Storms and Sunshine. Chaos and Peace.
In order for gardens to flourish, to grow, for the flowers to bloom and our trees to bear fruit we need good fortune. We need good weather, no pests, and no bad luck. In life the absence of war, slavery, marauding tribes, the absence of widespread death and diseases are requisites for peace. We should ponder for a second just how peaceful and civil our society is compared with its hundreds of thousands of years of life that was in Hobbes words “nasty, brutish and short”. Only from peace and civility do we have the foundations to seek happiness or well being. Of course even in this lucky part of the world and at this time where many of the historical ills have largely disappeared or subsided we all will encounter death.
At some stage in our lives everyone we know and love will die. We as individuals are of course not exempt from this termination yet puzzlingly or miraculously we act as if it will pass us by. Ian McEwan puts it
“It (Death) emerges in childhood as a baffling fact, re-emerges possibly in adolescence as a tragic reality which all around us appear to be denying, then perhaps fades in busy middle life, to return say, in a sudden premonitory bout of insomnia.”
This is a rather interesting paradox, every human is surrounded by death. Yet It seems in our culture there is a supreme denial of it. I would argue that most of us do not consider death, or emotionally explore it until we are looking it in the face. The death of loved ones is devastating-an event that brings forth, anger, denial, suffering and depression. Men and women who are terminally ill are carted off to hospices to die. We are at a loss to comfort our friends and relatives when their loved ones pass away. It seems to me we are emotionally, psychologically and spiritually unequipped to deal with death. Many would accept this as normative, a cruel sour to be taken with life’s sweetness. We should seriously ask ourselves, must it be so?
The opposite of death or dieing, a Eros keeping at bay Thanatos is sex. The requisite activity for the creation of new life. Sex is another human universal (as well it must) now consider its contrast with death. We are awash in sexual imagery, our TV’s, films, literature, art, is all saturated in it. We obsess, worry and pursue it when and whenever we can. (this would of course apply more to men than to women) In civil societies most children are grounded in some form of sex education. A well oiled industry has sprung up around making sure our physical and emotional needs can be met through it. Some people do get more emotional information and support. But virtually no one goes through life without some kind of understanding or information as to the experience and consequences of sex.
It would be disastrous to society if no one had a clue as to what sex was or what its ramifications where. Ignorance of sex is largely and rightly scorned upon in society, so why is it then that death is treated with ignorance and denial? Granted I can understated why we might want to avert ourselves to dealing with what can seem a horrible, depressive, inescapable occurrence. I see no good though in simply sticking our heads in the sand. Is it not also selfish when we don’t prepare our loved ones and friends for our death?
So is there a way to reduce the suffering of death? To stoically face the end? To comfort the dieing and the grieving? I will not be so arrogant as to suppose I have any answers and would be sceptical of anyone who claims such things. I am left though somewhat bereft over Cicero’s consolation strategies in his Tusculan Disputations, an attempt to console himself at the death of his young daughter.
1. That death is not an evil or not a great evil. That it is an indifferent, out of your control and as such not an evil. 2. Focus not on death but on the good times with the person. 3. That it was to be expected and something you just have to get used to. 4. Get rid of the idea of grieving or mourning. 5. You are not the only one this has happened to.
While these may be helpful routes to take at certain times, these above methods rooted in Greek philosophy never deal with the actual experience of loss.
In researching this piece I came across a wonderful, compassionate, luminous woman. A Zen Roshi from America called Joan Halifax. She has spent a considerable portion of her life as a hospice caregiver, someone who has sat with and consoled many dieing people along with grieving relatives. She runs a project Being with Dieing that seeks to help give caregivers, the terminal and their relatives emotional and spiritual support. She has also attempted to raise consciousness over dying and what she feels is the western inability to cope with it.
From what I understand from her thesis and proposals is that a grounding in contemplative practice (Meditation, mindfulness etc) can reduce our suffering of the death of loved ones. At the heart of her message is the view of impermanence, the inevitability of change. That everything arises and passes away. This Buddhist view which sees life as one where suffering, decay and death is ever present. However this does not lead to a morbid self absorption in death but rather a calm acceptance of change. We have to welcome everything that comes into our lives without grasping or without trying to push away.
As one Buddhist teacher said “life is impermanent but that does not mean that it is not worth living. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we value life so dearly-- we can remain peaceful and content in the face of change, prosperity and decline, success and failure.” As Roshi Halifax concludes death can be the bedrock of an entire spiritual path. The state would be achieved through mediation practice and deeply understanding the Zen Buddhist view of impermanence. Taking time to understand the physiology of death as well as the cultural, psychological and spiritual dimensions is also important. She calls for schools to offer teaching students about dying and its ramifications in school. To offer contemplative practices to medical students who will encounter death and the dying. To form out-reach partnerships with current social groups and communities.
I cannot offer a full analysis of her ideas nor would I be equipped to. I can however say this. This proposition that contemplative practice can ease our suffering over death along with life’s vicissitudes is not something that can be gained through intellectual activity. It is not a set of magic words or ideas simply believed in but a skill that must be practiced. Even when learning this caveat it took some time for me to let it sink in and of course will go on sinking in. As I have already wrote contemplative practice is subject to rational inquiry. In order to fully experience this rather than understand it you must walk along the road of practice rather than simply survey the terrain through the prism of the intellect.
I fear this may sound as something of a cop out. Indeed I have frequently remarked to myself that it seems so. However do we really expect life to be easy? Do we expect that getting over death or disaster is something that requires no effort?
There is no Gardner
We are coming to the end. We have planted our seeds, weeded and watered attentively, protected our garden or reduced the damage done from random, unforeseen, terrible events. The flowers are in bloom, the fruit is ripe, a stability and equanimity has been established. Is there anything more left to do?
There is one more thing to do. The garden rests upon the gardener. Our actions and behaviours seem to rest upon the idea of a self. The removal of the self is perhaps the last barrier to the garden of the good life. The self that wants, that desires, that thinks in terms of I. The little selfish self. The I that separates from others. That there is a thinker of our thoughts a central planner in our brains, a ghost in the machine.
We become an entity that no longer judges “he is so nasty to me” that no longer evaluates “I cant cope with this break-up”. The self that craves “if only I had this my life would be so..” We remove our dualism and simply be. We simply watch emotions and thoughts come and go, simply watch the actions of others. Simply observe and participate in the world. The past is simply the past, our thoughts are simply so. No drama. Nothing special.
The garden looks after itself, it already has everything it needs. Weeds no longer grow for the garden is so rich with beauty so full with fruit. Our sense of self and what we do moment to moment is inseparable. We are precisely the activity that we are doing in the present moment. The garden and the gardener have become one.
Best and be well