Eddie Izzard has this hilarious skit where he's joking about the Church of England an the Spanish Inquisition- and how they would have offered the question "Cake or Death?" And who would choose death? [You can watch the clip here- it's at about 5.5 minutes.] And Eddie Izzard cracks me up. It's hilarious to think of the whole thing. Cake or death? It seems obvious. But guess what, you can have your cake, and eat it, but you are still going to die.
I am going to die. You are going to die. There is nothing more true than that.
And yet- it's the thing we are embarrassed about. It's the fact we'd like to ignore. It makes us so uncomfortable. That our skin will rot away. That our hearts will stop pumping blood. We will be burned up, or buried.
This is such a threat! What about me? I am so substantial! I have friends! I have this amazing pair of boots! I have this life of things that I do, ways that I am... and I go to the coffee shop every morning! They know me there!
Is the threat why we avoid it so much? The threat to our ego? Or the realization of impermanence? All these friendships, these people whom I love- they will fade just as my body will fade. All these forms that I think are solid. They will be gone, too.
Do I make you uncomfortable? Bear with me.
There is no teaching more important than the acceptance of death. It is the ultimate experience of life. It is the most true and dependable thing we know. And if we lean into the fear and unease of it now, then we set ourselves up for liberation.
Since we cannot escape death- ours or that of those we love, then let us work with it. Let us learn from it. Let us embrace our precious human life, knowing that it will end, and using our time here to cultivate compassion, wakefulness, wisdom, and bravery.
Given my recent encounters with my own human frailty, working with the truth of death has been an incredible solace and practice for me. What is it teaching me?
Life is precious. That I am fortunate enough to be born into a life where I have the time and means to work with my own mind, to cultivate compassion, to practice meditation, and to study the teachings of those who have come before me is not something I take lightly. I could die at any moment. That fact has slapped me across the face. Thus, there is no time to waste. There is no moment where I can just forget about the whole thing, indulge my selfishness, or choose ignorance over wisdom. Every single moment is precious, and if my life could end in the next one, I want to spend each moment doing good work. Touching in with compassion. Caring for others. Being of benefit.
Things are bigger than they seem. By this, I mean that it's easy to feel constricted and enveloped in our tiny worlds of problems and jobs and mothers-in-law. We forget that this vast experience is not isolated to our own selves. We are all here together in this world of suffering. We are all trying to deal with being human. We are all capable of love. We will all die. We are connected, now. What we do and how we are impacts other people. Our actions are bigger than just how they affect us. Our lives are bigger than just serving our own purpose. And on a more immense level, our existence is bigger than just our physical bodies. I got to taste that personally. My body is a tiny part of this thing I call me. Remembering that brings perspective.
Nothing lasts forever. Not even the things we really, really want to last forever. Not even the loving friendships that are sustaining me right now in life. Nothing. And that is itself a path to liberation. Then, I can let go of my attachment to these things. I can appreciate them all the more because I am not so constricted by my own clinging to what they are. Then, when they change and evolve and grow, I can experience and appreciate things freshly instead of resenting that they are not what they were. In the same way, I can relinquish attachment to material possessions. Stuff becomes futile when put in perspective.
Things are illusory. Just as we experience another reality in dreams, so we do in death. This reality is constructed of our concepts about things. Which is fine. We need those to function here. But know that they are concepts. Try to hold an emotion in your hand. Reach out and grab onto anger or loneliness or love. Tell me where the solid parts are- the part that is called love, that contains it, show me the lines where love ends and something else begins. The more we work with our minds the more we become aware of this quality of illusion. Waking life is no more real than dream life. And death is the same. So all we have is our own mind to rest in. Thus, we can cultivate a relationship to our minds. We can recognize how we experience things, and rest in that.
How can I help? The most potent quality of relating to death is the compassion that comes along with it. We can touch into our own fear about death. And remember that all beings suffer. We share this same fear. This same pain. We all get sick. We will get old. We will die. So how can we ease the way for others? Knowing what this feels like, and finding confidence in our own being and thus our own death, we can be steady and solid signposts for other beings who are ill or dying. We can reflect back at them the confidence of knowing where we stand, so that they can rest on us instead of in their own fear. We can practice gentleness, honesty, and bravery in light of all this suffering.
We can stand up and proclaim that it is okay to die. In fact, we can practice, and we can die well.
We can stop hiding from the truth of the matter. We can use the truth to live a better life. And to help each other. It's all very beautiful, after all. To have this experience together. To learn these things. To work with such diverse and intense human experiences.
Let us celebrate death. And the life of it.
Read more about death practices in Andrew Holececk's amazing book Preparing to Die.