Two days ago I talked with someone about death and dying. It was an open, accepting and honest conversation full of liberation and beauty. The person with whom I spoke has suffered so much for so many years that, even at their relatively young age, they are ready for an end to it all. If life happens to improve soon, then great, that’s one way for the pain to end. But they are no longer holding out any hope, having already sailed over that particular horizon. Another way for the pain to end is death, and the more we talked about it and embraced the idea as a realistic possibility imbued with permission and blessing, the lighter and more beautiful the conversation became.
Therein lies the paradox of death. When we are close to it, whether physically because our body feels as though it cannot go on any more, or mentally because we’re able to imagine vividly how it might feel to no longer exist, then the weight of suffering lifts. At least it did in this case. It was a privilege to occupy the full space of the conversation and to explore the subject so freely with someone so obviously suffering. Suffering, but clear. Crystal clear. I have had numerous conversations with this person over the last ten months and from the very beginning I have been impressed with their depth of insight, their wisdom (which exceeds that of so many people twice their age), and their desire to live and help others.
We talked about how unhelpful and damaging our conditioned response to death is. We turn away from it, ignore it, avoid it, hoping it might one day go away, and yet every day it gets closer… to all of us. Someone else might persuade this person to think differently: ‘Don’t talk about death. You have so much to offer. So much to live for. You need to be positive now. You need to have hope that things will get better. They will get better. I’m sure they will.’
Given the story of death in which our particular culture is so immersed, that is a fully justifiable response to a very difficult subject. It is also something which is often said more for the speaker’s discomfort than the person in pain. But when we let go of what we think we know, rest with our own unease, and open ourselves to whatever stands before us, especially when it challenges us, then, as I found out in that conversation, we can experience a serene beauty – the kind we all seek, yet which so easily eludes us in our daily life. Life. Life! Death! The connection is obvious but the two appear as extremes that do not belong together.
It reminds me of the book I’m translating (Insight Into The Tao). Part one refers to the contrast between polarity and duality. It highlights how opposites are not separate but connected, and it’s the connection which provides the energy. Just like the poles of a battery (+ve and –ve): superficially they seem opposed to one another, yet when we look more closely we see how the battery works. We see not only that both poles are needed, but also that it’s only when they are connected that the electricity flows.
That’s how it felt during this conversation. We connected life and death, and in the space between we swam weightlessly in the waters of a deeper truth. The other person’s contribution was years of pain and suffering, combined with the wisdom and insight of an elder, and a powerful, paradoxical desire to exist to help others. Mine was to listen and allow myself the freedom to utter whatever words formed in that environment of acceptance and truth. There is a line at the end of my review of 2019, which encapsulates the feeling I had during that precious conversation:
‘…the more we let go and step into the unknown, the more we open ourselves to the splendour of love and life – two creative, restorative energies which show us the way when we allow them, and which are instrumental in our healing.’
We know nothing of death because none of us have ever experienced it, and because we’ve been raised to turn our back on it, even when it comes knocking. But what we can do is listen to the dying and to those who wish to die. They are the ones closest to the most life-changing of all experiences. Listen fully, and they might teach us what it means to live.