Trunks, rotting leaves and decomposing matter at every step. Wherever you look, you will find death as well as life. Upon closer scrutiny, however, you will discover that the decomposing tree trunk and rotting leaves not only give birth to new life, but are full of life themselves. Microorganisms are at work. Molecules are rearranging themselves. So death isn’t to be found anywhere. There is only the metamorphosis of life forms. What can you learn from this? Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.
Sages and poets throughout the ages have recognized the dreamlike quality of human existence – seemingly so solid and real and yet so fleeting that it could dissolve at any moment. At the hour of your death, the story of your life may, indeed, appear to you like a dream that is coming to an end. Yet even in a dream there must be an essence that is real. There must be a consciousness in which the dream happens; otherwise, it would not be. That consciousness – does the body create it or does consciousness create the dream of body, the dream of somebody? Why have most of those who went through a near-death experience lost their fear of death? Reflect upon this.
Of course you know you are going to die, but that remains a mere mental concept until you meet death “in person” for the first time: through a serious illness or an accident that happens to you or someone close to you, or through the passing away of a loved one, death enters your life as the awareness of your own mortality. Most people turn away from it in fear, but if you do not flinch and face the fact that your body is fleeting and could dissolve at any moment, there is some degree of disidentification, however slight, from your own physical and psychological form, the “me.” When you see and accept the impermanent nature of all life forms, a strange sense of peace comes upon you.
Through facing death, your consciousness is freed to some extent from identification with form. This is why in some Buddhist traditions, the monks regularly visit the morgue to sit and meditate among the dead bodies.
There is still a widespread denial of death in Western cultures. Even old people try not to speak or think about it, and dead bodies are hidden away. A culture that denies death inevitably becomes shallow and superficial, concerned only with the external form of things. When death is denied, life loses its depth. The possibility of knowing who we are beyond name and form, the dimension of the transcendent, disappears from our lives because death is the opening into that dimension.
People tend to be uncomfortable with endings, because every ending is a little death. That’s why in many languages, the word for “good-bye” means “see you again.”
Whenever an experience comes to an end – a gathering of friends, a vacation, your children leaving home – you die a little death. A “form” that appeared in your consciousness as that experience dissolves. Often this leaves behind a feeling of emptiness that most people try hard not to feel, not to face.
If you can learn to accept and even welcome the endings in your life, you may find that the feeling of emptiness that initially felt uncomfortable turns into a sense of inner spaciousness that is deeply peaceful.
By learning to die daily in this way, you open yourself to Life.
Most people feel that their identity, their sense of self, is something incredibly precious that they don’t want to lose. That is why they have such fear of death.
It seems unimaginable and frightening that “I” could cease to exist. But you confuse that precious “I” with your name and form and a story associated with it. That “I” is no more than a temporary formation in the field of consciousness. As long as that form identity is all you know, you are not aware that this preciousness is your own essence, your innermost sense of I Am, which is consciousness itself. It is the eternal in you – and that’s the only thing you cannot lose.
Whenever any kind of deep loss occurs in your life – such as loss of possessions, your home, a close relationship; or loss of your reputation, job, or physical abilities – something inside you dies. You feel diminished in your sense of who you are. There may also be a certain disorientation. “Without this…who am I?”
When a form that you had unconsciously identified with as part of yourself leaves you or dissolves, that can be extremely painful. It leaves a hole, so to speak, in the fabric of your existence. When this happens, don’t deny or ignore the pain or the sadness that you feel. Accept that it is there. Beware of your mind’s tendency to construct a story around that loss in which you are assigned the role of victim. Fear, anger, resentment, or self-pity are the emotions that go with that role. Then become aware of what lies behind those emotions as well as behind the mind-made story: that hole, that empty space. Can you face and accept that strange sense of emptiness? If you do, you may find that it is no longer a fearful place. You may be surprised to find peace emanating from it.
Whenever death occurs, whenever a life form dissolves, God, the formless and unmanifested, shines through the opening left by the dissolving form. That is why the most sacred thing in life is death. That is why the peace of God can come to you through the contemplation and acceptance of death.
How short-lived every human experience is, how fleeting our lives. Is there anything that is not subject to birth and death, anything that is eternal?
Consider this: if there were only one color, let us say blue, and the entire world and everything in it were blue, then there would be no blue. There needs to be something that is not blue so that blue can be recognized; otherwise, it would not “stand out,” would not exist.
In the same way, does it not require something that is not fleeting and impermanent for the fleetingness of all things to be recognized? In other words: if everything, including yourself, were impermanent, would you even know it? Does the fact that you are aware of and can witness the short-lived nature of all forms, including your own, not mean that there is something in you that is not subject to decay?
When you are twenty, you are aware of your body as strong and vigorous; sixty years later, you are aware of your body as weakened and old. Your thinking too may have changed from when you were twenty, but the awareness that knows that your body is young or old or that your thinking has changed has undergone no change. That awareness is the eternal in you – consciousness itself. It is the formless One Life. Can you lose It? No, because you are It.
Some people become deeply peaceful and almost luminous just before they die, as if something is shining through the dissolving form.
Sometimes it happens that very ill or old people become almost transparent, so to speak, in the last few weeks, months, or even years of their lives. As they look at you, you may see a light shining through their eyes. There is no psychological suffering left. They have surrendered and so the person, the mind-made egoic “me,” has already dissolved. They have “died before they died” and found the deep inner peace that is the realization of the deathless within themselves.
To every accident and disaster there is a potentially redemptive dimension that we are usually unaware of. The tremendous shock of totally unexpected, imminent death can have the effect of forcing your consciousness completely out of identification with form. In the last few moments before physical death, and as you die, you then experience yourself as consciousness free of form. Suddenly, there is no more fear, just peace and a knowing that “all is well” and that death is only a form dissolving. Death is then recognized as ultimately illusory – as illusory as the form you had identified with as yourself.
Death is not an anomaly or the most dreadful of all events as modern culture would have you believe, but the most natural thing in the world, inseparable from and just as natural as its polarity – birth. Remind yourself of this when you sit with a dying person.
It is a great privilege and a sacred act to be present at a person’s death as a witness and companion.
When you sit with a dying person, do not deny any aspect of that experience. Do not deny what is happening and do not deny your feelings. The recognition that there is nothing you can do may make you feel helpless, sad, or angry. Accept what you feel. Then go one step further: accept that there is nothing you can do, and accept it completely. You are not in control. Deeply surrender to every aspect of that experience, your feelings as well as any pain or discomfort the dying person may be experiencing. Your surrendered state of consciousness and the stillness that comes with it will greatly assist the dying person and ease their transition. If words are called for, they will come out of the stillness within you. But they will be secondary.
With the stillness comes the benediction: peace.
Source: Excerpted from Stillness Speaks, by Eckhart Tolle