Getting right with death isn’t complicated.
When they asked Buddha what he gained from meditation, he said losing fear of death. Is that all it takes?
By David Stone
Table of contents
- Getting Right with Death Versus the Pleasures of Being Alive
- Crossing the Bar When You’d Rather Be Drinking at It
- Getting Right with Death: We just know.
- Looking Around for “Meaning”
- Suspending Disbelief, If You Can
- Looking For Truth in All the Places
- Starting Out On One Side of the Fence
- Dr. Newton’s Accidental Discovery
- Review for a Reality Check
- The End, More or Less
- Getting Right with Death: Reconciliation
I never feared death. As a kid overexposed to horror movies and television, I dreaded the pain and terror characterized as part of dying, but that’s something else.
I had no fear of being or becoming dead.
But I hate the idea of not being alive.
Life grew richer for me, and as it did, the idea that, one day, I wouldn’t be around made me sad.
I wanted to live forever, and dying was an obstacle.
Getting Right with Death Versus the Pleasures of Being Alive
Burt Lancaster, in The Swimmer, looked up on a clear day and declared, “Look at that sky!”
That’s how I feel.
My top moments were thrilling, whether it came from standing in the silence of the woods or rolling naked in bed.
Knowing I would lose that, knowing it was inevitable, had an unshakeable sadness about it.
For me, the pleasures on every level would go. The world and everything in it would continue without me.
Then, bit by bit, that awareness changed, turning itself inside out.
Meditation was part of it, but books and observation took me farther than I ever thought I’d go while still above ground.
Gradually, I learned the happy truth about getting right with death and what it taught about living.
Crossing the Bar When You’d Rather Be Drinking at It
Growing up in the country, I don’t recall ever being hit hard by the reality of death. Saddened, sure. But shattered? No, not really.
When our dogs died while chasing cars on our country road, it brought sorrow, but evanescent. Life went on, death in a haze of forgetfulness behind us as the wheels turned, season to season.
The first time death planted itself on my lap and refused to get up was when my grandmother died. Twelve years old, I was taken mostly with curiosity at her funeral.
Men don’t cry . We all knew that.
But one of my uncles went to pieces in a front pew, his tough old farmer facade scraped off for the day. It was a lesson. Men cry, but most are ashamed of it.
Crossing the Bar
Something else landed unforgettably at Grandma’s funeral. It was a Tennyson poem printed on the program.
I didn’t like Crossing the Bar any more than I liked the ickiness of most poetry, at that age, and seeing “my pilot” face to face when I crossed “the bar” registered as just goofy.
But I still never got it out of my head, the idea was so novel, so unlike anything I’d heard before.
“When that which drew from out the boundless sleep / Turns home again” fit with me like Wallace Stevens, years later, on the consolation of “a few words tuned / And tuned and tuned,” or Emerson on true love, “Heartily know, when half-gods go / The gods arrive.”
Some things just speak to you in way that everything else can’t.
Getting Right with Death: We just know.
And maybe it’s that some things are just true, whether you get it or not, and need no explanation. We just know.
A few years later, when my cousin Johnny, age eight, was killed, hit by a car while riding his bike, I was asked to be a pallbearer for the first time, one of the last to say, “Goodbye,” before the lid was closed.
It was obvious to me that the patched up body in the casket was less than the kid I knew. No makeup could come close to the vitality that once was.
The figure in the coffin hadn’t just stopped working. Something was gone, removed.
Looking Around for “Meaning”
Two things can’t be pulled apart, the meanings of life and death, assuming there is one for either or both.
That got more difficult when, determined to be honest and open with myself, I took a long, serious look at atheism.
Is it all ultimately meaningless, our spiritual beliefs artificial dressings dreamed up to ease the inevitable nothingness of life? It was as valid as anything religion taught me.
I’m not comfortable with either extreme, but the persuasiveness of the atheists’ scientific, rationalist’s view settled more easily in my internal debate.
The airy-fairy nature of an afterlife in heaven — nobody we knew was going to hell — seasoned with self-righteousness, was not intellectually or emotionally appealing.
I didn’t feel right with them or that.
Yet, don’t we know, don’t we all just know — there is something more?
Suspending Disbelief, If You Can
I can sum up my thoughts about death like Kristin Chenoweth did in her autobiography, A Little Bit Wicked. Observing her beloved grandfather’s body shortly after his death, her intuition was clear.
As I recall, it went something like “Come on, that’s not him.”
I feel — or have felt — the same way. The body is there, but a core has been extracted.
