Contemplating death may seem like a morbid exercise yet this practice not only helps you accept the changes you experience throughout life but brings richness to your everyday experience.
Forms Of Death Download
Many forms of death throughout life: death of beliefs, death of trust, death of enmity; we know we are aware and we are going to die; response / inquiry contemplation.
Good morning. So, here we are, day two. And our theme has been, “I’m going to die, but I don’t know when.” Which can really be taken as a paradigm for pretty well every aspect of our lives.
There are many forms of death in our lives. There is, of course, the death of this body, but there are other forms of death. In the corporate world, death is getting fired or losing your job. Maybe your job was eliminated. Something that’s happening to a lot of people these days. And in relationships, death is the end of the relationship, and the same paradigm applies. We know that every relationship we have is going to come to an end; every job that we have is going to come to an end; but we don’t know when.
And there are other deaths. Deaths of a way we understand the world, or beliefs we have about the world; death of expectations; death of trust; death of affection. Equally, death of enmity.
When you look at our lives this way, or when we look at our lives this way, the whole thing is just strewn with death. And all of these—every one of them—follows the same paradigm: it’s going to happen, and we don’t know when. And because we don’t know when, we don’t know how or whatever.
But all of these things just keep happening. And our expectations and hopes, aspirations, attachments and so forth, they do two things. They tend to create a view of the world in which death doesn’t occur. And because of that we often can’t see the signs that change is beginning to take place.
Over the years, I’ve counseled more than a few people in dealing with an end of a relationship. And it may be a marriage of thirty years or it may be a relationship of three months. But I’ve found that one thing is always the case: when a relationship breaks up—and it’s not necessarily an intimate relationship, it could be a friendship, it could be many things—one person sees it coming and the other person doesn’t. And the person who sees it coming is usually the one who initiates the break. And the one who doesn’t see it coming always experiences it as a lightning bolt out of the blue.
It’s a very good illustration of what I was saying a moment ago about the way that our expectations, aspirations, hopes, beliefs, etc., create an experience of the world in which death doesn’t occur.
This morning I want to do the same thing as we did yesterday with a slight difference. That’s why I asked you to bring the pine cones. Instead of going around in a circle, anybody can answer the question and offer their own question. But when you’ve done that, remove the pine cone; put it behind you. And then when everybody’s pine cone is gone, then it can go on; we continue. But this way, you won’t be sitting around—you’ll have to decide if you want to answer that question or wait for another. It ups the ante a little bit, you know. We are dealing with death and dying so anxiety is appropriate. [Laughter]
Gary: [A question about a Nasrudin story]
Ken: There were deeper aspects to that story, Gary. One of the things one has to remember about Nasrudin stories is that they point to attitudes we often hold inside which are absurd, but we don’t recognize their absurdity. They just seem utterly reasonable. Hence, he says to death, “I’ll do this on my own time.” But that’s not exactly how things work. I mean, I’ve gone through this same thing when I’ve been consulting in some business work, where I’m usually working with relatively senior executives. And one of them says, you know, “I can’t believe this person. She’s not doing her work. I’ve told her that she’s on notice, and she says, ’Yes I’ll get around to it when I feel like it.’” And it is exactly the Nasrudin story, “I’ll do it on my own time.” Well, that’s not quite how things always work. Okay.
So I’m going to throw out a question. Anybody can begin. Come, take the microphone, respond to the question, return the microphone to the center, and sit until you have your question. Take the microphone again and ask that. Come back. When you put the microphone back in the center, put your pine cone behind you and we’ll go through the group. Now Elena said, “What about me?” So she’s balancing all of the levels, because even with the microphone right here, everybody has a different level. So you’ll just have to decide when you want to jump in. Pardon?
Elena: At the end.
Ken: At the end. Okay, yes. And just to be clear, Elena’s putting this on pause, so that on the actual podcast it’s going to sound like this is a really brilliant discussion, people just responding like [Ken snaps fingers], when actually they are editing out these long pauses.
Ken: Yes, exactly. But I wanted to just put that on the recording so that people didn’t think that it was just happening like this. Trouble with technology. Every technology influences the message in a certain way. By the way it shapes it. Okay.
When we look at a cup that is set down between two of us, we have the feeling that we are looking at the same cup, though actually that is not so. You look at the cup with your vision, from a certain angle. Moreover, you see it in the rays of light and shadows that come from your side of the room. This applies equally to me as well. In a very rough sense, we proceed to separate the reality of the situation by entertaining the idea that we both see the same cup. This is what I mean by the fabrication of ideas.
In the same way, we assume that there exists a world which you and I experience in common with all other human beings. That this world existed prior to our births, and that it will continue to exist even after our deaths. But again, this is nothing more than an idea.
Not only that, we wind up thinking that we live and die within this world of fabrication. This is an utterly inverted way of looking at one’s life.
My true self lives in reality, and the world I experience is one I alone can experience. Not one anyone else can experience along with me. To express this as precisely as possible, as I am born, I simultaneously give birth to the world I experience. I live my life along with that world, and at my death the world I experience also dies.
