If one were willing to confront the full impact of all the signs pointing to the future of life on this planet, a confrontation with the prospect of mass death is unavoidable. That prospect is inextricably entwined with the manner in which we hold the prospect of death right now–not in some nebulous future. A culture and economic model of infinite growth, illusions of permanence and control must include a denial of death, distorting the entire idea of what life is and what constitutes living. On the far side of these ramblings about mass death is the scenario of our own personal death.
Such a process might be marked by an inexorable advance into an increasingly evident material dying process, a relentless progression of conditions—or failed interventions into an increasingly complex collection of conditions—that might not rob us of cognitive faculties, but which would nevertheless be an increasingly evident reduction in the physical capacity to sustain life. Meanwhile, mind will observe from a greater distance. I might slowly leave my body as its control, to whatever degree I once had it, is wrestled from my grasp, leaving only Mind—if I’m lucky.
This progression will then likely be complicated by the presence of multiple conditions, each presenting complications for treating the others. The options narrow, for example, to a carefully tailored regime of drugs or perhaps outlandishly risky surgeries. The sense of gradual entrapment by inexorably limiting conditions rises, and the prematurity of it all begins to gain weight. But is it premature? We might reflexively consider every death to be premature, including our own, of course, but what does that really mean? The question is if these conditions ultimately describe the process of my own death, will my own death be premature?
Yes, there may be moments of fear along an uneven path of tests and treatments, appointments, the carefully modulated conversations. I listen as my body drops into a minor key, openly gazing inward and outward at whoever delivers the news and feeling that news reverberating—reconciling all the other factors impinging on life along the way. All of this depends on whether some other conditions come galloping along to raise my level of risk even further, limiting my capacities, adding variety and velocity to the drama, chasing a runaway herd of questions requiring answers with further complications.
One’s sense of time contracts. That is the inescapable message. I become the primary character in a movie depicting this inexorable process. I am driving a car downhill on a winding mountain road, on one side is a vast and unobstructed cloud-free view, with the mountain rising sharply on the other. In the gathering darkness, suddenly there is something amiss with the vehicle. It’s becoming difficult to control, swerving momentarily toward the precipice until I regain control in the nick of time. Then, further down the mountain, the brakes unexpectedly disappear; and then further on, the windshield is suddenly covered with dust. Now, the lights don’t come on. I am blind and helpless. Either I am engulfed in terror–or something else happens.
What is that exactly? What happens next? I cannot stop. I cannot depart the vehicle. What else is there? I let go. I no longer attempt to control anything. I am no longer driving. I don’t even see the road anymore. What is taking me down? Where is the bottom? Does it even matter?
It is in that moment when the most important decisions are made. I transition from realizing my time is shortening to a practice of collapsing into the timeless present–simply allowing this body to dissolve into the soil of countless other bodies nourishing and sustaining all else as we careen down the mountain together. One makes a conscious transition from abstract knowing one is going to die to comprehending being on a direct course of dying now. Prematurity no longer exists. I am on a course less and less under my control. Its conclusions are not up to me. We are capable of understanding we will die at any time. But that very understanding is itself an objectification–as if something will happen in the future, but perhaps not to me. And anyway, we don’t want to think about it. In the meantime, we will exercise whatever agency we can muster to forestall the inevitable.
It seems perfectly logical to say we will all be confronted with a series of moments tightening the grip of death in which we will have to decide what we believe and what our conscious role shall be in attending and adapting to a process that is both in and out of our hands, that is entirely real and entirely illusory. As we are living and dying in every moment, we are both separate from and in union with everything and everyone. Each one of these moments will be an increasingly intimate encounter, but at some point one will surely enter a dying process–one by which, if we are fortunate, we will recall that union.
The dying process may be described in detail by the medical professions, but for most of us, I suspect the process begins well before the rapid decline of cognitive function. As such, it is really an awakening process. We will discover whether animal survival mechanisms will leap over all the fences of containment and rationalization by higher brain functions and run wild, derailing us from refuge practices we’ve spent decades refining to restore and sustain equanimity, let alone what one could call resting in the vast and empty nature of mind. Or, perhaps we will comprehend the true nature of our relationship with existence in ways we never imagined possible.
Fear and anxiety may be expected, but not guaranteed, just as pain can be guaranteed, while suffering remains optional. I am steeped in a finely cultivated and detailed view of reality, life, suffering and death, developing confidence in the capacity to meet whatever arises. I’ve received the gift of gnosis, looking directly into the heart of existence, a view of emptiness, openness, inclusion and unity. The question becoming more present is whether I will continue to rely on these practices when they count the most, whether I’m going to plant my flag in that mountain of belief no matter what comes.
