Death has been on my mind.
The news around the spreading coronavirus and people dying haven’t escaped anyone. Especially since becoming a mother the thought of death fills me with dread. The thought of being separated from my children, either through me passing away or through something terrible happening to them, is the most painful fear I have ever felt.
Lately, I also experienced death firsthand when I suffered a miscarriage. A life that I had not yet had the privilege to get to know and yet, it’s cessation to exist shook me at my very core.
Our deepest fear, the mother of all fears, is loss of life itself.
The notion of being separated from everything and everyone that we care about can feel so painful, so overwhelming, that it can be really hard to even think about. Many of us have found mechanisms to distract ourselves from this pain, whether it is through emotional withdrawal or pretending to be strong, on top of our game and in control. Richard Rohr, American author and spiritual writer, says that the ego will do almost anything rather than to die to itself. We take any measures we can, consciously or subconsciously, to avoid feeling into this fear of loss.
This illusion that distraction or control will save us from death, however, doesn’t serve us. It actually brings us deeper into this trance of fear. The non-acceptance of these fears cuts us off from a true sense of connection and belonging and leads to parts of us being left unseen, muted and unacknowledged. Whilst we have the perception to be in control, these hidden aspects of us instead make their appearance in our life masked as anxiety and shame.
We so strongly hold on to life that we do almost anything to stay alive. Yet, do we really make the most of living? I doubt it.
Yet, opening up to, and experiencing death can be the gateway to truly living. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “as long as you do not have the experience of this dying and becoming, you are only a troubled guest on earth”.
When I had the miscarriage, I was flooded by an intense feeling of shame. Instead of leaning into death, I rejected it. Although everyone was telling me that I should not worry, that it was not my fault, I couldn’t accept the fact that something inside of me had died. Late at night, self-accusing thoughts of insecurity came over me, relentlessly whispering “you should have taken care of yourself better”. These thoughts were born out of a clear desire; a wish that I could have chosen life over death.
The truth is, we can’t choose. Apart from in a few cases, we have no control over death, or when it will come, how it will show up, and what it will take from us.
What I have come to realise is that in order to live fully, we need to lean into fear. To face our fears, to lift the vail of distraction and rejection towards what is an inevitable and integrated part of life, is the path towards living a life of peace. We want to be able to die peacefully without fear. When we truly believe this is possible, we have the opportunity to live peacefully, too.
Thus, we need to integrate death into our lives. Facing our deepest fear, believing that we can become fearless is a training in letting go of everything that we cling on to. It is a practice in how to die.
Most of us do the opposite of letting go. The delusion of happiness and freedom in our society propels us in the opposite direction. We are encouraged to accumulate all sorts of things; possessions, status, wealth, experience, relationships, and on and on it goes. We then solidify them into a sense of identity, a sense of ego, and so we become attached. We attribute an elevated sense of happiness to these objects. This attachment amplifies the fear of loss on any level.
Someone once said to me that at the core, parenthood is an exercise in letting go. I believe this wisdom has a broader application; I believe this is how we should approach life.
What if you were to approach life as a preparation in dying?
In addition to systematically reducing the amount of material possessions I have, as well as a sense of attachment to fame, status or certain outcomes, I have also started to meditate on death. With tears rolling down my face, I visualise myself passing away. I imagine the final words I would say to my husband and children, as well as how I give up my body and senses. As painful as this may sound, no other exercise makes me feel so alive. Through embracing death this way, rather than shying away from it, I can break through life’s distractions and it makes me deeply connected to love. When I rise from the meditation cushion, I am very clear on my priorities, I feel immensely grateful for my life, and most importantly, I feel fearless. Also, I act in a fearless, yet compassionate way. I feel truly connected to the world. When there is only love, fear no longer exists.
When we distract ourselves from death, we also distract ourselves from love.
If my children were to die tomorrow, of course I would feel indescribable pain and grief, however I would be able to let go without regret and approach it from a place of love.
If you are curious about whether you are fully living and were to die only with love and without regret, here is a way to think about it from Nietzsche, in his Eternal Recurrence:
What, if some day or night a demon were to say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Nietzsche is asking whether you are willing to live the exact same life down to the tiniest detail for eternity. This question, “if you had to do it all again, how would you feel?”
If you feel anything less than “I would gladly do it” there is an opportunity for you to dive deeper into fearlessness and more connect to love – through the portal of death.
I learned that every mortal will taste death. But only some will taste life – Rumi