gone, but the world and everything in it would continue without me.
Then, bit by bit, that awareness changed, turning itself inside out. As with the Buddha, meditation played a role, but learning from books and observation mixed in too.
Slowly, I learned the happy truth about dying and what it teaches us about living.
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Taking A Look At Death From a Safe Distance
What are you afraid of?
In my family, we were sheltered from the reality of death as children. In some ways, like dogs hit by cars, it might bring sorrow, but it was evanescent, life went on, death in a haze of forgetfulness behind us.
The first time death planted itself on my lap and wouldn't leave was when my grandmother died. Twelve years old and not having had a special relationship with her, I was taken mostly with curiosity at her funeral.
Men don't cry was a fact I knew, but one of my uncles went completely to pieces, the tough old farmer facade scraped off for the day and a lesson for me. Men do cry, but most are ashamed of it.
What landed indelibly at Grandma’s funeral was a Tennyson poem printed on the program. I didn't like Crossing the Bar any more than I liked the ickiness of most poetry, at that age, but the idea that, in death, we cross a bar and are not dropped off in heaven or hell resonated.
I can’t tell you why, but
When that which drew from out the boundless sleep
Turns home again
fit with me like later verses: Wallace Stevens on the consolation of writing "a few words tuned / And tuned and tuned," or Emerson on true love,
Heartily know, when half-gods go
The gods arrive.
Some things are just true, whether you get it or not, and don't need to be explained. We just know.
A few years later, when my cousin Johnny, age eight, was killed after being hit by a speeding car while riding his bike, I was a pallbearer, one of the last to say, "Goodbye," before the lid was closed.
It was obvious to me that this body was less than the active kid I knew. The makeup wasn’t close to approximating the vitality that once was. It was not that the figure in the coffin had stopped functioning. It was that something bigger had been removed.
Valley of the Shadow of Death
All The Great Spiritual Teachings Tell Us Not To Fear Death
You may not agree with their reasons or the other beliefs and teachings that go with them, but this is consistent.
Lao Tzu teaches the flow as an endless stream of time.
Buddha said that meditation taught him not to fear death, among other things.
"...though I walk through the valley of of the shadow of death, I fear no evil..."
I can sum up my thoughts about death like Kristin Chenoweth did in her autobiographical A Little Bit Wicked. Observing her beloved grandfather’s body shortly after his death, her intuition was clear.
As I recall, it was something like “Come on, that’s not him.”
I feel - or have felt - the same way. The body is there, but a core has been extracted.
Between The Meaning of Life and Death, A Gap
Fear and Wonder
Two things can' be pulled apart from each other - the meaning of life and death.
That fact got more difficult when, as a man determined to be honest and open with myself, I had to consider atheism's point of view, that it's all ultimately meaningless, that our spiritual beliefs are artificial dressings dreamed up to ease the inevitable tragedy of life, as possibly as valid as anything the religions taught us.
I am not comfortable with either extreme, but the persuasiveness of the atheists' scientific, rationalist view settled more easily in my internal debate.
The airy-fairy nature of an afterlife in heaven (Nobody we knew was going to hell, really.) coupled with the self-righteousness of those who embraced it was not intellectually or emotionally appealing. I didn’t fit in with them or that.
Yet, don’t we know, don’t we all just know there is something more?
After A Death, The Search Is On
When my sister-in-law died, far too young, from breast cancer, I'd have to have conned myself to believe that this vivid, dynamic character just flipped off into oblivion when her body gave out. Her inner flame, the her we knew and loved, never shrank. The body she was in just lost its ability to hold and sustain her and had to be given up.
As organs and bones and muscles fail, the person we know may struggle with diminished capacities, but that inner being doesn't deteriorate. Theres a continuous intactness of spirit, however much it loses its expression.
With Alzheimer's Disease and other mental diseases of aging, what's lost is a self that retreats into the fog. The physical structure of the mind can't do more when crippled than can a heart. It just loses its hold on that essential self.
Wishful Thinking or Letting Ourselves Know As Much As We Can?
Wishful thinking? Maybe.
But not more so than many of the conclusions reached by everyone, experts, scientists to priests, who claims to "know."
I, at least, have personal experience as well as objective evidence to support my view. And I would never settle on hope without evidence. That falls apart. As close to the truth as I can get, that's what I want.
