I had the pleasure of giving a workshop at Trew Fields cancer and holistic health awareness festival this last weekend. It was truly inspiring to see so many people challenging their preconceived ideas and conditioning around subjects such as cancer, drugs, holistic therapies and death. However, even here I observed some resistance to talking about dying itself.
It is such a taboo subject, and yet my aim is to break this taboo by normalising it for people in a way that not only reduces fear of the dying process, but also gives you the tools to approach it in a conscious way, which is ultimately free from suffering.
The first thing to do to take us in this direction is to define death. Ultimately, what we see as death is just one manifestation of a process which is happening all the time. So instead of focussing on death as going from one state (alive) to another (dead), it is much more helpful to see it like this:
Dying is, the breaking down of one reality in order to make way for another.
What this definition shows us is that dying is a continual occurrence which is one half of a bigger process; change. The other half is life. Death and life exist as one, neither being able to exist without the other. The amazing thing about seeing death in this way is that, with it comes the realisation that this movement of energy (dying) is totally applicable to our everyday lives.
Making Dying Normal
Yes indeed, but not as heavy when you realise that loss of identity happens to us all of the time, and that carrying around the burden of old, used up realities is in fact a lot heavier than letting them go. Death happens to you every day. It happens every time you don't get your expectations met, every time you feel pain, or every time someone disagrees with you or does something that triggers you. On a slightly larger scale, it happens when you change or lose jobs, house or relationships. And, of course it happens when a loved one dies or you permanently lose a function of your body or mind.
Yes, this causes pain - but it doesn't have to cause suffering.
Your Pain is Where the Light Enters
Pain will happen. Of that there is no doubt. Whether it's physical, emotional, mental or even existential. There's just no way to control whether you experience pain or not. Sure, you could pop a pill, or distract yourself with entertainment or soft drugs. However, the problem with this is that it creates a kind of polarity in your consciousness. Me vs. the pain/loss. So you're never fully able to experience your reality in that moment. And why would you want to?
The thing is that we do have a choice how much we suffer. The paradox is that the more we retreat from our pain, the more this leads to suffering. If we chose to experience our pain so fully that that there is no longer a separate 'self' retracting from it, then suddenly all suffering vanishes (and often so does the pain with it). Suddenly it is obvious that this sensation no longer defines you. It no longer has any power over you, because you realise that there is a bigger part of you that cannot be touched by it. (For more on how to do this, see 'Be as a lake: A fresh perspective on pain')
Losing Your Identity to Find Yourself
It's a part of us that is simply present. And the best way to reach this state of being is to simply clear the path of all the inner crap that was keeping you from it. I'm talking about all those identities that keep you in a box, attached to a specific way of living. For more ways to cultivate this see the 3-part series of articles on 'the observer'.
From this essence will come certain ways of being. These will manifest as feelings such as passion, focus, surrender, compassion, and curiosity. When we realise that an old identity is no longer a viable part of your current reality, coming back to these feelings provides us with a bridge back to our essential selves. For example, if we were to lose a job which gave us a sense of purpose, of helping to better the world, then we can connect with the sense of compassion inside. Or perhaps the job provided us with a sense of achievement or innovation - in which case we can connect with our sense or passion or curiosity. For more on this process see, 'Letting go - how to do it'
Why Fear Death?
The great consequence of doing this is that the closer you come to this essential self, the less fear you have around dying. There is simply less and less to let go of when you aren't carrying so many identities around.
We may not know what happens when we finally let go of our body. However, by learning to die right now, we can begin to fully live in each moment. Coming closer to our essential selves gives us so much stability, that there's no longer anything to fear from losing that which is no longer a part of our reality. It is not an easy process. It takes a lot of courage, especially in the beginning. But, I promise you the rewards are worth it!
For personal help with achieving this, and understanding how you can apply this in your personal story, please do get in touch.
From my heart to yours,
Wow, I just discovered this game. This could be of huge benefit to people. Not only people who are dying and their relatives, but also anyone who wishes to explore death and therefore come closer to life!
The game poses a series of interesting questions. It is designed to spark conversations about death between relatives who find the subject difficult to breach.
But, not only is it great for this purpose; it can also be used for increasing self-awareness around death. Therefore, it can be used by anyone.
This is a practice I developed a couple of years ago. At first it was just a bit of fun, designed to see how far I could go with it. However, I quickly realised that this exercise could help me to confront all my fears about uncertainty in a relatively safe environment. It challenged me to literally step into the unknown. Even though I knew that I was safe doing so, the exercise brought up my fears very quickly and I was able to confront and soften into them.
