Death — Spiritual Message of the Day
Death—we fear it so much, don’t we! But most of that fear comes from the fact that death is the great unknown. Its mystery scares us. So the more experience with it and understanding of it that we can gain, the less frightening it may become. One way to become more comfortable with the concept of death is through reading about it. For example, it can be helpful to research Near-Death Experiences. One interesting finding about NDE is how they affect people, and the following is a list of changes in people who had a near-death experience as identified in a Wikipedia article on the subject:
* A greater appreciation for life
* Higher self-esteem
* Greater compassion for others
* A heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding,
* A heightened desire to learn
* Elevated spirituality
* Greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern
* A feeling of being more intuitive.
The main cause of our fear and suffering concerning death is the illusion that it is real, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s book No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life addresses this issue and presents a useful analogy that compares our life to a drop of water. The essence of this analogy is that a drop of water splashed into the air from an ocean wave may suffer the illusion that it has been born and that it will die when it eventually returns to the sea. Part of that painful illusion is the belief that it, the drop of water, is something separate from the ocean, but it is not, and its return to the ocean is not an ending but a wonderful transition.
In a short article called “Dying is Absolutely Safe”, Ram Dass talks about the illusion that death is real, saying:
I had identified with that which dies – the ego. … Now, I identify much more with who I really am – the Soul. As long as you identify with that which dies, there is always fear of death. [But] the essence of [our] Being … is beyond death. … when the body and the ego are gone, the Soul will live on, because the Soul is eternal.
I urge you to read the entire article. (It’s not very long.) In it, Ram Dass also discusses how “being with people who were dying [helped] me deal with my own fear of death in this lifetime.” This may not be a viable option for most of us, but at one time or another we may find ourselves in a situation where we are with someone who is dying. Of course, you may be able to avoid this, but the value of the experience can compensate for its difficulty. An excellent resource for preparing for such an experience is On Death & Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, which is a seminal work in this field.
Finally, we may gain understanding from our own personal brushes with death. These experiences may create a comforting familiarity with death, or they may not. The difference comes from the beliefs and attitudes you bring to these experiences. Let me relate one of my own. It is not a near-death experience, but it was the one time that I have had to face the distinct possibility of my own death.
Many years ago I came down with bacterial pneumonia. There are several types of pneumonia, and this particular bacterial variety is generally the easiest to treat. If my doctor had diagnosed it properly and then prescribed the most effective antibiotic for it, it should not have lasted very long or been very debilitating. But he didn’t. And so the disease lasted longer than it might have, and it became progressively more incapacitating. In the last few days before I finally got the correct antibiotic that cured the pneumonia, I was convinced that there was a distinct possibility that I could die from the disease.
The interesting thing, though, is that whenever I thought “I could very well die from this” those were the only really peaceful times for me during the illness. Granted, most of the rest of the time I alternated between horrific coughing bouts and bitter recriminations and complaints about my doctor’s ineptitude, so it’s not like my life was the height of serenity just then. But I was not panicked by the prospect of death. Instead, I felt a serene resignation about it, which was a reaction I found somewhat surprising after the fact.
My beliefs about death informed my response, certainly, but until I was actually faced with the prospect, I didn’t know for sure how I would react to it. I don’t recommend pneumonia as a way to test your beliefs about life and death, of course. However, most of us are confronted with life challenging experiences of some sort on rare occasions and when they arise, they can be a valuable tool for exploring this part of life which we don’t typically see.
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