The Art of Dying

Print This Post Print This Post May 22, 2009 on 3:04 pm | In Awareness, Consciousness, Death, Spiritual, Toltec, Wisdom | Comments Off on The Art of Dying


\”Like everyone else you want to learn the way to win, but never accept the way to lose.  To accept defeat, to learn to die, is to be liberated from it.  So when tomorrow comes you must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying.\”

– Bruce Lee, The Way of the Intercepting Fist, Longstreet TV Series

Of the many practices I have undertaken during the course of my spiritual apprenticeship, the practice of death ceremonies seems to be the least understandable to my friends and family.  Granted that \”least understandable\” is a relative term in my case, as I can hardly claim that many of my friends or family exactly resonate with some of my other \”extreme\” practices such as firewalking or sweat lodges, but they definitely give me blank stares when I explain that I am going through a deliberate process of contemplating and preparing for my death.  And yet is this really an \”extreme\” practice?

One thing certainly is clear: everyone reading this (including me) will die eventually.  Eventually – therein lies the rub!  We typically do not know precisely the date and time of our death, but the fact of our death is unassailable.  Even if we have a firm belief in eternal life, there is no denying the process of dying.  As much as we cover it up with euphemisms and relegate it to “some day”, the fact is that deep down we all know that our life span on earth is limited.  But the fact that the precise timing of our death is uncertain allows most of us to live most of the time as if we were immortal – as if there is always “plenty of time.\”

I believe that deep down we all know that this sense of \”plenty of time\” is wrong.  Although we do not come into this world with a fixed expiration date, all that we truly ever have is this moment – there is no guarantee of a future moment for any of us.   And even though we do not know how much time we may have, we do know that statistically today will be the final day of life for over 150,000 people on this planet.

So what would change in your life if you were somehow able to know your \”expiration date\”?  What if you found out that you only had a few months left to live? A few weeks? A few days? In what ways would your life change?

For many people this scenario is not an academic exercise but rather a stark reality that they must contend with, typically without any warning. A routine visit to a doctor for a seemingly minor complaint uncovers the presence of a terminal disease that places a fairly certain time limit on the remainder of their life. Of course for most of us, this scenario would be a nightmare – something we would pray we could wake up from.

With this scenario as a backdrop, I’d like to examine a process that many shamanic spiritual traditions, including my own, utilize to allow practitioners to live through the scenario of their own death vicariously through ceremony. Let\’s explore the notion of inviting Death into our life.

The Toltec tradition which I have been learning over the past few years places a strong emphasis on the fact of our mortality – our death. Indeed, in this tradition Death is personified as an Advisor, a guide that helps the initiate to discriminate and prioritize what is important in life and what is not. In addition, Death is an Advisor in the sense that it separates what is enduring from what is transient, the vital from the trivial. With the presence of Death always near us we are encouraged to really open our eyes, our ears, all of our senses, and most importantly our heart. All too soon that marvelous organ will beat its last beat, but while we still have the precious gift of life Death encourages to break out of our routines, our sense numbing habits, and become fully present to this moment. 

Death teaches us that one of our most powerful abilities as humans – the ability to learn and adapt – is also a tremendous stumbling block that can rob us of the beauty, vitality, and awe of fully living in the present moment.  Habituation, a key component of learning, is the faculty that allows us to perceive and perform actions without overt conscious involvement, and is a large part of learning any new skill.  For example, think back to when you first learned to drive.  If you were anything like me at first this task seemed overwhelming.  So many things to have to keep track of at the same time: the road in front of you, traffic behind you, pedestrians on the sidewalk, the steering wheel, the gas pedal and the brake, the gear shift and the clutch, the speedometer, the RPM indicator, the sound of the engine, the warning lights, and on and on and on!  Looking back it was a minor miracle that we were able to pick up such a complex skill set in a relatively short period of time – yet that is precisely what happened.  Through rehearsal and continued practice we gradually \”learned\” each of these skills to the extent that they became unconscious habits, and the only involvement of our \”higher\” consciousness was focused on where we were going and the traffic around us.  Indeed, because so many of the skills were habituated we added additional tasks to our drive time: talking on our cell phone, eating a fast food meal, drinking coffee, putting on makeup, and so on.

Because habituation removes activity from our conscious focus, it allows us to perform numerous tasks simultaneously.  But precisely because those tasks are performed unconsciously they are vastly diminished in terms of the depth and scope of the experience.  It\’s no secret that multi-tasking drivers – those that talk on the phone or read their Blackberry email – are much less present with the experience of driving, and therefore less likely to respond effectively to hazards.  But more to the point of this discussion, going through life on autopilot robs you of life itself – the experience of life fades into the background and the foreground is filled with nothing but our own incessant mental chatter which is in turn almost always focused on a fiction – the past or the future – and not the here and now. 

This same phenomenon of habituation is at work in all of our experiences – our perceptions, our thinking, our emotions, and our relationships. Through repetition and rehearsal we become habituated to the people, places, and things around us, and gradually become less and less conscious of their reality.  We respond to our world in rehearsed, patterned ways – assuming that the world will continue to function as it always has, and that there is not need to actively engage with it since we already \”know\” how it operates.  Sadly, this is the way many of us live our lives, and it usually takes a severe shock to awaken us from this somnambulistic lifestyle.  This is where the presence of Death as an Advisor can truly shine, for Death excels at providing us with just the awakening that we need.

Death cuts through habituation like a sabre.  And therein lies the Beauty of Death.  Death reminds us that all that we have is this moment, and that whether we are fully conscious or not, nothing – including all of those things that we have taken for granted – really belongs to us.  It is all ephemeral in the presence of Death.  Death reminds us that our only hope for capturing the essence and expanse of eternity is to explore and embrace the full depth of this precious moment – right now. 

As you read this you are standing at the doorway to the Infinite.  All you need to open that doorway is to fully open your awareness and consciousness to this moment – never to be repeated or experienced again.  Ironically, Death gives us the amazing gift of renewal: by inviting us to see and feel and experience everything as if this is the last time you will experience it, Death deepens and renews our experience of what is here and now, and allows us to truly experience the world around us, perhaps for the very first time.  Death gives us the gift of truth, and brings us back to reality.  Of course, reality never left – we did, when we mentally checked out and allowed our habituated programming to take over.

So why do I practice the art of dying?  Because I never want to take for granted the miracles all around me – the smell of freshly mown grass; the taste and texture of a ripe, succulent grape; the softness of my daughter\’s hair; the strong but gentle embrace of my wife; the glory and mystery of a sunrise; the painful beauty of knowing that all of this will pass – but that for this one magical moment it truly is mine.  And that is enough. 

And the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot ; Four Quartets 

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