That’s Uchiyama again.
So, we know two things. One, that we are aware, and the other, we are going to die. How do you live holding this knowledge?
Student-1: It appears to me like a path. And the awareness is awareness of things that must die. So, as one travels this path they shed different awarenesses like clothes. So if you have an awareness that you are independent and strong and can take care of yourself, that gets dropped along the way. If you have an awareness about your femininity or your masculinity or the things that you identify in that venue, those get dropped along the way.
My question is: as we are born, we are totally dependent and we become more independent, and as we approach death, we become more dependent also. Are these the same processes?
Student-2: I don’t think they are. We begin as relatively unconscious beings, learning about our world as we develop. And we don’t have a lot of choice over that. The second seems like somewhat of a gift, as we have the opportunity to do it in a conscious way that the first doesn’t offer us.
This is a question that gets asked a lot on an academic or philosophical level. I feel like I’m getting down to it on another level, and I still don’t have the answer. What am I?
Student-3: I don’t know about anybody else, but when I ask myself that question, “What am I?” what arises is sort of a body experience of not knowing. And I feel like that can be a very big space.
My question is, why is it that terror and a feeling of completely being overwhelmed with the fear of death brings the urge to cause one’s own death?
Student-4: I can’t answer the why, but I think that FDR said it about the depression, “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And I think the fear of death is actually—almost certainly for most of us—much worse than the dying itself. I know I came to realize this. I used to be terrified of airplane flights. And every time I would go up in an airplane, I just had these overwhelming fears.
And then during a period of a great, serious depression in my life, I realized I really wasn’t afraid of death. And I thought death really was a friend. I wasn’t particularly afraid anymore. And thereafter, I’ve no longer had issues with airplane flights. So it was the fear that was the horrible thing. So I don’t know if contemplating death and getting over the fear of it takes away the way the fear actually governs our lives, rather than actually the prospect of death itself.
My question also relates somewhat to suicide, and people who are wanting to take their own lives. Which is, it seems to me that an underlying assumption that we all have here is that life is good. I was told yesterday that basic truths of the universe that we cling to may be the cause of great suffering.
And it seems to me that maybe thinking that life is good and that everyone ought to regard it as good and therefore wanting to take one’s own life must be a bad thing. It may be one of those truths that we cling to that cause suffering. So my question is: is that something that we have to believe—not only for ourselves but for everyone else—that life is inherently good?
Student-5: For some of us there are experiences that are unbearable at the time that we experience them. And they lead us to want to escape in any possible way, including leaving this world. How can we die to the past, open to what is, and not attach to any view of what we must be?
Student-6: I feel as if I’ve died to the past many times, with many losses and sorrows behind me. Yet each time, there was something in that that allowed me to shed and let go of things that are no longer important. I go shopping, and I don’t feel like I need any more clothes. And I sometimes don’t even want any more clothes. I used to love to collect jewelry. And now, it’s like, I’m done.
I always dreamt of a home, a big home, with a husband and many children and the life that I grew up in which was quite happy for the most part and filled with things. Not because anybody said we had to have them or they wanted them, but because we could and we enjoyed them as a family. My family was very grounded.
So along the way, as these many losses and severe traumas have happened in my life, I’ve been able to die to the past as things settle after the many shocks by being with them, and staying in my body and opening to the experience. And I think that in a way that answers the questions itself.
Being open to what is for me has been staying in my body. Not exiting my body because something in the past hurt me or harmed me or scared me or made me feel unsafe. And along with that stripping away has been the view and the belief about career path and home and relationship and just about every aspect of my life.
And within that I’ve begun to stop and smell the roses. I see every flower. I look at rocks like I never saw a rock before in my life. I think this is particularly strongly happening for me because of my practice through Unfettered Mind and the death of my brother, the shock of his passing as a suicide. Or a car accident, or anything really. It is an awakening.
The question I have—that I’ve pondered many years now—and that we’ve all heard before and familiar with the book written by Stephen Levine and Andrea Levine is, “Who dies?”
Student-7: Who wants to know?
Is it possible to see the worst catastrophe as perfect?
Student-8: I think that takes us back to our judgments of good and bad, which I believe are merely our projections based on our conditionings and opinions and everything that’s impacted our thought process. The catastrophe just is. It’s neither good nor bad. And I believe most things fall into that category. So that perhaps in seeing it as simply being part of the “is-ness” of the moment, the reality of the moment, acceptance without the label of good or bad, or approving or disapproving, perhaps is worthy of reflection.
The answer to the previous question of “Who’s asking?” or “Who needs to know?” strikes me as being perhaps equally appropriate to “I know I’m going to die, and I don’t know when.” Who needs to know?
Student-9: For me, the part that needs to know is the part that needs to be jolted alive and to not be on the back burner and not be aware.
I would like this awareness to sink down into my bones so I can remember when we’re not sitting in this circle thinking and talking about it. Any suggestions?
