The Mystic’s view on facing death

Not all mystics are the same. There are many types, including Christian mystics, Buddhist mystics, Jewish mystics and Sufi mystics. Some would never use the term ‘mystic’ in describing themselves.

All mystics are biased according to their predispositions. Some are conservative, some are progressive. Some put belief over experience, while others place experience over belief. Some meditate to achieve the stillness, while others meditate within the stillness. Some sit still, while others travel. Some are able to visit deep realms, and others are able to visit even deeper realms.

The gift of death

One Christmas, many years ago, my sensei handed me a book as a gift. “I’m giving this only to you, because I don’t think my other instructors will appreciate it.” I have no idea about the other instructors, but the book definitely changed my life.

The opening lines of “The Code of the Samurai” — they utterly stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been focused on those verse’s central message every day since then. Because the samurai was told to think about death, every day.

ONE WHO IS SUPPOSED to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve. As long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will also fulfill the ways of loyalty and familial duty. You will also avoid myriad evils and calamities, you will be physically sound and healthy, and you will live a long life. What is more, your character will improve and your virtue will grow. — Cleary, Thomas. Code of the Samurai: A Modern Translation of the Bushido Shoshinshu of Taira Shigesuke: A Contemporary Translation of the Bushido Shoshins (p. 3). Tuttle Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Through this very particular meditative practice, along with certain martial arts practices I became trained in, I learned to embody behaviors which have allowed me to approach life’s emotional ups and downs with a great deal of equanimity.

Equanimity or not, however, we all have moments when we contemplate our value. What’s going to be my legacy, if any, when I’m gone? What, if anything, will I have done to improve things? For many of us, the answer to these kinds of questions can be as simple as saying, “I was a good person” or “I was a good parent” or “I was a hard-worker and good volunteer.”

The anonymity of death

The majority of us are not rock stars, movie stars, wealthy icons or social climbers with two million followers. I clearly fall into the anonymous group. I’ll be immediately missed by those immediate to me, but once I’m gone there will be no monuments, no buildings named after me, no references in history books. I’ll be like billions of others… gone.

So, while thinking about death everyday has helped me to accept my inevitable anonymity both in daily life and in death, a curious thing emerged. I began wondering about what it means to be responsible. I wondered whether our sense of responsibility should be tight and highly focused, or large and perhaps more broadly focused.

It seems a bit foolhardy to contemplate being responsible to somehow ‘save the world.’ As many people have pointed out, we have enough trouble saving ourselves. And I agree with that, particularly in the sense that I can look back on a lifetime of self-improvement practices.

Yet, this sense of responsibility had a quality to it that kept gnawing at me, etching its way forward. And I began to think of creating a different sort of legacy. Because, I think that we would all like to know that we made some kind of difference by being here, however modest that may have been.

My first realization: responsibilty

My first realization — in the sense of what we are discussing here — was a gradual “call to action,” something that for me occurred as a result staring squarely at death everyday. In my case, what first began emerging was a sense of responsibility. This sense began with the recognition that I’m one of those kinds of mystics that typically sits alone in his experiences and realizations. I’ve realized that writing about certain things has both a ‘confirming of the experience’ quality, as well as a somewhat therapeutic quality.

Subsequent realizations: expanding definitions of responsibility

I eventually realized that odds were enormously against me with regard to this really ever changing. I’m referring to the isolation.

So, I tried to amp up my ‘hope factor,’ thinking that hope would carry the day. It does, to a certain extent, but in other ways it doesn’t make any difference. I could fuss and fume or comb my hair different, but it didn’t make a difference in the sense that I could confirm any clear effects on the larger world around me. In the world of those close to me, I could see that I was exemplifying kindness, gentleness and a striving for balance and harmony. But at the same time, some of those close to me considered me to be mentally ill, and perhaps still do.

Eventually it occurred to me that if I couldn’t make a difference now (at least in the way that I was envisioning making some form of impact), then perhaps I could make a difference later, after I was dead. This might seem maudlin or even morbid to some people, but to a guy examining death every single day for decades, it really isn’t. It pops up with regularity on the death-watch radar. Basically, for me, it’s just looking at the reality of things, and letting my mind wander and wonder.

And so, I’ve wondered. And I’ve asked repeatedly, “What is my responsibility in all this?” And what does that word ‘this’ I just uttered, even mean?

I am driven to stand up for what is constantly surging in my heart, for what is constantly imprinting on my mind.

Conclusion

Thinking about death everyday has helped me in a lot of ways including, counterintuitively, by making me calmer.

Staring at death, yet living in life, has become deeply meditative in the sense that I can see the boundaries between the two worlds easier, and I have learned to travel from one to the other and back again. But even more vitally, I have been able to practice standing between them. It’s that spot that Jesus referred to as “the veil,” which is the gauzy darkness that masks what lies beyond our normal concepts of physical space and reality.

Being a conditional person can profoundly limit our experience of life in unseen and misunderstood ways.

Thinking about death everyday has also, clearly, been a constant meditative influence on helping me sort through my priorities in life. It has helped me to better understand something I share with everyone else — the human condition. Because staring at death has helped me understand my own conditions, and how being a conditional person can profoundly limit our experience of life in unseen and misunderstood ways.