The great thing about this exercise is that even though it’s safe enough, it will still challenge you very, very quickly. It will bring up all your fear about stepping blindly into an unknown situation, but without any major consequences for your life. It also provides a very effective way to deal with the fears that arise, so that when you do need to step into the unknown down the line, you are already hard-wired to be able to cope with it.
The other great thing about this practice is that it is so simple and so flexible that it is possible for everyone to do. It can be done alone, in pairs, or in groups. I do it mostly alone, but it can be very powerful in a pair too, especially as an extra safety net. It can be planned or spontaneous, for example when out for a walk in the countryside.
So here it is:
This exercise, when done fairly frequently, will give you a great tool for dealing with any situation which brings up fear of the unknown. Feel free to go at your own pace. You don’t need to complete all 9 steps each time. Feel free to make your own alterations to the exercise. Be creative, and have fun with it.
One of the hardest things in literature, and especially children's literature, is to portray death in a way that invites a less fearful or condemning attitude towards this phenomenon.
There are a few children's book that have sought to introduce children to death. How to breach such a sensitive subject to minds who are innocent and not yet understanding of the impermanence of life? It's tricky for sure.
However, I would say that 'Cry, Heart, But Never Break' has managed this in a magnificent way. While portraying the character, death as gentle and understanding it also does not shy away from the realities of death. This is especially great for kids who have or are experiencing the death of a loved one and don't know what to make of it.
Written by Glenn Ringtved and illustrated by Charlotte Pardi, the book is a masterpiece, and highly recommended for parents who have grieving children or who simply want to teach children about this delicate subject in a gentle and sensitive way.
One of the things I especially love about the book is the emphasis that death is needed and that it makes life all the richer.
For more information and another great review of this book, check out Cry Heart But Never Break: A remarkable meditation on loss and life.
It's quite a bold statement, 'Healing is possible for everyone!' Many may be sceptical, but bare with me and I'll show you how this is true. I think we can agree that all of us want to be healed in some way. There may be moments in our lives that are wracked with both physical or mental illness, when healing is really all we can think about. Or, there may be old wounds, festering in our subconscious that just won't go away; that affect our daily lives in many ways. I think you'll also agree that a journey of healing can often be demoralising, frustrating and downright confusing at times.
So let me try to set the record straight. In this article I will seek to debunk some of the myths around healing. I'm also going to show you how you can heal yourself, but maybe not in the way that you expect to be healed. By the end, I hope you will come away with a clearer picture of what healing means to you, and how you can heal yourself in your daily life.
The First Step: Unlearning
The first thing is to forget all your preconceptions about what healing actually is. At this point I'm not going to give you a definition of healing, because I fear it would either be far too broad, as to not really give you anything, or too narrow. Healing is one of those things that will be different for everyone - it will simply be what they need at the time (not necessarily what they want.
This forgetting of preconceptions is not only important for the flow of this article, but also on any healing journey. Most people go into a journey of healing with an idea or goal of what their healing will look like; no more cancer, being able to walk again, being able to function in society, going back to work. Or, when they realise that there's no hope of these things, there's the feeling that healing has somehow eluded them, that it's no longer possible. However, healing can be found in the most unlikely and unlooked for ways.
Here are a few of the major false expectations that taint a healing journey:
And here's the number one, bestselling myth out there, that almost everybody will believe at some point in their healing journeys:
'If I don't beat this illness, I haven't healed'
It can be a huge blow for people when they discover that they won't recover from the illness or infliction that they have. They will likely experience some form of grief and likely some loss of identity. However, healing on some level is always possible. You may even find that through accepting and even embracing your illness, you change in a very positive way. Thus, often the illness is the tool used for healing.
Stephen Levine recounts in his book, 'Healing into Life and Death';
'A friend very ill with advanced cancer, visited a highly respected Zen Master, hoping for some answers to her questions about healing. After explaining her circumstances, she asked, "Do I need to take on some spiritual path in order to be healed?" The Zen Master smiled, leaned forward, pointing directly to her heart, and whispered, "you are the path."'
What this means is that whatever illness or infliction we may have is just a tool on the overall journey of you. It is another stepping stone on the journey towards knowing yourself and being able to accept who you are and what life (and death) is. No matter what illness we may have, no person who has experienced a deep acceptance of life and themselves as beings within it can say that they don't feel like they've experienced healing.
Is there a universal cure for all ailments? No. Is there an answer to the questions, 'How can I experience healing in all circumstances?', or, 'Is healing possible for me?'