Student-10: One is to be intensely here and experience what happens here as completely as possible. And then more will remain with you when you are not here. And the other suggestion is, if you don’t have one already, buy an iPod. This will be on a podcast. [Laughter]
Student: Do you work for Apple?
Student-10: When I think about death, I don’t feel like I fear it. I may fear the pain that I might have to endure as I go through the process of dying, not knowing what that is and fearing that it might be painful. But I have a greater fear. And I think my greater fear is my fear of life. And not knowing if and how I’m going to be able to just show up and be present. So my question is, can I somehow use my fear of…can I somehow work with death to overcome my fears of life?
Student-11: For many years in my own life I wanted to die. I looked forward to death as a way to remove myself from a great amount of suffering that only seemed to continue and increase over time. I’ve read that there are three reasons, or three risk factors, for suicidal behavior. The first is a loss of personal relationship or meaningful relationship and connectedness to others. And I can check that for a good part of my life. Second was a loss of personal effectiveness or a sense of power to do anything about the difficulties and the lack of connection in the first. And I can check that as well for a great deal of my life. The third is basically overcoming the fear of death, of overcoming the body’s instinct for self-preservation.
And somehow, as much as I wanted to, in those places when I was in the deepest pain I could never make the cut. Or I could never end this existence. My body kept me alive, even when my mind, my thoughts, my brain and the life that I was living was marked by a great deal of pain and lack of connection and ability to be grounded. And on the kind of flip side of that, I found that moving into the experience of the body has been the most powerful practice for me to help overcome the fear of living.
And so my practice has become very much sensing what is happening, what am I hearing, what am I seeing, what movements are happening in my body, my stomach and my feet, as they touch the ground. My practice is really, has become, “Am I in touch with the movement in my body and the sense of my feet making connection with the earth?” And this practice has done more than anything else to allow me to come to life. As well as that, I practice the coming of what is arising in my experience and the letting go of what is arising in my experience. So it’s a matter of practicing many births and many deaths.
I think this question is kind of a repeat of the question that was just asked. But it came to me when I was cleaning the toilets during the work session this morning. Very often I’ve sensed in my own life, in my body, that there is a constriction, a holding back, something that stops me, prevents me from reaching out to the world that I live in, to the people that I know.
Whatever it is, it is basically a constriction, a tightness. It feels like I am wearing a strait-jacket and my arms are shriveled up like this and I’m not allowed to move. Or it’s like I’m trying to drive and the parking brake is on. If I try to move with purpose and direction in attention, it locks in even more tightly. And I feel like I’m simply going around in circles many times. Essentially, I think this is the fear of living, the fear of reaching out an experiencing the world that I live in right here, right now.
And so how do I cut the strait-jacket? Or how do I take the parking brake out, when I feel like the handle’s been broken sometimes?
Student-12: Okay. I don’t know if I have a very good answer to that question. But I kind of feel the same, in my life. So, something I found really useful is trying to be as clear as possible to what I really want, what I like, what is important. And the more I do that, the more the brakes get loose, and it doesn’t really matter anymore what people think or, you know, even what I think.
So, when I think about that I’m going to die, I fear mostly the fact that as a human being I won’t be able to keep doing the things that I do. Bad and good for me. Like walking, looking at the sky, I don’t know, feeling the embrace of a person you love, and all of those things. So, let’s say that I’m able to be really clear in my life, and do all of the things I want to do, and you know, have just a minimum amount of regret at some point. Will that be enough to actually take that fear away? I mean, would that be enough? That’s my question, basically.
Student-13: What would you do if you were to die suddenly?
Student-14: When you ask that question, I take it on a physical level. Exhale. Which is, actually, letting go.
One of the questions that has been coming up for me is this whole idea of merit. And it feels a little bit like an insurance policy. And I am not quite sure, you know, when we do the dedication of merit…It’s like we are trying to take good actions and good deeds and put them someplace. And it’s like, “Where is it going and what is it going to do?”
Student-15: All that stuff you were talking about—the good actions, the merit—when you dedicate it, let it go.
Student-16: How do I let go of comparing myself to other people?
Student-17: The only thing that I can think of to say may actually answer your question. Which is, I just really just don’t have any answers right now.
Ken: Well, what now? We take a break, and back on the cushion.
I’m probably going to say the obvious. This mode of conversation may not be particularly linear, but it allows a lot of things to happen that wouldn’t ordinarily happen. And today we experienced a range from very open and generous honesty, and to the deep questions which often are kept on a shelf and not touched, to humor and appreciation—different forms. But it all takes place within, we could say, a pool of attention and awareness. And that’s what makes it a bit different.
There are many, many things I could pick out to comment on. But they would just be personal choices, things that struck me. Each of you will take from this those things that resonated with you. And I could tell, just observing, that different things resonated, and sometimes very, very deeply with various people.
But I think it’s quite wonderful that we can sit here for what is a bit over an hour and participate in a conversation which is both deep and an expression of presence or awareness.