Our society has liberated many taboos but death still remains largely hidden away both in our society and in our minds. Yet it is one of the few certainties in our life. There are many conjectures about death and many people have written about what happens to us after death but since we have not travelled that journey ourselves we cannot know for certain who is right and who is wrong. People often think of the Tibetan Book of the Dead when it comes to Buddhist thought on death but for us on this side of the great divide it can only be conjecture. Some of us have had a close brush with death in some form or another; be it a life threatening accident or illness; but we have survived and whatever our experiences it was not the finality of actual death. Perhaps, however, it has served to make us aware of our mortality and the fragility of our human life.
It is, I think, no bad thing to contemplate the fact of our eventual death even if we hope to live a long and active life before we reach that moment. What can we know about death and how can we prepare for that moment? What does the fact of death have to tell us about our life?
Some of us have found ourselves in the position of supporting someone through the dying process and I can say, that for myself, it has been an awesome and demanding privilege to do this even if it has been personally very instructive. Observation of the process of dying, especially of someone who goes through the process as a result of age and slow degeneration of the natural functions, reveals a lot and the following thoughts of mine reflect Buddhist teachings on this subject. We can see that as things fall away they are not anything that will survive death. The body certainly goes, it is easy to see that is not us. The deterioration of the mind is a harder thing to accept. With an illness like Altziemers we can see that the personality, our memories, our mental abilities are all just functions of the brain. As the brain, the physical organ, breaks down so the mind goes with it. The best Buddhist teaching directs us to see in this that all we think of as ourselves, which they call ego, is just an illusion, like a picture on a television screen. When the set is switched off the whole drama of that self just stops. That which is real, that which is eternal, is not personal. The awareness, or basic consciousness, on which our lives are projected has no characteristics, it is of a universal function like time or space, of which we are one temporary instance.
This is not easy to understand or experience but once we live in that truth the worries of the world fall into place and our knowledge of our oneness with all things expresses itself as natural compassion.
You may have noticed that this article on dying starts where the previous one of exploring the spiritual life ended and that is not without reason for the qualities that we develop in life are the very ones that we will bring to our death. And the first thing we have to recognise is the unreal quality of our ego, our sense of individual self.
Seen in this light our death tells us that we are one with all things and that we are no better than our neighbour, or indeed any living thing. This compassionate view of the universe must inevitably lead us to try and practice virtuous behaviour. As time goes by we find ever new ways to help others and as we find out more about ourselves and the depth of illusion in which we live and the pain that it brings us we become more skilled in our practice of compassion.
This mindfulness and awareness will gradually make us more peaceful in our life and eventually in our death. It can only be good to come to death not with the dubious bravado of being able to say, 'I did it my way.' But rather with the quiet knowledge of who you truly are.
And finally we can see that in order to practice in this way we need to develop a strong determination so as not to be knocked off course by life's unruly waves and storms. This determination can be built up by regularly reminding ourselves of the fundamentals of existence, meeting with good people who are travelling the same path (But not to the exclusion of people in every state of existence), reading and studying the way and meditating on our basic awareness. That sort of meditation, which entails resting in Being and allowing the mind it's freedom to Be, rather than trying to force the mind into some state of reverence or ecstasy, is death of Ego itself, which is ultimately the only thing that will die.
You come home after a day out. Maybe your partner had organised a little no-fuss meal as it is your birthday. You open the door into the living room which is all dark and suddenly the lights go on; people burst out from behind chairs, curtains and doors, all blowing party screamers, letting off poppers, showering you with confetti and singing Happy Birthday. What a great unexpected surprise... if you like that sort of thing.
But not every unexpected happening is so pleasant. In fact most unexpected things fit within the range of mildly inconveniencing to down right awful. As human beings we are programmed to look for pattern and order in our lives and we are happiest planning and structuring our futures. Very few of us actually thrive on the unexpected. We say, 'It came out of the blue.' whether it is an unexpected letter from the tax man asking for money back because of an administrative error or the sudden death of a close relative.
I think that it could be said that there are two main sorts of unexpected unpleasant events. The first I will call natural catastrophes. They tend to involve things rather than people and I'm thinking of things like roofs blowing off, car accidents or, on a larger scale, earthquakes and the like. The other I would describe as involving, or being caused by people. They take many forms from a sudden death like I mentioned above through to situations created by the actions, thoughts and feelings of others. I have in mind here the sort of situation where a work colleague suddenly tells you that you really irritate them in some way, or management suddenly announce that redundancies are on the way and you are in the front line. More personal and far more devastating is something coming from someone you love and live with. Someone I knew suddenly found themselves sitting across the table from their husband whilst he quietly and decidedly told her that he was no longer in love with her and he was leaving. Nothing that had happened up to that point had given her any idea that this was coming.
So- the bolt comes out of the blue and from my own reactions I would suggest that we react at that moment in one of two main ways.
