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Death as Teacher
Death is one of the human experiences available to all of us that can catalyze awakening to the deepest levels of reality. Accompanying my parents in their dying processes over the past year and a half has done just this, for me.
I was honored and grateful to have been present for my father’s final breath on July 5, 2023. What started out as a weekend trip to pay a visit to my Dad and his wife, ended up being a one-month journey into the liminal realms straddling human embodiment. I learned things that are too diaphanous to capture with words, but with that caveat, I will attempt to describe them for you anyway.
Anything I describe here for you is based on my own lived experience. You may have a different experience; please consider that neither of our experiences invalidate the other’s. Please read with curiosity – this is a humble offering intended to enrich your own contemplations. And I am interested to hear your thoughts as well – consider commenting publicly to this post if you’d like to share something with me from your own experience.
Death, like birth, is preceded by labor.
With birth the labor is to move into the world of form and flesh and breath and localized vision and sound and sensation and apparent separation. With death the labor is to shed that world of form and flesh, to let go of accumulated stories and identities and dreams and plans and relationships, and to dissolve into Eternity. I find this to be terrifying, and heartbreakingly beautiful.
The natural world participates in the great heave of birth and death.
Someone accompanying the dying may see and feel the breath of the dying person enter and animate the sky, the stars, the robin’s song, the busy ants in the grass, the breeze coming in through the window, and all the immediate surroundings, upon their last breath.
Perhaps this is what trees experience even while embodied in their tree forms. Perhaps there is a level of awareness possible where we do not feel our own breath as separate from the wind, or anything else for that matter.
As a human being passes, the part of the human that is aware of itself continues its own parallel process to the process of the body.
The body may be in great pain or anguish, and primordial awareness stays at rest throughout this sometimes terrifying commotion. The awareness of the human being shedding their body, depending on that human’s capacity to pay attention to awareness, can shoot for anchoring their attention in primordial awareness, diving under the waves (of physical world tumult) so to speak. The body’s experience is still experienced, but attention is riveted to something deeper, something more permanently true.
This is great news because it means we do not have to have perfect conditions in which to die, in order to have a “good death.” We don’t need to be perfectly virtuous people for our death to be a glorious experience of homecoming. There is no right God or religion or path or spirituality to follow – any of them, followed with a true heart, will lead a human to practicing Love and compassion and forgiveness and acceptance and putting our attention on our experience of God – all the crucial skills needed to die well.
The living left behind when a loved one dies will all have their moment of release, upon their own death, joining all previous loved ones who have passed beyond the world of form.
I used to think of these kinds of statements as platitudes meant to comfort the grievers, empty promises intended to magically solve the problem of loss. I now see there is an actual reality in these words.
The bliss of the beautiful story continues for the ones left behind after a beloved passes. Intrinsic to the human story is the experience of loss, because as apparently separate beings our points of contact with an ever-changing world are limited. We will by definition lose each other, enter and exit unique chapters of experience, etc. Yet upon our death there is the distinct possibility that the same bliss/ goodness that powers this human story, remains central to our experience, and that all the patterns of Love making up this human story will still be available after death.
Can I give myself permission to feel all of that, and still stay anchored in what is most permanently true?
If nothing else, sensing my own character’s ending in the story ironically helps me live this seemingly separate human existence more fully!
The ancestors and other beings participate in a human’s death passage.
Even though we are ultimately not separate, layers upon layers of story and identity weave together both the seen and unseen worlds. Knowing that I merge into the sea of awareness at some point does not preclude the need for me to “get right” with all my relations. On all levels of existence. (In fact this act of being in right relation is a way of honoring the unity of who we are.)
The ancestors most definitely show up to assist, welcome, guide, and encourage the soul who is passing out of the realm of form.
Gurus, great spiritual masters, other energy beings, do the same.
I take this all as really great news.
I hope my speaking with such conviction and in such absolute terms doesn’t offend you. My mind is still operating partially in the liminal. Perhaps as I return fully to the land of the living I will be able to give words to what I experienced in gentler, more relatable terms. I hope these preliminary notes spark resonance in you anyway.