When my sister-in-law died after battling breast cancer for a decade, how could I believe that this vivid, dynamic woman just flipped off into oblivion because her body lost the fight?
Her inner flame, the her we knew and loved, never shrank. The body she was in just lost its ability to hold and sustain her.
As organs, bones, muscles and brains fail, the person we know struggles, but that inner being doesn’t deteriorate. There’s a consistent intactness of spirit, however much it loses expression.
With Alzheimers Disease and other mental diseases of aging, what’s lost is a self that retreats into the fog. The mind’s physical structure can’t do more when crippled than a heart can do when its muscle fails. It loses its clear connection with that essential self just as a heart loses the ability to pump blood.
Looking For Truth in All the Places
Getting right with death means you must accept it, embrace it.
After a harrowing death, a familiar, identifiable hand appears to rest on a grieving relative’s arm. A voice in the dark offers guidance.
Even a lost pet appears on request, in a strangely clear moment in the night.
These, and more, happened, but few will be satisfied with unverifiable personal experiences, not even me — until they happen to them.
I need more. And, fortunately, I got it.
When I read, I debate with the writer.
I challenge whatever the author puts on the page, and I look for soft spots in the argument.
I learned that habit from growing up with smart older brothers. Questioning was a family trait, one we picked up from our cerebral, no nonsense Dad.
So, when I began reading the literature on NDEs, life after death and life between lives, I was skeptical.
Anything that big had greater hurdles to get over than an argument about the next election or the best way to educate our children.
Starting Out On One Side of the Fence
I’m inclined to believe there’s more to life than life. It’s intuitive. Something tells em we’re a part of a whole, most of which is invisible.
Understanding how that fleshes out as a guide for living fascinates me.
Religion never stuck with me. My beliefs preceded anything grownups tried teaching me. I knew, even as a kid, that the biblical stories were pretty much off the wall.
Digging around in my memory doesn’t come up with any incident that enlightened me.
Understanding just happened, ready to ignite when a friend told me about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her book, On Death and Dying.
Shedding conventional blindness to the death experience, Kubler-Ross described the mental/emotional sequence through which we pass when we know death is coming soon.
Kicking and screaming
I told everyone the only way I’d go out was “kicking and screaming,” but she wrote that the last stage was acceptance. That suggests an emerging awareness of transition, not termination, not something to fight.
We now know, learning from Raymond Moody’s reporting on near death experience, that at least some of us will be visited and escorted across Tennyson’s mysterious bar. They come out to meet us, ease the passage and lessen our fears.
I now see dying as something like that uncertain passage between waking to sleeping that, in spite of its profound nature, we take for granted.
Bob Dylan got it just right in Workingman Blues:
“Sleep is like a temporary death.”
Going off into sleep, we lose our senses, freeing our minds to concoct a recognizable world from elements that exist only inside our heads. We do a passable job of it, but nobody who remembers dreams believes they’re sensible continuations of the waking life we lead all day.
We get unhinged dynamics, freed from senses and reasoning. Our imaginations fly free. We create alternative realities, time-limited content merges with and mediates infinity.
Between Dreams and NDEs
Detractors argue against what we learn from NDEs, but they can’t explain why our nightly adventures are so much more wild than the ordered stories told by those who’ve returned from clinical death.
Any NDE story I’ve read is more believable than dreams I’ve had.
An NDE is like a regular short story next to the zaniness of a Thomas Pynchon novel. They are not extreme.
Dr. Newton’s Accidental Discovery
Dr. Michael Newton, a hypnotherapist, used past life regression therapy to ease emotional stress. Returning a subject to pain or suffering in a previous existence, whether real or imagined, helped relieve troubles in this one.
But he never expected what happened with a woman who came to him with feelings of loneliness weighting her into depression. Past midlife, she’d endured her share of losses through death, but her feelings of isolation were exaggerated and unshakeable.
Then, in a session with Dr. Newton during which a search through past lives failed to reveal any source for her sadness, something breathtaking happened.
The woman suddenly brightened with what she described as the the arrival of friends and relatives in the room where she was under hypnosis.
She pointed to individuals only she could see with relief and jay. The thing was, she was not regressed into any past life at the time.
She was instead in a universe between them.
Life between lives
In the decades that followed, Dr. Newton and his colleagues documented thousands of additional stories, learning more about this mysterious universe, comparing accounts from around the world.
Think away a single incident or even a few. Think away centuries of stories about ghosts, for example. You might as well knock down anything as bizarre as an eternal life, time on earth just a phase
Dismiss its, because it’s strange. But why?
