“Slowly one falls asleep, and when he is asleep, he is dead. There is certainly nothing to fear in any part of the process of dying.” – Charles Hampton, The Transition Called Death
Years ago, someone, while waiting to die, calculated that 35 billion human beings have lived and died on Earth. It boggles the mind: 35 billion people – more than five times the Earth’s current population – have come and gone, have loved and lost. And no matter what we try to do to fight it, we are next in line. Death is as much a part of the cycle of existence as birth. In a sense, it is a totally casual event on Earth: Beings are dying all the time. Eight thousand die each day just from air pollution.
It feels so fixed, so solid and real, this earthly life of ours. For most of us, it seems like it will go on forever, or at least long enough for us not to have to concern ourselves with death now. But death can come suddenly. One day we wake up, and it is the day we die. And when it is our turn, it only takes a few hours, a couple of days at most, for this whole conditional pattern – what we consider “Earth” and “life” – to change and disappear from view.
As a species, we have never really become comfortable with the fact of our own passing. Death, we feel, is the fundamental problem with life. It frightens us to our core. This primal fear, this never knowing how or when the end will come, becomes a stress that informs our whole life, an underlying sensation that lies at the root of all our reactivity. Thankfully, though, we can free ourselves of this stress, in life and in death. As we will see, this fear is less a fundamental part of being human, as many people think, and more an unnecessary by-product of a society that fails to understand the natural pattern of our appearance here. With the right approach, we can prepare for death, and we can understand it. Once we do, it becomes possible to make our passing – and the passing of others – a peaceful, even happy event.
Going Beyond the reaction to death
Many people today are familiar with the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer of modern death and dying education. Seeking to understand more about death, Kubler-Ross spent time with people when they were preparing to die, talking with them and their loved ones and observing their behavior. In several landmark books, Kubler-Ross showed us what was actually taking place in the room when people die. In doing so, she outlined a number of stages people tend to go through as they face death – denial, anger/betrayal, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that have now become part of the popular consciousness. The bottom line of Kubler-Ross’ work: everyone in the room, both the dying person and the survivors were in reaction to the process. Throughout history, the wisest men and women have always taught that dying is not the end, that it is simply a matter of moving on, of leaving this form of existence and taking up another.
In ancient esoteric schools, there was considered to be no difference between the way a practitioner should approach life and how such a one should face death. Both, it was taught, should be met with profound devotion to that which is deathless and eternal, an understanding of the nature of things that goes far beyond mind. Call it what you will – Being, the Divine, the Light, Consciousness – the nature of reality is an indestructible unity, and this must be our fundamental understanding at death. When we are able to behold and recognize this deathless reality throughout the death process, dying becomes entirely benign. Death, we realize, is transformation, not annihilation. This recognition allows the death process to unfold harmoniously, even auspiciously.
One of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s favorite books was Easy Death, by Adi Da Samraj. In this masterwork of wisdom and instruction on the death process, this western born spiritual master talks about death as actually being a time for regeneration. Death, he writes, is “a necessary, purposeful and (ultimately) benign psycho-physical process” which is intended to refresh “the conscious being.” This “conscious being” is our existence at a level deeper than the physical, the subtlest etheric aspect and beyond. This deeper being sustains our appearance here, and it continues on after death. Death might be the end of this particular appearance here, but it is also a time of regeneration and growth for the being itself.
The best thing to do with a human life, then, as the great teachers of mankind have always taught, is to use our years to grow our deeper beings, doing whatever we can to commune with and realize the bright deathless Reality in life. Death, like birth, is much more natural and easeful when we practice and prepare for it. Practicing this communion during the death process, to whatever degree we are capable of, allows us to release our stressful sense of control, and to give ourselves up to the natural motion of the process.
Dying in Peace
During the death process, the life-energy goes up and out of us, and the body dies from the toes to the crown. The natural motion of the death process is ascending: The life-energy moves up and out of the body towards a new reality above the head. The less resistant and confused we are, the more smoothly the energy can move. The cycle of reactivity tends to interrupt the natural motion of the death process, pulling energy back down towards the body and world that we now need to leave. The more we struggle, the more discomfort and pain we experience. If we can truly let go, we can move up and out without obstruction, moving on peacefully and with ease.
I have seen people die in a state of deep peace, free of any real suffering. I have watched people become full of radiance and peace as they died, their faces literally shining as they moved through all the physical and emotional discomforts brought on by the process of shedding the physical body. Most of these people had used their lives to study death, and deepen their realization of the true nature of things. The study of death is the best kind of learning, the kind that informs our whole being. The best study is to serve those who are dying. As we study, feel, and observe the death process as it occurs in others and as it is spoken about in less materialistic traditions, we begin to understand that the Light that shines in life also shines in death, that existence is never destroyed, only transformed.
Truly exercised, this feeling-understanding relieves us of much of the fear and negative bodily chemistry death tends to bring up in us. Armed with this understanding, death ceases to be the monster under the bed, the elephant in the living room. Once it is examined and understood, we become free of the taboos on death and dying; free, to a large extent, of that primal, motivating fear.