That answer is LOVE.
Love: The Ultimate Healing
I'm not speaking about romantic love here, though of course that can play a part in healing too. I'm speaking about love as an unconditional acceptance and embracing of life as a whole. Not just the good parts, but everything. The physical and emotional pain, the illness that prevents you from doing the things that you want to do, the friends and relatives who just can't seem to understand. They're all to be loved because they're all a part of your journey to self realisation, to true healing.
I'm sure there are many now thinking that this is a pretty tall order. Well I'm not saying it's easy, but blimey, it's worth it! Can you imagine the peace that this will bring?
But, How? Here's How!
Firstly, we need the commitment. This will not be an easy journey.
Secondly, we need a blank slate. As stated earlier in this article, we need to forget about any preconceived ideas about what we want out of our healing journey.
Then, we need to tear open our heart. Yes, it's brutal I'm afraid, but in order to get to that place of peace, we need to go through all of our darkness, all of our unexamined fears. We need to look them straight in the eye and accept them as a product of our thinking up to this point.
Thus, a process will follow. Gradually, all the fears that hold you back will be brought to the surface. It is important that we ask ourselves why we have these fears. What have we got to lose?
Then we ask, how can I honour this fear without getting caught up in it? What aligned aspect of myself wants to come forth? An example of this would be a fear of losing a part of your identity; as a person who is a carer, a parent, a fit person, a sociable person. Then you can ask, if one of these roles is taken away from me, then how can I still express it within myself? Well, we can care for ourselves, with understanding; we can look after what physical functions we still have, without being attached to keeping them; we can get getting to know ourselves as there are always more stones to upturn, more explorations to be had.
In doing this we learn to let go. We learn to embrace change. We learn to forgive ourselves and others. We learn who we are at in our essence. We learn to deal with physical pain. We even learn to embrace death, which in turn enhances life.
This, my friends, is true healing. It is never attached to a particular outcome. However, it is the cultivation of a way of being. It is the understanding of life and, more importantly, yourself as a whole entity, and loving all of it. For without the darkness we would not appreciate the light.
If we can commit ourselves to this journey, then we may find that we begin to experience miracles.
For more on the spiritual aspects of healing, check out this article from Trinity at Openhand: The True Nature of Healing
A while ago I wrote an article about channelling sadness into beauty. It's about taking your grief and creating a beautiful expression from it. Now, I've come across this amazing video of a new father singing 'Blackbird' by The Beatles to his new born son.
The sad story is that his wife died in childbirth, and his son died 4 days later. I can't watch this video without crying, its so beautiful in its tragedy. Tragic events like this take us closer to the meeting point of life and death, thus making everything more profound and intense.
Life becomes a thing of fragile beauty, just like the blackbird in the song.
Now is the time of dark invitation
Beyond a frontier that you did not expect;
Abruptly, your old life seems distant.
You barely noticed how each day opened
A path through fields never questioned,
Yet expected deep down to hold treasure.
Now your time on earth becomes full of threat;
Before your eyes your future shrinks.
You lived absorbed in the day to day,
So continuous with everything around you,
That you could forget you were separate;
Now this dark companion has come between you,
Distances have opened in your eyes,
You feel that against your will
A stranger has married your heart.
Nothing before has made you
Feel so isolated and lost.
When the reverberations of shock subside in you,
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart
To embrace this illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.
May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Towards what is difficult,
Painful and unknown.
May you use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.
May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Help you to release whatever has become false in you.
May you trust this light to clear a path
Through all the fog of old unease and anxiety
Until you feel arising within you a tranquility
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.
May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask it why it came? Why it chose your friendship?
Where it wants to take you? What it wants you to know?
What quality of space it wants to create in you?
What you need to learn to become more fully yourself
That your presence may shine in the world.
May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary
Which can bring this night-wound gradually
Towards the healing and freedom of dawn.
May you be granted the courage and vision
To work through passivity and self-pity,
To see the beauty you can harvest
From the riches of this dark invitation.
May you learn to receive it graciously,
And promise to learn swiftly
That it may leave you newborn,
Willing to dedicate your time to birth
So far in this series of articles on overcoming fear, we've explored how each fear can be traced to a fear of death and also, how our 'web of identity' affects the way we approach our fear. Now, let's go deeper still into the caverns of who we are and look at the source pain behind our fear of death.
Dying - whether a final death or an every day challenge to our sense of self, it confronts our identity causing us to be afraid. Thus we often cling to certain traits/identities within us when others are challenged, especially our world view and belief system. It's been shown over and over again that when reminded of our fear of death, we react generously to those who reinforce our beliefs and harshly to those who call our beliefs into question.
