My Tuesday Evening With Living Death
Understanding death from a Buddhist perspective
Recently an old elementary school friend’s mother died. We were not super close so my folks found it sort of strange that I was so compelled to go to her funeral. I know why I want to go, although I was kinda ashamed to tell my mother. She was trying to figure it out and I finally just blurted out “I wanna be a part of it.” For some reason I so badly wanted to go and witness this celebration of life.
The last time I went to this new-age Baptist-rooted mega church, one of the 6 different locations, the pastor went on a 30 minute rant about how even though my friend’s father died by suicide, there was still hope that he would go to heaven because Danny had expressed his devotion to Christ to the pastor several months prior — there is nothing to worry about. I had trouble staying in my seat for that. However, the husband of the deceased woman spoke at that funeral and delivered a beautiful message.
I wanted to go, support, and witness the humanity that is death. Before the service I didn’t know exactly why and after a solid hour of tears and sternum-shuttering waves, I now know why.
I sat down in in the large sanctuary and chuckled while looking at fully-stocked stage. Church sure has changed from the pews and stuffy choral arrangements as trendy early 30-year-old professed holy worship to Jesus using hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. I really did try non-judgment throughout the songs and I was grateful the pastor came up and delivered a beautiful message. Throughout his words I caught myself off in distracted land about things he said, people around me, or who would see me, or what I would say to old friends and finally the thought “what if she was your mother?” broke through the chatter.
I was utterly overcome with sadness that welled up seemingly from my chest and the floor. Then I caught myself saying “you don’t have to feel that way, she’s not your mother.” This would offer me a temporary solace from the sadness as I could detach from the immediate experience. Some old Buddhist meditations on compassion kicked in and the line “love everyone as your mother” made me remember that it’s ok to feel this sadness. I sat in it. I let it melt the sides of my ribs and crack my breastbone as I surrendered further and further to the intense sadness that was the death of this woman, whom I probably met 3 times and never spoke to, who was not my mother and in every way very much my mother.
The tears poured as I shook in divine celebration that I was capable of feeling something this deep. I was capable of experiencing sadness, surrendering, and moving deeper into this feeling. Sure the mind inhibited my ability to experience the flow of the moment several times with petty thoughts and my meditation training allowed me to let those go and more fully surrender to the feeling and sensation of this most beautiful celebratory moment.
I was deeply sad sitting unaccompanied, head down, emptying my cup into the experience that was. Speaker after speaker delivered powerful words that would pulsate and throb through all open audience members bringing tons of people to tears. I can honestly say I have never notice as many people crying at a funeral in my life and I have been to many funerals.
This one however, I was trained, I knew how to feel and I was leveled by the humanity, beauty, and divinity swirling in the room.
I left feeling incredibly calm, connected, and relieved. As I sat in my car, I thought about how lucky I was to attend. I experienced a profound beauty in the sadness. I realized how I wasn’t really that connected to this individual so I was like a free-loader on all the celebration, compassion, and humanity from the people. Almost completely unattached to the individual, I sat motionless in the sanctuary allowing the divine celebration that is sadness to move through me. I realized that sadness is not at all painful. Sadness is recognition of joy lost, and in recognition of joy lost, there is recognition of the joy that once was. The joy that once was made possible by this wondrous human being.
I almost felt guilty to be able to derive this much relief and hope for life out of this experience while I know others are going through profound pain from this loss. I however felt no pain at all. Looking back, I realized the grief is what causes the pain. The yearning for the familiar, the questioning of “why” or “why me,” the anger, those feelings of attachment are what cause the pain. The misunderstood concept of death seemingly rips infinitely intertwined beings apart and that cry for things to be like they were, the gravity of true aloneness or abandonment, feelings of incompleteness; that attachment to comparison is what causes the pain that reaches down your throat, strangle, and tear the heart out beyond the grasps of understanding previously known.
Many then extend arms and reach out into the abyss. Constantly and timidly placing hands around looking for a full heart to help repair their own, because after all, the heart was ripped out and therefore one must look outside to find a full heart to replace it with.
In actuality, the thing that reached down the throat was the self attached to the conditions (any noun really) that created that feeling of what once was, what was familiar and comforting. The attachment is in fact the same arm that reaches out into the abyss searching for other “whole” hearts. That arm is the very thing that separates one from their authentic heart. Striving, reaching, searching — all the same, all separating each one from the real conditions of the heart. Recognizing this simple truth is a first step to experiencing divine sadness and rejoicing vs. painful attachment of grief.