We may be swept away by the need to react to events or by the emotions that it generates; or may be by a mixture of both. When, for instance, it is a life threatening situations we may respond almost by instinct and a rush of actions occurs as we try to cope. There is no gap between the arising of the situation and the response and it is only later when the immediate crisis is passing that we start to reflect on what has happened and start to plan a way forward. Often when it is a situation generated by another person, or people, a huge rush of emotion is generated, which may be anger, shame, embarrassment or one of many strong feeling depending on the situation and your particular mental patterns but, in any case, you are overwhelmed by the feelings and it may be some time before you come to consciousness of yourself and can reflect on what is happening.
The other common reaction to the unexpected is to feel disassociated from what is happening. This is often expressed in the phrase, 'This can't be happening to me.' and for a while it seems as if there is a huge glass wall between yourself and the event. It's almost as if you are in a dream watching events and even your reactions.
In the case of either reaction that I have described to the unexpected, or indeed to any other reaction that you may have, there is a moment, before your uncontrolled response kicks in, when you can meet the situation with real consciousness. That is to say not swept away, not totally alienated, but aware in the moment and accepting and acknowledging what is happening. You know that stuff is happening, it is happening to you but that 'you' is just an expression of the Universal Consciousness that we are all part of. I have talked about this awareness behind phenomena that has no intrinsic qualities in itself and it is an important part of Buddhist thought. It is often called Shunyata.
But this 'seizing the moment', although it makes the situation manageable when it happens is not easy to grasp. That is why the Lojong texts on which these articles are based talks about 'joining the unexpected with meditation'. Only some considerable meditation practice and practice of insightful awareness will create the mind set where this joining the situation in the right way has a chance to occur- and if my experience is anything to go by, even then not always!
But this being one with the moment and with all creation is true compassion. Compassion is not about wanting to be kind to animals and old ladies and doing good deeds. It is about knowing to your core that you are one with all creation so that compassionate action for others, yourself and things is not a choice, not an act of will, it is just what you do.
I love those crazy articles you get in magazines that start, ‘Ten ways to …’. You get similar lists on FaceBook. So here are four ways to develop your spiritual practice based on the teaching in the Tibetan Lojong and pretty whacky they are if you haven’t worked with them before and seen how they work.
Oh yes you say, 'I’ve heard that one before.' But can you do it without rewarding yourself or, worse, hoping that the recipient acknowledges your charitable act. All the time that we are thinking how good our kindnesses or compassionate acts are we are completely undermining any point in them. They will not help the other person and they certainly will not help us. There is a wonderful game called 'You be needy and I will help.' and it has a partner called, 'I'll be needy and you help me.' and what fun they are. We can easily go on inventing the roles and variations on the roles and be surprised when entirely new versions emerge from nowhere. So where does real compassion spring from? Certainly not from the intellect. It is all too easy to analyse a situation or person, decide what they need and then offer it. The other person may well be helped but you have not been. From the emotions then? You see a person suffering, you empathise and feel their suffering and then you reach out and help. This can seem so beautiful and the other person may benefit but you are playing the 'You be Needy and I will help' game which is ultimately demeaning to both of you. These and many other springs of action all suffer from the underlying game of 'You and Me' and somehow you have to get past that. Only as 'Me' gets left behind, abandoned, dropped. Does the 'You and Me' distinction go and true compassion and kindness occur. And in trying to find that lies the practice.
Parts of you are messy, you don't like them, parts of you scare you, you try to hide from them. Some situations are confusing or threatening. You try everything to avoid them; To make sure they don't happen. Embrace them, they are your friend. These are the very things that are keeping you from the wisdom you really are. It is not easy, indeed it is very hard to sit with such things, it is the last thing you want to do but it is powerful medicine. Perhaps you will be blown away by them. Perhaps the whirlwind has to tear down every thing that you are holding on to; every defence that you have. Perhaps what you most fear is going to have to happen. 'If I stop struggling I will go mad', is what you think in these situations but madness and breakdown, violence, depression and anger are only the ultimate defences against those sides of ourselves we do not want to own. Once the fight stops, once acceptance occurs, all the things that we wanted to do in reaction to this terrible thing fall away, we see how self protective we were being, how compulsive our behaviour was. and evil deeds are naturally transformed into compassionate action and become part of what is; and so we see that we are the Being behind being.
Elvis sang, 'Did you ever have one of those days boys, did you ever have one of those days.' And they do come; those days or moments when life overwhelms you, your confidence goes and all you want to do is crawl back to bed. I'm talking about those days or moments when all those emotions that you most hate come in like a flood tide and you have to take avoidance action. And what action- you go to endless panicky lengths to avoid that situation or person; Or maybe you like to get your retaliation in first and make sure the dreaded situation never actually arises. And for many people worst of all- the gut wrenching arising of self loathing, self pity or total embarrassment. Well these can be your golden moments if grasped like the proverbial nettle. If you can see that the neurotic energy is just an arising energy, it has no substance, only your ego will be hurt by it, then there is a moment of chance to step out of the game and into Being. Oh dear! You missed it! Don't beat yourself up- there will be lots more chances!
