‘Evening’ – Caspar David Friedrich, 1824 – WikiArt
“Death doth not trouble me.
‘Tis through that door I come
Unto the place which long
hath been my spirit’s home.”
~ Angelus Silesius
There is one thing in life that is haunting us. This is the fact of our certain death. And yet, considering that we all know that we are going to die, most people don’t actually worry that much about it. How come that people who believe that they are solely their body can stay so cool when waiting for a certain death? They should be terrified. This should come as some unbearable news. But it’s not. Even though we don’t look forward to dying, we nevertheless take the news with a remarkable composure. We don’t mind that much if you ask me. Why is that?
Is it that we have deep down the intuition of our immortality? If I say ‘I’m going to die’, how does it feel? Am I saying the truth? Do I really know this for certain? Or am I casually repeating something that I have learned and has now become a deeply ingrained belief? But this being said, don’t let us be mistaken. Most of the time, we push death far away and numb ourself to its dreadful reality. And the fear of death is conditioning and bending our lives in the most ruthless manner. What a paradox it all is! But in that paradox lies the whole riddle of life and death, of suffering and happiness, of love and God. Death is a portal to our true nature. One that is inescapable. Who is it that is going to die? Or rather what is it? Let’s have a look at it…
The irony about death is that we know nothing of it. What we do know is the fear of death, the fear of ending, the fear to see everything that we take to be ourself come to an end. But this is a mistaken understanding. Because when we think of, and worry about, what disappears when we die, we refer mostly to things that have an objective quality. Our thoughts, our beloved qualities and talents, our position, our hopes and projects, our body obviously, maybe our bank account. But all these only speak of our attachment. Attachment to ideas, concepts, objects, everything that is in fact not really ‘us’. Some particular thoughts. Some beloved feelings. We want them to last, to continue. We want the security of things known and cherished. But all these are only a small part of our total living experience. Even a dispensable one. So why being so afraid of losing them? What is attachment? What is it made of? I think it is a crucial question when wrestling with the problem of death.
Attachment doesn’t only refer to the things we are attached to. It also points to the one who is attached, who clings to particular objects, who wants to exist, who is frightened, unsecured, who has spent his life energy to build something for himself or herself. This one is the resisting factor, the one that doesn’t want to let go, and therefore ultimately the one that is afraid to die. If you find that one, fair enough. The fear of death then becomes a natural reaction and has a useful purpose. But if you can’t find it, or if you discover that it is simply not there, then what would happen to your fear of dying?
So before being afraid of ending, ask yourself the only question that matters, which is ‘do I have any reality at all?’ Does the person that I feel is the core of my being, with its particular set of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, for whom a lifetime of efforts has been spent, and in whom I have mistakenly — and unfortunately — found refuge and solace, does this person inside my skull have any reality? Did I ever look at it carefully? Can I really find it and say ‘this is me’? Or do I only find empty presence, consciousness? This presence is the very essence of life, before the arising of thoughts, feelings, beliefs. This presence is in truth the very core of my being. My genuine self. This essence is the source and substance of every thing in life. It never dies. And yet it is pervaded with the quality of death.
For what is life without death? What is creation without anything ever coming to an end? Let’s try and name a thing with an objective quality that doesn’t come to an end. People and animals die; the smallest insect lives with ending; every tree must accept to fall and merge with the ground that saw, and was responsible for, its rising and thriving; every leaf on a tree must one day leisurely fall and meet the earth. Every thought and feeling disappear to never reappear the same way. Not a thing lives for ever. Even the brightest of stars will eventually have to fade and vanish. Are all these innumerable deaths not a reflection of a more fundamental quality of dying that is in the nature of things, that is the very essence of life, and the very beating and throbbing of the drums of infinite consciousness? Not to finally give in and yield to this immense, rock-like reality is pure folly. It will keep you in the claws of the belief in, and fear of, death. It will render invisible the open gates to immortality.
This pure presence, never setting on anything, or conditioning its being with anything, is free, renewing itself every instant. It is dying constantly for it is in death that real life is found. This ever dying, ever living presence is who we are at the deepest level. What I usually take to be myself, this fabricated ‘me’ bundle — made of objective, elusive thoughts and feelings — this one has not even the beginning of an existence in the first place, so how could it ever die? Why should we ever be worried that it dies? Yet this is what we do, when we are afraid to die. We are afraid that it dies, and we believe that we die with it. But this mistaken identity of ours has no reality to begin with. It only exists as clouds passing in the consciousness that we are. Not a thing we should be worried when it leaves. We all enjoy a sky free of clouds. This is when the sun shines on. This is when we come to abide in and as the sky of consciousness.
‘The Monk by the Sea’ – Caspar David Friedrich – WikiArt
“When could I have been born,
I who am the conceiver of time itself?
Where could I live,
I who conceive the space wherein all things extend?
How could I die,
I who conceive the birth, life, and death of all things,
I who, conceiving, cannot be conceived?”
