Shakespeare wrote, “Death is a fearful thing.” These words likely resonate with each of us in one way or another. All humans have fears associated with death, albeit mostly denied or unconscious. Like the child who is afraid of the dark, we generally fear what we cannot see. We fear that which we cannot know for certain. Fear of the unknown causes us to have varying degrees of anxiety at the thought of death.
Will the dying process be painful? Is there anything, any life after death? How will I be remembered when I’m gone, if I’m even remembered at all? These are just a few of the questions that might run through the back of our minds when we are confronted with the thought of our own death.
Not only do we have fear of the unknown when it comes to death; we also fear the loss of control. Death is the ultimate surrendering of control. It is the final act of letting go. The ego stops asserting its need for dominance. This, however, is what causes us to fear because we are attached to and identified with our human experience, with our egos. We fear death because we don’t want to lose what we have, possess and experience through these bodies. Yet we are reminded by Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and Mohamed that clinging to the physical manifestation will bring great suffering and grief, but surrender and sacrifice on the physical plane brings peace and the certainty of one's eternal nature. If one tries to hang on to life, to control the experience of human existence, it is guaranteed to be lost. But when one surrenders their life, when one is literally willing to die in service to the Divine, that one lives eternally.
This is the great paradox: that a life best lived is lived as a series of losses, a series of deaths; mini-deaths, ego-deaths, identity deaths. Death is not meant to be a one time event at the end of life but, rather, a daily experience by which we learn to continually embrace the unknown, step into mystery, and release the need to control.
Contemplative spiritual practices, such as solitude, silence, and stillness, create the space and opportunity for us to learn this type of surrender in the midst of our daily lives. Thus, the contemplative way, the way of surrender, is a practice in “death.” If you have ever witnessed the moment of death you know that death is ultimately silent, still, and alone. The meditative practices of stillness and silence are our preparation for the inevitable, everyday, human-defining experience of death. The simplicity of contemplative spiritual practices thrusts us onto the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita, into the Garden of Gethsemane. We must struggle with surrendering to the beautiful immediacy of the unknown and place on the altar of death the sacrificial offering of our need to control.
To some, pondering death may seem morbid, but all the ancient spiritual texts suggests that there is wisdom here. I am learning that pondering death teaches me how to live! Turning my attention to my mortality shifts my perspective on everyday life. I'm developing a greater appreciation for the magnificence of the infinite, the Divine, as I come to terms with the manifold limitations of my mind and my ego-based beliefs and ideas. The practices of silence, stillness, and solitude are helping me learn that I cannot and do not control everything. I have to purposefully, intentionally practice death again and again by surrendering again and again all the "shoulds" and "ought to dos", offering up in sacrifice my expectations for how my life should be unfolding and attending instead to what is actually arising in the moment to moment field of my body. I aspire to be one who can say that every day I die a thousand deaths.
It has dawned on me that death and resurrection are not reserved for the end of life. Both realities are meant to be experienced every moment. Practicing death every morning in meditation, I then carry the awareness of my finite body through my days. I notice that death isn't killing me! Surrendering the insistence that I am right, that I know what others should be doing or how they should behave; listening to the pain in my knees or the cramping in my abdomen without trying to pull away or shame myself for imperfect health . . . Death of the ego, of ideas or beliefs about how life should be is practice for the final death, the end of the body . . . and totally survivable . . . in fact it makes daily life much more habitable! I am, in a sense, renewed . . . lighter, more open, more playful, more accepting and present, and more aware of all the areas of my life where I still hold on to control, where I am still afraid . . . and resist death.
Death is progressively becoming slightly less ominous . . . surrender is less conceptual and increasingly simple and experiential . . . surrendering to death is becoming more of a fact of life in relationships and in human-oriented projects . . . death is becoming the next logical step in the unfolding of daily decisions and plans. As I learn about death through intentional practice, I experience afresh what life is like connected to Source. Learning to die to the desire to have it my own way, to change others to fulfill my expectations, I am increasingly aware of an eternal undying presence, energy, consciousness that dwells within. All that death is, finally, is a re-membering of Source, and the ultimate re-union.