Death is all around us.
In the age of mass killings it is hard to escape it. Our mortality seems ever more finite as we are bombarded with persistent imagery of war, murder, and bloodshed. It is happening the world over. It is happening in our own communities.
We become overwhelmed at how senseless it all is. We escape into entertainment. We avoid death, or even thinking about it, at all costs.
Social media has done us a disservice. There are no filters like the generations before us had. Though we have all information in the world at our fingertips, we have no guidance or governance on its content or application. Therefore, we retreat from death because it seems rabid, uncontrollable, a vicious wolf in the wild stalking us.
We dive back into entertainment. We try to forget about it.
But, it will always catch up to us. What if we treated death differently? What if we gave it the attention it deserved? If you think about it, death truly is the one and only thing that unites us; every being must encounter it regardless of class, race, or creed. We have it (above all else) in common. In the end, we all will experience the slip into the dark and we will all face it alone.
That may sound morbid at first, but if it comes across as disparaging then you should re-examine that sentiment. In a world so divided and lost, desperately trying to find a way out of the chaos of dissociation, we already have at our disposal a higher power that bring us together. The problem is, we don’t use it wisely: we avoid a relationship with the impermanence of life.
Buddhist monk Thich Nguyen Tang has written: “. . . always being aware of the impermanence of life and having a loving attitude towards all living things in this transient existence we will be free of fear in opposite to grasping selfishly to life due to not having experienced happiness in life.”[i] In essence, our fear of death compels us to clutch onto life and its attachments to the extent that we are selfish. When we are selfish, we suffer. When we suffer, everyone around us suffers. It becomes a cycle that feeds on itself, a karma.
If, however, we release our attachment of life, become intimate with death, we don’t just appreciate but walk in appreciation of the gifts life has to offer. In the shamanic worldview, it is essential to be a confidante of death. Shamanic initiation is rife with rituals designed to simulate the processes of death: burial ceremonies, dismemberments, and more. This is done because one must allow unhealthy aspects of the personality to die in order to be in harmony with the world. Many other spiritual paths ritually meditate on death for this very reason.
Regarding shamanic death/re-birth, my own teacher — Peruvian curandero don Oscar Miro-Quesada — has stated: “Whether I am alive or dead, whether I am caught in time or floating in the a-temporal realm, it makes no difference because it is all part of the universal continuum of being.”[ii] Death is just a doorway, a stepping-stone from one state of being to another. From the shamanic perspective, death is just a reinforcement of life’s qualities; the yin to life’s yang.
Can you imagine a world where we were conscious of our life’s end every waking moment? How we might treat ourselves and one another? If I knew I was going to die today, which I could, would I have treated my family any different? Would I work the same job I am now? How would I use my time, my words, my actions?
After all, if we lived forever, we very well could lose our investment in one another, in life itself. That is the paradox of existence. In that way, life and death truly are married, just two sides of the same coin of experience.
Death should be embraced. It should be utilized as a celebration and inspiration of life’s qualities, instead of treated as a pariah. Without death, life wouldn’t be precious. It shouldn’t be feared, because fear only leads to behavior which begets separation. As long as we feel separate and dissociated, we will keep killing one another and wasting the time we have here on this planet, ignoring what must be done to stop our cultural malaise.
Think of your own death. Every single moment, of every single day. Embrace your impending mortality. As you do, you just might find your relationship with life become more meaningful. You just might find that happiness becomes simpler, and life becomes a little less complicated.
[i] Thich Nguyen Tang, Urban Dharma, “Buddhist View on Death and Rebirth.” https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma5/viewdeath.html
[ii] Bonnie Glass-Coffin and don Oscar Miro-Quesada, Lessons in Courage: Peruvian Shamanic Wisdom for Everyday Life ()93