What causes us to behave this way?
Unity Vs, Individuality
This causes great pain to an infant, which we call separation anxiety. It is the first time we experience death in our lifetimes; a loss of identity. So, we begin to search for our own identity - what is our place in the world? And here begins the apparent conflict between the two opposing currents of love (unity consciousness) and individuality (separation). Thus a child will flip several times a day between needing to be supported and nurtured and needing to assert their independence, which of course continues into adulthood, if only in a more subtle way.
The two 'flows of consciousness' conflict because of fear - we fear to lose ourselves in unity consciousness, to lose our uniqueness, that which defines us. This is the underlying cause: the 'source pain', of our fear of death. It is the reason so many are not able to meditate deeply - to hit that point where we blend effortlessly into the vastness of the universe.
So how do we consolidate these two apparently opposing flows so that they work together in our lives, so that fear arises less and less? Well, I'm afraid there's no method I can give you. The answer lies in the opposite of method - surrender.....total and utter surrender.
Surrendering into Nothingness
We have to let the fear arise. We have to make friends with it. We have to let go of our clinging. We have to be prepared to dissolve into nothingness. It takes a deep surrender to let go of our identities. The parent, the musician, the football player, the intellectualist, the lover, the carer, the comedian, the warrior - they must all go. They have to all be thrown into the black hole of nothingness - to my knowledge there is no other way to overcome fear! We have to literally become the black hole. Emptiness.
Here's the thing - this emptiness, this nothingness. There is actually a wholeness to it. A purity of life. Some call it unconditional love. It is not really nothingness but no-thing-ness. There is no object (there is not even a subject) to cling to and produce duality. ..
...and out of this nothingness, this pure potential, comes our real uniqueness. It is not something that can be easily described, easily labelled, and therefore there is no identity with it. It is just you, pure and simple. It is felt as a kind of 'rightness' in every moment. It is not the rightness of right and wrong, this is a judgement, a duality which leads to identifying with a certain point of view. It is a spontaneous 'knowing' of how to respond to any given situation. It is beyond the mind and yet it is alignment for you and those around you, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
The Magic of the Moment
From here we begin to see how truly magical life really is. Check out this amazing short video with Alan Watts.
"So therefore, in the course of nature, once we have ceased to see the magic in the world anymore, we're no longer fulfilling natures game of being aware of itself. There's no point anymore. And so we die" - Alan Watts
Life is truly magical - the way it works, all the little miracles, the coincidences, the interactions.
How can we cultivate this feeling inside of us? We have to dive right in. Embrace the good and the bad. Find a passion, what makes you tick and do it without guilt. Dive right in. But don't cling, don't identify - our passions are simply ways of expressing our uniqueness which comes form pure potential, they are not who we are. We are the magic of the universe made incarnate.
In the first article in the series we have explored the perspective that each and every fear that we have can be ultimately traced to a fear of death, and that it is caused by our conditioning from our upbringing and our societal norms and expectations. In this article I'd like to delve deeper into the psyche so that we can explore ways of overcoming our conditioning and our fear of death.
Fear of Loosing 'Who We Are'
This is a very simplified model of a random person within society. Yet taking a closer look, we can clearly see the things we may identify with in our lives, how there can be smaller identities within them, and how they can be connected. We can also see that there are two types of identity:
All of these identities have been built up through a desire to know who we are. So, the question is who are we in all of this? Does being a Nurse, a Tennis player, a parent and a lover define who I am? Or are they simply outer scenarios in which we can express our characteristics: love, playfulness, caring, creativity. Are even these characteristics a definition of who we are? What happens when I don't feel playful or caring? Am I not me then?
It is not easy to let let go of identity, but seeing that you are identified and that the object, person or situation of identity doesn't actually define you is the first and most powerful step.
A Neuro-scientific viewpoint
Check out these two articles by Olivia Goldhill. They show us how the Buddhist perspective of ever-changing self can be linked to Neuroscientific research and that our personalities change over the course of our lives. What is interesting about this second study is that most of the research out there suggests that personality is fairly stable. However, they have all been conducted up to middle age, and this study went all the way from ages 14-77. It suggest that the bigger changes in personality begin to happen after middle age. Of course this is the period in our lives when we will have to say goodbye to many of the people, objects and situations that we have identified with. It shows how losing these things can affect who we are. We may become different people as the things that we hold dear get ripped away from us.