Wayne Dyer taught me to be “open to everything.”
We are never going to understand nature as long as we refuse to look inside the deserts, forests and fields that show up on our way. Better to know, even when it’s unpleasant, than to not know.
So, I read Dr. Newton’s accounts and considered the strange new world they described.
Newton’s trust in what he discovered was strong, but I found some of the earliest stories unconvincing. The “other side” was just too pat, not unusual enough to contrast with the one I was already in.
But in time, as the stories continued to pour in and the complexities grew, I realized that what caused the early stories to seem unremarkable was the language and symbolism with which they were told.
As with many NDEs, people sharing their experiences can’t find the words to describe something so different. It’s too different, and the ordinary fails.
I assume Dr. Newton reached that insight too because the reports from life between life studies grew more intricately detailed, better able to convey the strange universe from which they were derived and more easily integrated.
Review for a Reality Check
I went back to Dr. Moody’s first book about near death experiences.
If what I’d been reading was true, there should be a match. NDE insights should mesh with the universe described in life between lives.
I’m a little more prosaic here because the poetry of what we’re discovering may be too much. We’ve all been told that miracles don’t happen so many times that most of us never anticipate them.
It’s true, though. Miracles don’t happen. What we call miracles are ordinary happenings that we don’t see.
There are no exceptions or special events. What happens in an NDE and in the universe it suggests is as common as breathing and singing a song.
Some say we need to get right with death because it’s where we are all going. And now, we can.
Our minds, bodies and souls are parts of a whole. They get patched together early and, usually, spend eighty or so years working in unison. Two of the pieces wear out, and then, the third exits. That’s human life in a nutshell.
Our lives, however, are greater in scope and possibly eternal.
Let’s take a walk through the end of life and try to understand what happens.
The End, More or Less
We learn about getting right with death from the stories in Memories of the Afterlife that our ancestors did not always have souls.
Souls were first merged with embryos in utero. They evolve with brains, filling out the complex creatures we see walking on Madison Avenue, singing country tunes, watching crime shows and a million other things that are pieces of the human experience.
That soul will outlive the body it enters. It will leave when the construction within which it’s embedded (in other words, you and me) is no longer viable. Bodies and brains wear out. Souls, not being physical and subject to laws, do not.
Souls are lifted out.
We learn that souls are lifted out of bodies about to be destroyed in catastrophes, like car wrecks and murders, leaving before sharing the worst suffering. Normally, it’s more gradual.
Escorts come from the other side to guide us out of the physical world. Sometimes, they come early, giving the dying advance notice that helps deal with the sorrow of leaving.
Getting right with death, you might even get to bargain for more time, to experience an event, the birth of a child or the arrival of a loved one.
While much has been made of near death experiences, they don’t differ greatly from sleeping. There are two important differences. In sleep, we are not under trauma, and of course, when we doze off, we expect to come back.
But the drift away from physical reality is the same. No matter what we see, nothing is quite real. Our brains invent a recognizable place among a wash of nonphysical influences.
In sleep, we are our own directors. In dying, we get to have escorts.
The escorts, usually deceased relatives and friends, ease our return to a universe without time or physical objects. Life between lives studies tell us that, soon, we recognize this strange new place as “home.”
Getting Right with Death: Reconciliation
My dread about not being alive was eased more by that than by any meditative awakening.
It’s not the NDE or the passage back that matters.
I’m here writing this, as a person with a name, because — just like you — I came here for a reason.
As an individual, you probably already know what drives you. I’m not talking simply about inspiration. I’m talking about conflicts too. We’re here to be thrilled with inspiration but also to work some things out.
On the wide open plain, my intuition tells me that, in the grand scheme of things, we’re here to expand and build upon a universal harmony.
Once the fear of death and even the dread of it is gone, what’s left is a life with no excuses. No reason to rush or resist, only to just do.
Getting Right with Death: The Interval Matters
“Don’t die with your music still inside you,” is advice that’s stayed with me since I first heard it from Wayne Dyer.
We all know what our music is, even if we turn away from it. Our souls sing to us, but our minds may conflict. My inclination is to go along with the song.
It wasn’t always that way. I was taught, as most of us were, to make rational, not poetic choices. Fortunately, I wasn’t a great student.
Reasoning and rational decision-making are valuable, but I’m convinced now that inspiration, the song in my soul, is what’s brought me the most satisfying results.
“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,” John Lennon wrote.
And that, life, is what our souls are busy inspiring and fertilizing.
My own song is more present than ever. I have things left to do.
That’s the biggest lesson about getting right with death.