The Angel on our Shoulder: Cultivating a Relationship with Death
Einstein once said, “One cannot solve a problem on the same level on which it was created.” In order to transform this world, we need to be able to transcend it. In order to live transcendently (being in the world while at the same time operating from a higher level), we need to overcome our fear of death. Our fear of death keeps us earth-bound in the same way that someone who fears airplanes will never be able to fly. When we fear death, everything in this world takes on a distorted significance. Every loss is an ultimate loss, every deprivation is like the end of the world, every blow to our self is a fatal blow. That is because this world becomes all that we have, and that makes us hold onto everything with (pardon the expression) a death-grip.
From this perspective, the fear of death is the root of all fears because it gives significance to all other fears. Without the fear of death, all losses, blows, disappointments and risks become just interesting pictures on the movie screen of life. When we embrace death, everything in this life takes a more proportional significance. In effect, we are piercing through the veil of illusion, and seeing this life for what it is – one phase in a larger (and perhaps never-ending) cycle that includes death and what comes beyond.
How does one cultivate a relationship with death? Firstly, we need to realize that we will not (as long as we are still here) get to the truth of what death is, and what comes beyond. This is both good news and bad. Good news because all that bad stuff that we heard, or were told to believe, is likely not true at all. It is bad news because we will never (in this lifetime) know for sure just what is the truth. So, let’s make that ambiguity work for us. In the absence of the absolute truth, we might as well embrace the version that is the most enlivening, enlightening and useful to us. As well as the one that squares most closely with the accounts of those who (for some reason or other) have gotten a glimpse beyond and lived to come back and tell the tale. (Interestingly, those who have had negative experiences in those circumstances are often those who were taught that that was what they could expect, and it was what they subliminally believed they deserved.)
According to many spiritual traditions, this life is a place where we have volunteered to go to learn the lessons that our spirit needs for its growth. When we learn what we signed up for, we ‘graduate’ to the next higher level, perhaps returning here again to learn more, or to help others in their journey. From this perspective, death is simply the transition between this world and the next higher level. If we are mentally and spiritually prepared, it is as easy as taking off a garment that we have outgrown. It is a relief, a sense of bliss, a coming home. We are received with joy by those who have returned before us – like a ship returning safely to shore after a long journey – with our loved ones at the dock to welcome our safe harbor. This version also fits with the accounts of those that have glimpsed the beyond – or made the transition and then returned. As sense of joy, an experience of surpassing love and beauty, a feeling that one has awakened from a semi-dreaming state.
When we are comfortable with death, particularly when we can see it as simply the transition to the next great, blissful adventure, we dwell more comfortably in this world, even with its messiness, complexities and challenges. We can live with our own mortality without contracting in fear. We do not become overly attached to what we have, and what we have been denied. We also are able to reach out to others with a sense of serenity, love and peace. When we are comfortable with dying, we can face the truly great challenge, the challenge of becoming fully born in the world, and helping others to do so as well.
Next Column: Becoming Fully Born: How Facing Mortality Completes Our Birth