October - November 2001

...then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

-- John Keats (1795-1821)

The Crest of the Paradox

So the real issue behind so much of the turmoil we experience in life, it would seem, is death. Death is our silent partner. For some it is "my only friend / the end" (Jim Morrison of The Doors), or at least a source of comfort that the pain and struggle we experience in this life is, fortunately, temporary. For others, death is a game of defiance, or a continuous dare that keeps life interesting, because nothing else can do it. Some are so enamored of its power that they either kill or threaten to kill as a way of gaining personal power in an otherwise futile experience of living. Nazis, warmongers, many sport hunters and serial killers number among them.

Others are enraged that the one thing they seem to possess will be stolen from them, and mount campaigns of greed and hoarding against this inevitability.

For many, the thought of the pain approaching death is far worse than the notion of actually letting go of life. For others, like Keats, the fear surrounds the idea that death will take him "Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain." It did.

For some, death represents the continuation of life, a journey back to the place where we started. It may be that we go to heaven, hell, bardo, the white light, the blue light, summerland or whatever your personal mythology holds. I have heard enough recountings of near-death experiences to be reasonably certain death is a transition, and that there are worlds beyond our own; I have sufficient awareness of my own previous incarnations, and of people I have known in those times, to sense the continuous nature of life. This is not always reassuring.

There are people who seem to understand that death is simply part of a process of nature. Not all of them are happy, or free from fear.

Many suppress all thoughts of death because its rituals (particularly American style) are morose, ugly and lonely. As John Prine sings, "Please don't bury me / down in that cold, cold ground." (He also suggests that they "Give my stomach to Milwaukee / if they run out of beer" and while we're at it, "Give my heart to the junk man / and give my love to Rose.")

It is said that for even the highest Yogis, fear of death is one of the five clacias, or almost insurmountable attachments of incarnation.

For many people, death presents an inescapable sense of dread, which comes with the fear of consciousness being blotted out and, as a result, the idea that life is meaningless. It is possible to be quite dead and still exist in one's body, walking in the world in utter loneliness, afraid to live because living means confronting dying. Or, because living means surrendering to love, which is tantamount to death.

Clearly, we live in some relationship, however conscious, to our ideas about death. Our ideas about death form the basis of our ideas about life, thus entering our relationships with people. If we are holding a grudge, or live in secret terror, this will easily taint our experiences of people and theirs of us. Our attitudes around death are what I would call master values, an underlying foundation of thought that supports much else that we think, believe, expect, desire, need and seem to know.

I would propose that a similar conception of reality around death is one of the most important values that people can have in common in a relationship. What we call "spirituality" is often a representation of our beliefs about death, and relationships in which spiritual values are out of alignment are likely to be off-kilter on the meaning of many things, including that of our ultimate fate: Do we possess a soul, does that soul live after the body dies, and does that soul remember anything?

For one who lives in a conscious relationship to his or her soul, how fulfilling can life be with one who steadfastly denies theirs? But moreover, A Course in Miracles suggests that it's only when two people share a common understanding of God that their relationship will be free from the ravages of death's terror.

Death tends to do three things in life, the first of which is present us with a mystery, intriguing or terrifying as it may be. But we must accept the fact, on some level, that we don't know for sure, while wondering what happened to people we knew who were so alive when they were here. Another is that it shows up symbolically, as loss, transition, change and "ego death." The third is that it masquerades. One of its favorite symbols is the death of love; one of its favorite masquerades is jealousy, though both remind us of the inherent transience of our current experience and relationships.

But somehow, we cannot live fully unless we are in a conscious relationship to death. We cannot love fully taking another person for granted, or merely taking advantage of them; embracing love means that each person we share life with is a rare, precious and temporary gift, perhaps pointing to the eternal. Death is an awareness that puts our choices and experiences into perspective, and reminds us to live and to love while we have the chance. In doing so, we ride the crest of a daring paradox. Such existence is a kind of continuous orgasm: beyond control, yet also beyond fear.