With this caveat. I don't believe we can get at the whole truth of life, death or God because, in spite of our ingrown pride, we do not have the capacity to understand all of the conditions.
If our best minds can't come up with a satisfactory Theory of Everything, in other words, how are we to sit on a barstool next to the one who created all of it and share equally. We may be pieces of God, as some philosophies claim, but even that doesn't give us all of it.
We're part of something larger, for sure, without fully knowing what the rest of it is or how it works together. Expanding human awareness nudges a door open. Look around at how we live within nature. You can see we’re not strong enough to go any faster.
Making Peace with Death and Dying, Objectively
You Can Believe In Life After Death and Still Be a Thinking Man or Woman
Evidence? For now and probably permanently, I'll stay away from personal experiences, mine or those of others close to me.
After a harrowing death, a familiar, easily identifiable hand appears to rest on a grieving relative’s arm, comforting. A voice in the dark offers advice. Even a lost pet appears on request, in a strangely clear moment in the night, to be petted one more time.
These, and more, happened, but no one will be satisfied with unverifiable personal experiences, not even me, as much as I would like to be.
I need more. And I've got it. Abundantly.
When I read, I debate. The way my mind works, I challenge what the author puts on the page, looking for holes in the argument and unjustified assumptions.
It's a habit I learned from growing up with smart older brothers. Questioning was a family trait, one we picked up from our cerebral, no nonsense Dad.
So, when I began reading the literature on NDEs, life after death and life between lives, I was reluctantly skeptical. Anything that big had greater hurdles to get over than an argument about the next election or the best way to educate our children.
A truth that alters how we see the context of our lives so radically had to make a more convincing case than others.
On Death and Dying Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Breaks New Ground
I admit that I have a predisposition to believe there is more to life than life and that I’ve always had it. An intuition has always been with me that we are a part of a whole, most of which is invisible. Understanding how that pans out as a guide for living has fascinated me.
Since religion never stuck with me, I think my belief preceded anything grownups tried teaching me. I knew, even as a kid, that the biblical stories were missing the point.
Digging around in my memory doesn’t help with any incident that enlightened me. Understanding just happened to be there, ready to be ignited when my first wife, a nurse, told me about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying.
Sleep, More Bizarre Than A Near Death Experience
In going off into sleep, we lose our senses, leaving our minds to concoct a recognizable world from bizarre elements that exist only inside us.
We do a passable job of it, but nobody who remembers dreams thinks they’re a sensible continuation of the life we lead all day.
What you have instead are the dynamics and, freed from senses and reasoning, our imaginations fly free. We create alternative realities that fit a greater awareness, time-limited content merges with and mediates infinity.
Detractors who argue against what we learn from NDEs can't explain why our routine nightly adventures are so much more wild than the ordered stories told by those who've returned from clinical death.
Any NDE story I've read is more believable than most of the dreams I've had.
An NDE is like a regular short story next to the zaniness of a Thomas Pynchon novel. They are not extreme.
Dr. Michael Newton and the Discovery of Life Between Lives
Dr. Michael Newton, a hypnotherapist, had seen past life regression therapy ease intractable emotional stress. Returning a subject to pain or suffering in a previous existence, whether real or imagined, helped relieve troubles in this one.
In the decades that followed, Dr. Newton and his colleagues documented thousands of additional stories, learning more about this mysterious world as they compared accounts from around the world.
It’s possible to think away a single incident or even a few. We think away centuries of exposure to ghosts, for example.
Why not accounts of anything as bizarre as an eternal life of which life on Earth is an incidental, temporal part, a physical expression in time?
It’s easy to dismiss because it’s so strange. But why would we want to?Long ago, Wayne Dyer convinced me to be “open to everything.”
We are never going to really understand nature as long as we refuse to look inside the deserts, forests and fields that show up on our way. Better to know, even when it’s unpleasant, than not know.
So, I began reading Dr. Newton’s accounts and considering the strange new world they described in detail.
Although his trust in what he was learning was strong, I found some of the earliest stories unconvincing. The other side was just too pat, not nearly unusual enough to contrast with the one I was already in.
But in time, as the stories continued to pour in and the complexities grew, I realized that what made the early stories so unremarkable was the language and symbolism with which they were told.
As with many NDEs, those sharing their experiences do not have words for what they see.
It’s too different, too removed from anything in our ordinary lives, leaving them no choice but to reduce their accounts into the language and symbols available.