Our first three practices seem to be about rooting in the muck heap, about working with the things we find most unpleasant and indeed these can be powerful practices but there is a special reason for this. Our enlightened self, our authentic real Being only wants us to become awake to what we really are. Our hearts desire is to be open, free and enlightened and this is not going to be expedited by any amount of comfortable, ego confirming practices. It is only in the fire of the uncomfortable, ego threatening places that there is any real chance of our ego being more than just threatened but actually totally undermined. So what you thought were your weaknesses are actually your real strength when you can follow your Heart's desire. There is our protection and we should honour our so called 'weaknesses'.
More than one Guru who's teaching style was to run a community or the longer sorts of retreats has been known to have one very difficult person in their close team and to put quite a lot of time into making sure that they stay in the group. Very often they are given posts of responsibility that means that other people have to interact with them. Why would they want to do this?
The reason is that the spats, arguments and unpleasantnesses that this person provokes are exactly what many students need in order to see the negative qualities this engenders in themselves. Of course, there is just the possibility that the difficult person may start to see through their games as well and learn a little compassion in their turn! But to get back to the point; all the time we are engaged in mutual pats on the back with people we have a lot in common with we are reinforcing our own ego and world view. We do it so naturally that we are not even aware of it. It is so nice and natural to commune with like minded souls. When we do meet someone who rubs us up the wrong way it is immediately their fault. If we are part of an organisation and someone wants to do things differently, or does not perform to the standard required we just see them as throwing spanners in the works. We get cross, irritated, embarrassed and they become bad people. We demonise them and we tell other people how awful they are and how difficult they are making our lives. If we are nice people we don't go round telling tales behind their backs we just spend a lot of time talking to ourselves about it.
In my wife's family they call this 'lawnmowering'. The story being that a neighbour asks to borrow the lawn mower promising to return it promptly but it does not come back that day; or the next day; or the day after that. The family are annoyed, then cross, then mad about it. They spend time telling one another what an awful selfish neighbour they have. Finally dad, or mum, gets so wound up about it they declare that they are going round to the neighbour's to have words with them about the lawn mower and all the other terrible things they have dredged up about his unneighbourly behaviour. Practicing their angry speech they march round to the next door house, knock on the door and wait fuming. But when the neighbour opens the door mum or dad meekly says, 'I was wondering if you had finished with our lawnmower? Because our grass is getting a bit long.'
I talked in the previous article about the need to take responsibility for our own situation and to start by seeing what our contribution is to what is happening. In this article we are taking that expression of loving kindness one step further and realising that everyone that comes into our circle has something positive and of use to us in our spiritual path. The person who has borrowed our lawnmower has raised all sorts of negativity in us. We could stop, sit back and just deal with that first. Did we realise just how much we jump in with anger? and where does that anger come from? There are so many issues about how we see other people as 'them' out there, about our attitude to our possessions, about our innate selfish ego defences, indeed about our sense of self and how we put it before our oneness in Being. That neighbour is giving us the fast route to enlightenment if we could but see it! After we have dealt with that it might be time to go and chat to the neighbour about lawnmowers. Of course if we didn't go round to collect our lawnmower until we had dealt with all these issues we might get through a lot of lawnmowers!
In the last article I made reference to the fact that many people feel that their parents, or their upbringing, or unfortunate events in their childhood are to blame for how they are now and they hold it, more or less consciously, against their parents. As I said it may well be true but that was in the past. Now you are an adult and you have the most wonderful opportunity for spiritual development. The pain, hurt, imposed limitations, or however you see it, are an invaluable tool in pinpointing where you need to work on yourself. That is the very place to dig down into all the selfish, self defensive things that you are hanging on to. Because spiritual as well as emotional, social development are only going to occur to the extent that you let go of the need to be so defended against.. well... against what you will only ever discover when you let go. But to your parents you can be grateful, they have given you the opportunity to discover one of the greatest lessons life has to give.
I hope you will see that you have reason to be grateful to everyone that you ever meet- even if they are difficult people or put you in difficult situations. You can be grateful to those who are near and dear to you when they irritate or hurt you if you will only use it as an opportunity to become responsible for your negative reactions to what they do. And of course it is easy to be grateful to those who are compassionate to us. It hardly seems worth mentioning that.
This is no new age, airy fairy practice. How easy it is to sit in an armchair or a meditation cushion and generate nice thoughts about everyone and how hard it is to do it in the world of hard knocks. Just remember though when the going gets tough- Your Buddha nature needs this medicine. Be grateful you are getting it!