"People use the language of death and grief and loss whether they're talking about failing a class, breaking up with somebody, getting a scary diagnosis or burying a loved one"
- Jeanine Staples
How does embracing death all fit into this? Well, you see death is just a concept. Yes, we have our final deaths, there's no avoiding that, but we can embrace the concept of death by embracing every little death that we die along the way. In this way we don't cling, we don't become misers and we drink in the fullness, the richness of the moment, whatever that may be. Even during times of great pain or misery, there is an underlying peace, like an easiness because you are simply going with the flow.
In the 3rd article in the series 'Overcoming Fear by Embracing Death' we will look at the two opposing flows of unity and uniqueness and how these can either lead to attachment and clinging or to great inner peace and magical manifestations.
Fear of death is so prevalent in our psyches that it can be argued that it governs much of the way we think and react to our environment. It is the underlying cause of dependence on security and one-another, and drives us to cling to conditioned identities in order to give us some permanence. It is behind the idea of 'legacy', that we wish to leave a part of ourselves behind after we die, which causes us to fixate on an 'idea' rather than feeling who we are in each and every moment. In fact it is my perspective that it is possible to link ALL of our fears in some way to the fear of death. So, why is it so prevalent, what happens to us when we are conditioned this way and how can we overcome it? Here is the first in a two part series on overcoming the fear of death.
Fear of Death in Society
I have worked with a number of medical and caring professionals from doctors, nurses and paramedics to therapists, carers and social workers. And over time I have noticed that when at work, most of these professionals (especially medical ones) have a between a moderately strong to extreme fear of death, which dramatically affects the way they work. Each and every time I heard someone bring up the subject of death to a paramedic, the response, without exception was "I don't want to hear that" - This is literally what people said! In fact this has been a major influencing factor for me to go into the work that I now do - the look of relief on peoples faces when they said to me "I think I might die soon" and the response was "Okay. Talk to me about it" was quite literally life changing for me.
This is not by any means an attack on medical professionals. It is very understandable that when one comes to a job that has a primary function of preventing death, that one may see death as a 'failure', and that when confronted regularly with people dying in front of you that emotional reactions will continue to influence the way that medical practice is approached.
So, where does this conditioning come from?
From an early age, we strive to discover our unique place in the world. Through positive feedback ("That was very kind of you, well done" or "Aren't you good at drawing!") and negative feedback ("That wasn't nice!" or "why can't you be more....?") we begin to build up a web of conditioning and a picture of who we think we are. Then we go out into the world and are taught that one has to be secure to be happy. To do this, we have to provide for ourselves and our dependents, and the most secure way to to this is to get a job and a house. We see homeless people on the streets - people who have not been able to meet societies expectations - and we become afraid that that could happen to us.
Thus, we seek some form of legacy. As Ernest Becker postulates in his book, 'The Denial of Death' the function of society is to help us believe that we can transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth.
And, we don't just seek security in the physical world, but also in who we are. We like to say 'this is me'. We attach ourselves to identities, and when these identities slip away we are confronted directly with the fear of death. This is why all fear can be linked to a fear of death, because all fear is, is a reaction to a challenge to this web of identity, that we see that we may lose some part of ourselves. Fear of pain - because we identify with the body, fear of failure because it challenges our self-esteem (the desire to be 'good' at something), fear of loosing status, a job, a partner or a treasured possession - all because of an underlying fear of death. It is a fear of the unknown. It is a fear that we are not permanent. It is a fear of obliteration.
Belief in life after death can help, but the fear of death as a concept extends beyond this and affects everyone, no matter what spiritual beliefs you may have. Death is not just a state we enter at the end of our life - it manifests itself every day as something that challenges our patterns and conditioning. It is in the person who disagrees with you, it's in the mistakes that you make, it's in your lack of self confidence. It is a direct manifestation of every time you have an expectation that doesn't get met; of every time you cling to something that is comfortable and known when given the option to go forth into the unknown.
Why are we Wired this Way?
Essentially, we are caught between two opposing 'pulls' to our being. On one hand there is the desire for unity; the pull to be 'at one' with the universe, which can be called 'love'. On the other hand, there is the overwhelming need for individuality and uniqueness. It is the apparent opposition of these two forces which causes our denial of death, and thus denial of life. And, it is in this conundrum that we have the answer to the question, 'how can we overcome the fear of death?'
In the second part of the series, we'll look more closely at identity and how it plays a major role in our ability to embrace death, as well as a further explanation of the question, 'what is the self?'
My name is Richard. I love to write, and here you can find my general musings, observations and articles. Enjoy!
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