I received the call on a Friday. My friend Vicki’s number came up on the caller ID, and I answered in the traditional way I always used to with my old friend: “Is this THE Vicki Allinson?!” with great enthusiasm and laughter. What surprised me was an unrecognizable voice on the other end – not Vicki. Uh oh. Something was wrong, very wrong. Who is this? It was her friend Isabella, whom I had never met. “What’s wrong with Vicki?” I asked, feeling tears softly well up. Liver cancer. She’s expected to pass on this weekend.
Death is here
It had been a strange week of deaths. That morning, I had just read about someone I didn’t know on my parent’s club list that had a stillborn child. That broke me down faster than anything. A student shared with me deaths among her family and friends. A client was dealing with a dying grandparent. Death seemed to be hovering around, amongst the newly blossomed flowers of springtime.
And I realized that in reality, death is always around. There is no life without death; it is always here. Even though birds are laying their eggs and having babies, an earthworm that crawled out during last week’s rain drowned in the gutter. A number of the ladybugs we released into our yard the other night lay motionless on the stone patio. Whether we know someone close to us that died this week or not, someone is always dying, and someone is always being born. Coming to terms with death is as essential to life as breathing and eating. Coming to terms with death is essential to being fully alive.
Death as an adviser
I recalled, back in my senior year in college, reading Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, a book that profoundly impacted my life. Castaneda’s teacher, Don Juan, was an incredible trickster who always kept Carlos on his toes and sometimes scared him half to death. He would often tell Carlos that his death was just over his left shoulder, and if he looked around really quickly right now, he’d catch a glimpse of him. Carlos was never really sure if that faint flicker that slipped into a shadow was indeed his end, or just a projected fear of what he imagined.
Don Juan would look piercingly into his eyes and tell him that he should use his death as an adviser. When Castaneda would get freaked out, or worry about things, Don Juan would suggest he look over his left shoulder… if death didn’t touch him yet, what was there to worry about?
How often we get caught up in pettiness, worries, internal dramas that only create stress, anger, and anxiety, that are completely unnecessary. Nothing really is that bad until we are faced with our moment of death. Until then, we’d best be living our lives and feeling gratitude for what is here, now. We’re better off giving our full attention to this precious moment than to get caught up in thoughts that aren’t even happening. Some moments in life truly require our full attention; by indulging in unnecessary mental folly, we end up less effective when a critical, powerful, or transformative situation arises.
But what about that moment when we DO actually meet with our death? I noticed myself going to bed, wondering about Vicki, what she was experiencing in her last moments. Was she meditating, chanting, focusing on the light? Was she afraid, or trusting? Did she see angels, ancestors, beings of light… or was there just one breath, slowing falling into the next, slowly feeling the morphine dripping into her veins and a gradual detachment from her body?
I wondered what I would feel. Would I be prepared for those last moments? I prayed that I had a very long life, so I’d have enough time to learn to truly be present, trusting, open, and deeply connected to the presence of the Divine in those last moments. That’s how I wanted to go, no matter the circumstances.
The fear of death
As I imagined her passing on, I wondered if I’d get any sign, a visit, or a dream with her. And I began to feel fear. How surprising! With what I believe about life, God, the spiritual realm, and the nature of our soul, how could I feel fear of the spirit of a friend I dearly loved visiting me? Was I still buying into the old movies about ghosts? What was I really afraid of, and why?
I sat up in bed and inquired about this fear. It had to do with the dark. Night had fallen, and somehow that translated to a fear of death. This is a common reaction for many of us – fear of the dark and fear of death both stem from the great unknown.
The unknown isn’t really the problem: it’s the fact that we tend to project bad, scary things in our imagination on that unknown, rather than tapping into a deeper knowing within. We can’t know the mystery of death, consciousness, and the life of the soul with our sensory-oriented, three-dimensional, intellectually analytical mind. No, the knowing of the mysteries of life and death comes from an understanding far beyond the ordinary intellect.
The root of fear
In yoga philosophy, Sage Patanjali asserts that there are five causes of suffering, or afflictions, at the root of every fear, worry, and stress. The first and foremost – the root of all the others – is Avidya, ignorance.
This is not the ordinary definition of ignorance; say, someone who doesn’t know the customs of a country she visits and does something inappropriate. The ignorance that Patanjali refers to here is ignorance of our true nature. The root of all suffering, he states, is not knowing that we are Divine. The “I” that we refer to is not the temporal experience of the body, nor even the personality, but that which is witness to all that, and all the experiences we have in this life. That witness, our Divine Self, is eternal and unchanging.
When we gain true knowledge, overcoming Avidya, then we also overcome all the other four causes of affliction, including the fifth: Abhinivesha, the fear of death. There is nothing to fear when we know, deep within ourselves, that as we let go of this body we continue on in consciousness. And when that consciousness that we call our Self (as distinguished from our self, the individual ego) unites with the consciousness of all of existence, there is joy beyond description. Nothing to fear.
Trusting the process
In remembering this, I calm down. I recognize that the darkness and the light that I perceive through my eyes are not different in the realm of spirit. It is only my perception and my reaction to the perception that brings up fear. When I penetrate beyond my sensory-oriented thinking to my inner wisdom, there is a peace about death. A knowing that is beyond my intellectual understanding; some part of me just feels it. I go off to sleep, sensing that my friend Vicki is where she needs to be, and it is a good place, beyond my comprehension. I trust that.
I have a long way to go before I’ll be able to face my own death with that kind of trust and ease. But for one moment, I was able to embrace my friend’s death with the same joy and trust that I did awaiting spring’s arrival. Death in the season of rebirth reminded me that they’re really one and the same… while her friends here perceive Vicki passing away as an end, for her it’s just a beginning – one that only she will know.
Copyright © 2010 by Constance L. Habash