~ Wei Wu Wei
Speaking of dying, it would be good to have a look at some of the most death-oriented events in the history of living. Let’s take one of the most famous act of dying in history, which has given birth to a whole religion, namely the story of Jesus passing away. When Jesus dies on the cross, it is not his being that is crucified. It is not the quality and essence of living that runs beyond his bones, for this, as we know the story, will be redeemed, resuscitated. No. This is his body, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that die. Jesus has died, but what is left out of this event is the pure being that he was and always is, the Christ in him, the very son or emanence of God. This being constitutes his true body, which is why the Christian pay such respect in every mass to the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist or the Holy Communion, is the point where his mortal body joins the eternal being. This is the sacred bread of being. The sacrifice and downfall of the objective nature of his passing self, and the standing, or elevation of what is his true being, which is God’s being too.
Let’s now take an example of our distorted understanding of death. We have set death up as the ultimate punishment. When someone has committed the worse of crimes, has acted in ways that we consider unforgivable, we sometimes sentence him to death. We sentence him to the dying of all that is objective in him, of all that is not absolutely him, and give him a glimpse of what is truly him in all eternity. What a gift! Death is a gift, isn’t it? I mean when we really look at it. And this gift can be brought about and repeated ad infinitum while living. For true living is dying, and being reborn, every instant and eternally. True living is to be totally new, innocent, baby-like, spotless and with the energy of a thousand suns. This is the true life that awaits each one of us, when ideas, concepts, conditionings, imitations, securities, fears have been nailed on the cross, sent in the death row, and given a splendid death.
Take also the experience of the closeness with death. I am recalling one that I had, when I visited a close relative in a retiring home. The vicinity of death strangely seemed to bring with it some unexpected light. Something was shining during these few moments spent in the company of the dying. Some feelings of happiness and elation overcame me while holding my gaze on these people losing their belongings, concepts, ideas, minding very little, smiling with bright, poignant eyes. Not the poignancy of somebody dying, but the one that rises when the personality and usual worries gets dimmed and the childlike joy of being is released and felt by all around. The company of death pushed me in the happy and releasing light of being. I felt as if the burden of death had just been put aside. What an unexpected place to free oneself of such a burden…
In a way, death is the losing of everything that is not truly ‘I’. It is like putting aside a heavy burden. And what solace it is in our life that death finally comes to show us everything that we have taken to be life and actually wasn’t, everything that we have taken to be ourself and actually wasn’t. Death comes timely like a wake up call. A reminder of how things truly are. A reminder of something that takes less time than the blink of an eye to realise. Death is a teacher. And beyond being a pointer to the inanity of our search for happiness amongst objects, death is also a perfect analogy for what is being asked of us. We are being asked to loosen and scatter our deeply ingrained beliefs, conditionings and illusions among the thin energies and ethers of the very substance of life.
‘Cross in the Mountains’ – Caspar David Friedrich, 1806 – WikiArt
“Why did I not make death my object—
death which is the store-house of all fortunes and riches,
And why, through seeing double, did I fasten my life-long gaze
upon those phantoms that vanished at the fated hour?”
Ramana Maharshi became profoundly aware of his true nature through mimicking the moment of death. When he was overtaken by a sudden and violent fear of death, he lied down and stiffened his body in imitation of the dying process. He said: “The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards.” He asked the question “What is it that is going to die?” And this was his living discovery: “I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am deathless Spirit. All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state. … Fear of death had vanished once and for all.”
See here how the fear of death is potent. It is because this fear is in fact the true body of our false sense of self. It holds, like in a dream, all our suffering, conflicts and dramas. It is the very signature of the separate, illusory self. But the good news is that we can see it through. We can trace our essential being by recognising all that is not essentially us, all that will be leaving us when faced with death. We could say, like Nisargadatta, that “Death is the price of immortality”. Death is the condition for deathlessness to appear and be potent in our life. The discarding of our false belongings will reveal the intimate treasure of our everlasting being. And this discovery will put us in touch with another close associate of death, love itself.
Love and death are closely related, and their presence is a sine qua non for the revelation of true living to appear. They are the chalice in which any meaningful, joyful, and peaceful life can be lived. By releasing us of the burden of false associations, we come to feel and touch everything as if it were ourself. This is the experience of love. And this experience is death itself. Love is therefore the very fabric of death. Just as death is the very fabric of love. They are more than intimate friends, they are life partners. So espouse death as you would espouse love. Enjoy its presence in your life. Don’t stay in the illusory comfort and habits of your separate, bachelor existence. Remember that the bride — or groom — is rich and brings as a dowry, all its innate qualities. So marry death. Or rather, marry the dying principle that is at the very core of life. And enjoy all your offsprings as they will appear duly.
Text by Alain Joly
Paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Read the full account of Ramana Maharshi’s death experience in Paula Marvelly’s text ‘Rendezvous with Ramana, Part II’…
– ‘Open Secret’ – by Wei Wu Wei – (Sentient Publications)
– ‘The Essential Rumi’ – Translated by Coleman Barks – (HarperOne)
– ‘Be As You Are’ – by Ramana Maharshi (Edited by David Godman) – (Penguin Books)
– “The Cherubinic Wanderer” – by Angelus Silesius (Translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch) – (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
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