Contemplating And Communing With Death
It’s the first day of the New Year, and the morning breaks clear, cloudless and bright, despite the predicted fog. Though chilly, the sun warms as it rises over the rooftops.
An hour after sunrise, it’s windless and still, so calm that not a leafless twig twitches. The freeway din is fairly loud however. But as thought quiets down, so does the din, coincidentally or not.
Something is missing. There are very few birds about, just a sparrow or two along the fences. A lone meadowlark sings rather half-heartedly nearby.
Birds are dying en masse all over the world from an extremely virulent strain of bird flu. And now mammals as well. A top predator – a polar bear – was just confirmed to have succumbed to the same virus in the Arctic.
To those who listen and are still however, the Earth still pours forth its beauty, and one hears intimations of the music of the spheres, endlessly played on the invisible chords of life.
Strangely, and perhaps significantly, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a piece on New Year’s Day entitled, “My resolution for 2024: Think about death.”
Though the contemplation runs little deeper than a California stream during a drought year, it begins well and is encouraging by the very fact of its existence:
“In an era marked by the relentless pursuit of goals and the perpetual busyness of life, a conscious and regular contemplation of death, both our own and that of others, can guide us toward using our limited time more wisely and meaningfully.”
I doubt that more than a few in America will fill that prescription, since the medicine isn’t efficacious until after an hour of physical and mental stillness. It’s not the “busyness of life” that we suffer from, but the attentive assiduity that busyness is designed to avoid.
Indeed, if the contemplation of death ever caught on in this godforsaken globalized culture, it would overthrow its obsessively external orientation, and self-knowing individuals would create a new society.
Then again, things have become so dark in America and beyond that a sliver of light may signify a rising sun over the roiling sea we all swim in.
I prefer the term the communion with death rather than the contemplation of death. Its contemplation can lead one into the miasmas of Gaza, where the deaths of thousands of children are splattered across our screens with the impunity of social media. That isn’t death; it’s slaughter, and morbid voyeurism if one isn’t moved to tears.
Whereas communion with the actuality of death, which is occurring at the cellular level inside the body with every breath, is the ultimate paradox, bringing the peace beyond all conceptualization.
Death was the first psychological separation humans made. A hundred thousand years and more ago, our distant progenitors witnessed the mortality of loved ones and made the same mistake the most people still make today.
Namely, that there is life, and then there is death. They appear as unrelated as the corpse of their clansman from his vitality and skill as a hunter until the mastodon gored him to death.
This appearance is the ultimate self-deception. For the complete, spontaneous stillness of thought in unguided attention (aka meditation) allows the inseparability of death from life to be seen and felt.
Clearly, communion with death goes beyond “regularly contemplating our mortality.” Much less the New Age candy pill that “prompts us to align our actions with our values and pursue a life that reflects our authentic selves.”
A full awareness of death reveals there is no such thing as “our authentic selves.” Indeed, the door to awareness of death without fear while fully alive doesn’t open until the continuity of the self ends. In short, death is when ‘I’ am not.
There isn’t a trace of morbidity in making a friend of death. Death is only morbid when it’s contaminated with fear out of the desire for continuity, which is inherently in conflict with the impermanence of life.
So is all continuity false, as psychological memory or self-image? Yes, and because it’s unfaced, the thought of non-continuity generates the inchoate fear that runs like a black river through the undergrowth of our lives.
Since memories, self, ego and attachments end when the body expires, why do we cling to them when we’re alive? Continuity and clinging (aka attachment) are the source of fear. So we don’t actually fear death; we fear the end of the continuity of ‘me.’
The word is not the thing, and the actuality of death, one discovers, is synonymous with creation and love. Communion with the ever-present actuality of death marks a full entry into the state of insight.
So is there anything after the body expires? If “reincarnation is a fact, but not the truth,” then something half-true continues and is recycled in collective consciousness.
However with the ending of all continuity as memory, self, ego and attachment, there is no reincarnation. But there may be incarnation.