I assume Dr. Newton reached that insight too because the reports from life between life studies grew more intricately detailed, more able to convey the strange universe from which they were told and more easily integrated.
The Poetry of How We Die
I'm trying to be a little more prosaic here because the poetry of what we're discovering may be too much for some take in. We've all been told that miracles don’t happen, a million times, so many times that most of us never really look for them.
It's honest to say that, as it turns out, what we were taught was right. Miracles do not happen. What we call miracles are really quite ordinary.
There are no exceptions or special events. What happens in an NDE and in the universe it suggests is as common as breathing and singing a song.
Some said that we all need to get right with death because it's where we are all going. More truth was never spoken. And now, we can.
Our minds, bodies and souls are parts of a whole. They get put together early and, usually, spend eighty or so years working in unison. Two of the pieces wear out, and then, the third exits. That's a human life in a nutshell.
Our lives, however, are greater in scope and possibly eternal.
Let's take a walk through the end of life and try to understand what happens.
We Do Not Walk Alone
We learn from the stories in Memories of the Afterlife that our ancestors did not always have souls.
Deep in the past, what we know as souls were first merged with embryos in utero, emerging into brains and filling out the complex creatures we can see walking on Madison Avenue, singing country tunes, watching crime shows and a million other things that are pieces of the human experience.
That soul will outlive the body it enters. It will leave when the construction within which it’s embedded (in other words, you and me) is no longer viable. Bodies and brains wear out. Souls, not being physical and subject to laws, may not.
We learn that souls are lifted out of bodies about to be destroyed in catastrophes, like car wrecks and murders, leaving before sharing the worst suffering. More often, of course, it’s more gradual.
Escorts come from the other side and guide us through the passage out of the physical world. Sometimes, they come early, giving the dying advance notice that helps them deal with the sorrow of leaving, and you might even get a chance to bargain a little for time, for an event, like the birth of a child or the arrival of a loved one.
While much has been made of near death experiences, they don't differ greatly from sleeping. There are two important differences. In sleep, we are not under trauma, and of course, when we doze off, we expect to come back.
But the drift away from physical reality is the same. No matter what we see, nothing is quite real. Our brains scramble to invent a recognizable place among a wash of nonphysical influences. In sleep, we are our own directors. In dying, we get to have escorts.
The escorts, usually deceased relatives and friends, ease our return to a universe without time or physical objects. Life between lives studies tell us that, soon, we recognize this bizarre place as "home."
Mr. Death Will Just Have To Wait
My dread about dying was eased more by that than by any meditative awakening. In short, Mr. Death became my friend. But he is still going to have to wait.
It's not the NDE or the passage back that matters. I’m here writing this, as a person with a name, because - just like you - I came here with a purpose.
What's that purpose? As an individual, you probably already know what drives you. I'm not talking simply about inspiration. I'm talking about conflicts too. We’re here to be thrilled with inspiration but also to work some things out.
On the wide open plain, my intuition tells me that, in the grand scheme of things, we are here to expand and build upon a universal harmony that will be the full realization of God.
It took me six decades to realize that keeping an active, open and well-fed mind that helps me turn ideas into words is my primary job. It took so long because it's damn hard to risk being so different, to not just live in the world but be able to step back far enough to observe and report on it.
There's more. It can be seen in sixty years of involvement with others and nature. In relationships to everyone and everything, we discover the questions we need to answer, the weaknesses we need to strengthen, and the strengths we need to polish.
You can do it now, I think, or put it off. You will do it, though, sometime.
Listen to the Doctor - Doctor Wayne Dyer, That Is
Once the fear of death and even the dread of it is gone, what’s left is a life with no excuses. No reason to rush or resist, only to just do.
We all know what our music is, even those of us who turn away from it. Our souls sing to us, but our minds make some decisions that conflict. My inclination is to go along with the song.
It wasn’t always that way. I was taught, as most of us were, to make rational, not poetic choices. Fortunately, I wasn’t a great student.
Reasoning and rational decision-making are valuable, but I’m convinced now that inspiration, the song in my soul, is what’s brought me the most satisfying results.
I have things left to do. Mr. Death is just going to have to wait.
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What's your opinion on life after death?
How you feel about the context of our lives, once and out or more to come, may determine how you approach everything.
Do we have an eternal life that goes on after physical death?
© 2014 David Stone