On Death - Pt 1

I will always remember the first time I came face to face with my own mortality.  Jo and I had trekked to the bland suburb of Box Hill to get the results of my pre-surgery C/T scan.  The surgeon could barely look me in the eye as he told me the scan had detected a growth in my lung, and my cancer was now inoperable.  I asked if there was any way we could check the results.

“This test is 95 - basically it’s 100% accurate”, he said.

“You have many months left”, he said.

“Go to the pub”, he said, “have a drink”.

After we left the surgeons office, Jo and I held each other and cried on the street.

I will hate Box Hill for the rest of my life.

A PET scan later determined that whatever in my lung wasn’t cancerous, but in those few weeks, I had a lot of time to contemplate death and what it means to me. For this I am extremely grateful.

Everyone dies, and despite what some believe, everyone will continue to die.  Arguably the majority of the concerns of science, philosophy and religion are the questions of why are we here, why do we die and what happens afterwards.  I’m not proposing solutions to any of these questions.  The important part, is how we deal with it.

The Stoics believed that some things were just out of our control, so there was no point wasting energy on these.  The one thing we had any control over was our mind, and how they reacted to things, so they would meditate, and they would contemplate the worse case scenarios possible, such as their own impending doom.  It sounds depressing, but I feel that it’s a good approach, and I feel that receiving the diagnosis was like my own Stoic contemplation except it was real!

I’m not sure that I believe in a soul but I like the idea of atman - that the substrate of reality is consciousness, and that we can tap into that by “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” through yoga and vigilant meditation.  

In yogic philosophy there are purusha and pakriti.  Purusha is “soul”, the infinite, unchanging and unchangeable consciousness at the heart of reality.  Pakriti is matter, and everything that is changing, including our sense and our minds.  This means that when our bodies die, our minds, our personality and our memories all die with it.  Even if we do reincarnate (and I’m not saying we do) it’s not us.  There will be no real memories of a previous life.  There is not much solace in this architecture of the universe.

In “Waking, Dreaming, Being” by Evan Thomson, he talks about the experience of a guided meditation where they begin by “visualizing the progression of the bardo of dying from the “outer dissolution” of the senses and elements of the body to the “inner dissolution” of consciousness”.  I attempted this a few times, and every time ended in me crying.  I wasn’t ready to die.  I was afraid.

To me, death is about the dissolution of the mind and the ego, and there are 2 ways we can approach it - with fear and struggle, or calm and acceptance.  In some cases fear and struggle may be appropriate, but I honestly believe that when we reach the end of our lives the best way to go is to be calm and accepting if not welcoming.

In his book “Dream Yoga”, Andrew Holocek writes: “Buddhas not only don’t sleep, they also don’t die, in the conventional sense.  Their outer form dissolves, as does anything composed of form, but because they no longer identify with form, death no longer has any meaning.”  It may not be possible for any of us to become Buddhas, but I do think it’s possible to lessen the suffering of death by learning to untangle our perceptions of the identities and false stories we create about our “selves”.

In yoga, and in meditation, we learn about calmness and acceptance.  Acceptance of our bodies, our capabilities and about the fluctuations of our minds.  We learn that we are conscious creatures strolling through the world, unaware of the fact that we are not separate from it.

So, in my view, Yoga is about dying well.  And to die well we must first live well.  I’ll write more about this in another post.