Dying to Live
The gifts of grief, loss, dying & death.
This essay is part of a series called ‘Seeing Ourselves as Systems’. Sign up here to get access to future posts.
Death is an undeniable aspect of life. In fact, the very idea of ‘life’ would not make sense without death. The two are deeply intertwined pieces of the same larger whole.
As the writer Haruki Murakami points out, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
And yet, one interesting way to think about societal “progress” over the past few centuries is as a gradual moving away from death. We have become highly sophisticated at avoiding death. At hiding it. Ignoring it. Distancing ourselves from it.
Think about how different our ancestors’ experience with death must have been, especially in comparison to the ways we engage with death and the dying process within contemporary western culture. For thousands of years, there were no funeral homes to send the deceased to. There were no hospitals. Dying and death were intimately woven into the fabric of the family and community experience.
The distancing of death, fear of loss and suppression of grief may perhaps appear like a societal feature rather than a bug. Highlight the good, hide the bad. Avoid the uncomfortable. The inconvenient. The difficult.
Unfortunately, in trying to push away death, dying, loss and grief, we turn these aspects of the human condition into abstract monsters, divorced from the potent teachers, guides and gifts they can be.
TALKING ABOUT DEATH
The sadness of our current cultural predicament was made visceral for me recently. After attending a beautifully held workshop run by two death doulas on the subject of living with loss, I felt inspired to bring stories of my experience into everyday encounters with friends and colleagues during the week that followed.
Perhaps expectantly, most of the reactions I received in response to sharing my experience were a discouraging mix of sympathy and discomfort.
Sympathy fuelled by the presumption that I must be grappling with grief brought about some recent loss, a fresh open wound, an occurrence of some kind that triggered the need to place myself in a space built to hold conversations around death.
The possibility that I would attend this sort of event without it being in reaction to a recent traumatic loss appeared as an alien act to many ~“Uh, wait.. what? You mean to just went.. why?” Proposing that the exercise was done with the intention of nourishment and self-care came across as borderline absurd…
Discomfort in the sense that the subject was difficult to hold in conversation when sharing my experience from the event with others.
I noticed subtle segways or direct bids to escape from the subject matter the moment I started talking about my experience. I also caught myself feeling the others discomfort and changing the topic to soothe the unease. Eventually, the expectation of possible discomfort became so strong that I just stopped talking about my experience altogether… sigh—the whole problem in a nutshell, right there.
Reflecting on these conversations, it feels as if we have developed a sort of faulty socio-cultural immune response to discussing death, loss and grief. It is not that we aren’t allowed to talk about these topics. It is much, much worse than that... We can’t. We just can’t. It’s tragic. It fills me with a quiet despair. Especially now, as I begin to really understand how incredibly important these aspects of the human experience are to living a full, meaningful and beautiful life.
Let me attempt to share what I see.
THE GIFTS OF GRIEF, DEATH, DYING & LOSS
Life cannot be fully appreciated without an intimate connection to death. Love cannot be accessed without the ability to lose things gracefully. “To die is love”, as Jiddu Krishnamurti often said.
Embracing all the feelings of grief. Letting loss in. Seeing the beauty of death. These things cure our insipidness. They invite an aliveness into our being. A vitality. A gratefulness. They awaken us to that feeling of ‘Wow! I’m here now! What a wonderful gift to just be!’
As the infamous Osho said, “A certain darkness is needed to see the stars.”
I also find myself going back to Francis Weller’s words on the intimate intertwining of grief and love:
“Grief and love are sisters”, he says, “woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close.”
Death adds a rich texture to life, but it also reminds us of the impermanence of all things in the world. It opens up the possibility of really embodying this most essential truth:
To be alive, fully alive, is to be constantly dying. To be in a state of letting the last moment go. If we are not dying to the previous moment, we are holding on to the past. In holding on, we are not really here. We do not really see. We are dead or asleep.
Dying wakes us up. It moves us beyond the stale objects, concepts and patterning of our heavily conditioned minds, allowing us to see everything anew, in every moment.
“You cannot live if you do not die (psychologically) every minute.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti once said.
You. Cannot. Live. If. You. Do. Not. Die.
Sit with that. Meditate on it. It is a powerful portal to the present.
To not be dying to the moment is to already be dead. Change is our nature, which is an act of perpetual destruction and creation. Everything living must be impermanent. To resist the reality of life’s shifting sands is to hand ourselves over to death prematurely—or better, what the American poet E.E. Cummings called the state of “unbeing dead”. A plastic existence where we are neither living nor dying.
The sharp-witted writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley echoes this truth when he writes ~ “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.”
To acknowledge our dying nature also deepens and harmonises our connection with others. As Anthony De Mello summarises so gracefully:
“Any time you are with anyone or think of anyone you must say to yourself: I am dying and this person too is dying, attempting the while to experience the truth of the words you are saying. If every one of you agrees to practice this, bitterness will die out, harmony will arise.”
Finally, dying can also cure the mind of its overweighted insistence on separation and the ego’s delusional attempts to hold and maintain itself. An embracing of our perpetual dying is the universe inviting us to get up and dance with it. A permission slip to let go of our finite selves. A prescription for the disillusioned, as Rebecca del Rio wrote so poetically about:
Come new to this day.
Remove the rigid overcoat of experience,
the notion of knowing,
the beliefs that cloud your vision.
Leave behind the stories of your life.
Spit out the sour taste of unmet expectation.
Let the stale scent of what-ifs waft back into the swamp
of your useless fears.
Arrive curious, without the armor of certainty,
the plans and planned results of the life you’ve imagined.
Live the life that chooses you,
new every breath, every blink of your astonished eyes.
How beautiful life becomes when we remember that living is a dying. That to appreciate death is to appreciate life. That to lose is to love. That grief and sorrow are evidence of a heart cracked open.
LEARNING TO LIVE WITH LOSS
The way we remember is by bringing death back into our lives. By talking about it. By getting close to it. By moving beyond death as a word, a thought, a belief, an abstract concept, an image, and seeing it fully for what it truly is.
When we see through our constructed images of death, we cannot fear it. As a result, we do not build up feeble delusional resistances against its inevitability. We do not lock ourselves into the shallow, paralysed existence that the fear of death is so good at cultivating. We truly come alive.
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