On the other hand, a significant part of these practices and preparations both implicit and explicit in the range and flow of Buddhist teachings; indeed, the orientation of all organized religious belief is to the existence of a soul or not, to an afterlife or not, interpreting death and preparing the believer for what is beyond life. Whether some part of us endures beyond this life, whether it’s eternal life inseparable from the divine, eternal damnation, rebirth or none of the above, true believers prepare (or hope) for whatever they long to encounter. What is sold as insurance guaranteeing the desired outcome is an unshakeable belief in what happens after death.
We stake our lives and our deaths on those beliefs. In whatever way we approach dying, particularly when we’re aware of what’s happening, no matter how much we might deny it, we cling to a belief in what happens next and mentally prepare for something like everlasting glory, perpetual luminosity or perhaps one of several intermediate states preceding rebirth into an endless repeating cycle. Such beliefs suggest there is consciousness beyond life and that steps can be taken here in the bardo of everyday life that will have a bearing on the condition of one’s rebirth.
It’s amazing to imagine navigating bardo states in the first place. Am I going to stake whatever remaining time I have on the details of how I might respond to a nebulous and fleeting dream state? Or will I focus on the dream state of this minute? Even considering sustained moments of absolute clarity about the true nature of mind, do I imagine those are a ticket to the bardo of becoming preceding rebirth? What if I decided to be satisfied with the effort I’ve already expended? What if every moment of this life is a rehearsal for and an investment in what happens after this life? What if that is precisely and only what this life is?
That could easily sound very Christian, but it’s also an unavoidable interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist bardo teachings. A preoccupation with whatever happens after death can become what Stephen Jenkinson calls an addiction to competence, getting it right. It’s really just another way of clinging to life, to the identity we’ve spent our entire lives crafting and convincing ourselves truly exists. It’s an artifact of hope, which in the final stages of life becomes another way of not being present for what is. Chögyam Trungpa would surely call that spiritual materialism.
Realizing I may come to a state of terminal disease or to an increasingly fragile condition sooner than I might have expected, I have to wonder if reifying such imaginings, diverting my attention to teasing apart nuanced states of post-death possibilities, imagining the exercise of intention even after the final breath has been taken, learning to recognize the signs described by centuries of teachers, exploring the likelihood of a continuation of consciousness after that final breath is the best use of my time. Staking my present life on what happens after death and exercising rituals of preparation is a preoccupation with the future, not an engagement with the unfolding present. I have to ask, holding back the guffaws, what I would think if I discovered I’d been misled?
This is a process of exploring and enacting personal justice, reconciling myself, balancing the scales, as it were, between what I wish to invest in the future when there is such abundance right here in the present. Whatever I have been taught, whatever I have sampled or believed in, the time I’ve spent assimilating it, exploring all the views and prescriptions about preparing for one’s own death have been an indescribable blessing. But there is really only one choice in this moment: to be present for whatever is here and not to worry about what comes later. This is always the Dzogchen teaching anyway. The Great Perfection is the recognition that we already exist as the seamless nature of reality. There is no creating that reality. It is already created…and in perpetual creation. There is no waiting for it, no hope of attaining it. It is always already here. We can’t ignore it or get more of it or find it or lose it.
And yet, I make no claim to any truth. I make no claim on the future. I plant no flag of belief. I anticipate nothing. I reject nothing. I renounce nothing. I simply put it all away and remain as open as possible. There is no other place or way to be. This was the primary prescription all along. There is no bridge to suchness. Whatever rituals we repeat, whatever antidotes to samsaric mentality we adopt, we are already there.
I am already enough now. I have always been enough. Whatever comes, I will be enough. All the self-examination, evaluation, climbing some stairway to heaven or belief in anything beyond this life falls away. If there is anything that does more to make peace with all circumstances we encounter, it is simply to be with what is, to walk and talk the knowing that we are already there. It is to be giving thanks in every moment for what we are given, to live within an aura of gratitude for every breath, every encounter, every emotion, every difficulty, every teaching, every suffering and every moment of celebration. Whether this is the only life we will ever have or whether it’s just one of an uncounted number of flashes in an endless unfolding of numberless kalpas, nothing can take its place. To live in this way is to balance the scales for whatever remaining life we are given.