Death: Friend or Foe 5

Section 1

Student: Since everything is constantly dying and coming into existence, second by second, it seems like for me a lot of my energy goes into ignoring that fact. And that that process of ignoring what’s actually happening uses a lot of energy. And that process seems to have a life of its own. It doesn’t seem to be under my control.

Ken: Okay. And your question is?

Student: What the heck do you do about that?

Ken: As things grow, you know, things come into being, they grow, and they develop a way of relating with their environment. And the environment changes at the same time. Those things either adapt to those changes, of which one of the ways is, find a way to resist. As we develop a higher level of attention, we tend to notice things, subtler things, sooner. And we also see and experience things as being more fluid. So the result of that is that we can meet situations earlier and more skillfully.

In Taoist literature, you come across phrases like, “He could walk through fire,” and “walk across water,” and “walk through mountains,” and so forth. These are not literal descriptions, but they are descriptions of how a person with that kind of presence, or that kind of awareness, could meet situations that would incinerate somebody else. He or she finds a way through. So they walk through fire. They can walk on water—that is, a really difficult emotional situation in which all kinds of things could blow up or swallow most people up, they can actually negotiate, because they are that present. So there are wonderful metaphors. Unfortunately, everybody takes this poetry literally, and with unfortunate results.

So that’s essentially what I was trying to train you in this afternoon with those four questions. That by working in a way which minimized the operation of the sense of self, you found a way to be in those situations, which in some cases were quite intense at an emotional level and yet both people could just be there. And so that is, there are two components to that. One is the skill component, and the other is the quality of attention component. And the two come together to create that possibility. Does that work as a response?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay.

Student: Thank you.

Ken: You’re welcome. All right. So, our last two meditations are, What happens when I die? and What happens after I die?

I’ve been thinking about how we could work with this. So what I want to do with the first one is take you through a guided meditation this afternoon—and it’s the one you find in Wake Up To Your Life, so many of you will be familiar with it—but I’m just going to talk you through it. And then we’ll take up your experience. And then I’ll give you some ideas about how to work, not with that particular aspect of the dying process, but with another important one in the meditation. And I’ll also give you a way of working with, What happens after I die?

Section 2

So, let’s begin with the guided meditation, while we’re still fresh and awake. So just take a few minutes and let mind and body settle. Sorry about that, I moved it. [Ken is referring to the mic]

Now I mentioned earlier, I read a section from Uchiyama in which he said that when we are born, the world we experience is born with us. We live in this world, and when we die, the world we live in dies with us. So in this meditation, when we talk about things dissolving, it’s not only you and your body dissolving, but also everything in your experience dissolving.

So let mind and body settle. Rest with the coming and going of the breath. And imagine that you are dying, and that you know you are dying. And the first part of this, as is traditionally described, is that the earth element dissolves. Earth refers to the quality of solidity in our experience—solidity, structure and order. As the earth element dissolves, the experience of earth momentarily intensifies.

Your body feels completely rigid. You’re unable to move. Things in your experience seem completely fixed. You have the experience of a weight, a tremendous weight, crushing your body, like you’re wedged between this weight and whatever you are lying or resting on.

And as those sensations dissipate, consciousness, how you experience things, becomes unsteady. And there may be a certain amount of fear or confusion associated with that. So just breathe and experience all of that for a few moments.

And then the water element dissolves. You loose the ability to retain or control the fluids in your body. Spittle dribbles from your mouth, so forth. Subjectively, it feels like you’re in a flood, or being carried away by a wave or a current. And again, there is fear associated with that. And the sense of flow and experience dissipates. And the clarity of consciousness fades and everything becomes hazy and smoky.

And then the fire element dissolves. Physically, you feel the warmth receding from your limbs. Your hands and feet, and then your arms and legs, start to grow cold. Subjectively, you feel like you have an intense fever, that you’re burning up. You may feel extremely thirsty. Then consciousness loses its brilliance, and becomes momentary and intermittent, like sparks, or like the flashing of fireflies.

And then the air element begins to dissolve. Your breathing becomes increasingly difficult. It rasps as it goes in, and rattles as it goes out. Each breath is a struggle. And you may feel like you’re suffocating. And there is all the panic and desperation that comes with that.

Bursts of energy, like gusts of wind, race around in your body. And you find yourself lost in all of the commotion that is swirling around, as you are carried away and whirled away by a powerful wind.

Your consciousness, or consciousness in experience, lose their dynamism. And all that remains is a vague impression of the world, like a faintly glowing ember that’s just about to go out. You’re barely aware of those around you and of your surroundings. Your sense faculties disintegrate; sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell cease to function in any way. You feel very alone, isolated, off-balance, cut off from everything.

A rapid series of hallucinations arises. Things appear like a mirage, hazy, weak flashes of light, dim glows. It’s all very confusing. And then everything dissolves into light. It’s a soft, gentle white light. No center or periphery. There is no sense of other any more. And there is no aversion. So there’s a sense of peace.

Then you feel movement of energy upward, somehow, and the sensation of light intensifies. And there is just light. And the sense of I as something separate and distinct disintegrates, and with it all sense of attraction. At this point, things are very clear.

And now you find yourself plunging into an infinite blackness—nothing by which you can orient yourself. It’s as if the very basis of consciousness is dissolving. And now there is an experience of an infinite field of light, as if you’re at the center of the sun. And there you rest. [Ken pauses]

When you’re ready, come back into this room and open your eyes. But come back with the sense that the light comes with you. [Pause]

Section 3

This, according to the Tibetan tradition, is what happens when we die. The earlier stages of this are reasonably well-corroborated by people who work with dying people. The loss of movement in the body, the loss of control of fluids, and the receding of warmth—so forth—the subjective experiences arise not necessarily in everybody but frequently enough. In case of sudden death, like heart attack, or being shot, or killed in an accident, these stages go by more quickly than can be recognized.

The final stages, these sequences of lights, again these are corroborated in a number of cases by people who have near-death experiences. They report things like light and so forth. One’s ability to actually experience those things depends on—to a great extent—the stability of one’s attention.

It’s very helpful in practice to familiarize yourself with this process and do this as a meditation, not just as a preparation for dying—because we actually don’t know how we’re going to die—but because the same process takes place whenever we transition from one experience to another. Usually it’s so quick and fleeting that we don’t notice it. And many people have found when they do this practice, it’s actually a way of moving into the experience of mind itself.

Now, we have to be very careful here. It’s human nature to transform experience into some kind of objective reality. These are subjective experiences. And we may use terms such as mind itself or buddha nature or pristine awareness, but we’re not referring to anything with those words. Those words refer to a way of experiencing; not to something that exists. And there’s a lot of confusion about that.

Going back to Uchiyama, what we’re experiencing is the dissolution of ourselves and the world we experience. We actually experience that dissolution when we go to sleep at night. We experience it at the end of every dream. And this is one of the reasons that dream practice and sleep practice were cultivated in the Tibetan tradition—to get you really used to these transitions. They are fairly demanding, subtle practices. And the question is, Why?

The reason to become familiar with these transitions is so that we can make them without holding on, trying to keep things the way we want them to be. In other words, these are ways of learning to die. And as I said at the beginning of this retreat, I think one of the most important things we can learn in our lives is how to die. Because as we’ve been discussing, circumstances change and something new emerges, yet we usually try to hold onto the old, keep it in place, and don’t let it or our relationship with it, or our identity that’s associated with it—any of that stuff—die. And it creates suffering, for ourselves and for others. It’s very frightening for many to approach life with there being absolutely no ground to anything, a constant process of change in which you can count on nothing. Yet that’s exactly how the world and how experience is described in Buddhism.

In the Mahayana tradition, we talk about the three gates to freedom. First of these is no characteristics, which means not holding on to anything as being a thing. Everything—to use a modern cliché—is a process. To live that—not so easy, because of this tendency to hold, and to want to hold things as they are.

The second gate is even worse. And it just gets steadily worse. What can I say? No hope. Or, put it slightly differently, no aspiration. I’ve always felt that Dante had it wrong. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. That’s not the portal to hell. It’s the portal to awakening. We live in the illusion that we can control our destiny. That is probably due to the secularization of the Christian myth of salvation. Many writers have postulated that. But as we all know, we have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. In what sense do we control our destiny? Aspiration is all about thinking we can control our destiny. You give that up, people have a difficult time. They say, “Well, what do I live for?” To which I have a probably troublesome reply, “Nothing whatsoever.” At first take, that sounds extraordinarily negative. But if you reflect on it a little, maybe it opens a possibility. I’ll let you decide.

The third gate to freedom—emptiness, no ground to anything. To put it in contemporary terms, nothing has any ultimate significance. Which is wonderful, given how many people are searching for something that is ultimately meaningful. Many people, when they encounter such a notion as, “Nothing has any ultimate significance,” fall into one of two serious errors. One of those errors is, “Then it doesn’t matter what I do.” This isn’t true. Why? Because actions have consequences, so what we do matters a great deal.

The second error that people fall into is the opposite. They fall into a kind of despair. It’s really the basis of punk philosophy. I was in retreat when the punk phenomenon emerged. I came back and I was staying with my parents for a few months after the retreat. And while they were out I turned on the television and this movie was playing with these people in all of these weird get-ups. You know motorcycles, and some people in white and everybody seemed to be fighting terribly desperately over gasoline. It was Mad Max. I found the movie intriguing, because I’d never seen a movie like this. And as I watched it, it became clear to me that the way the movie unfolds, every person’s action, whether for good or for evil, is rendered meaningless. And I got it. “Oh, this is what punk is about! It’s a philosophy of despair.”

But that’s falling into an extreme. Because there is no need, actually, to fall into despair. We have this experience of life, and our search is not so much for what is true but how to come to terms with this experience we call life, which includes, as we’ve already noted, the experience of death. How do we come to terms with this? And despair is a way of avoiding coming to terms with it. It’s a form of checking out. So practicing this meditation is a way of familiarizing yourself with letting go of all of the usual references and giving yourself the opportunity to open to the possibilities that then present themselves.

Section 4

There’s another schemata which many of you will be familiar with, which is also very helpful, and that’s Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, despair and acceptance. Some people have recently said they don’t see that happening, but I think that’s just because they are not particularly skilled in observation. I’ve found consistently that when anybody is negotiating a major change in their life, which usually involves some form of dying, those five stages present themselves. First, “No, everything is fine. We can just go on as it is.” And then anger about what is actually happening, and that anger can be pretty deep—rage. And then you get into the bargaining stage. “Well, if I do this, then can we do that?” You see this particularly when people are losing their jobs or relationships are ending. And then people sink into a kind of depression. “I don’t know how I’m going to go on.” Well, life plays a very cruel trick here. You get to go on, whether you like it or not. And the question is just a decision of how you are going to go on.

I love the expression, “I don’t think I can handle this.” Because, you don’t have any choice. You are going to handle it one way or the other. If they say, “I don’t know how I can handle this gracefully,”—that I can go with. But you’re going to make a mess of it, or you’re not going to make a mess of it. Or you make a partial mess, or no mess, you know. They’re all possibilities, but you’re going to handle it.

It’s equally true of our own physical death. You know, “We’re going to experience it? That, too?” And when we recognize that things have changed, this is the new situation, that’s how it is, and like it or not we’re going to go on, then something very interesting happens. Acceptance. And I’ve consistently found that when people accept what is happening, even though it may be very painful emotionally, even physically, mind and body relax. And very often something quite wonderful happens there. Not infrequently, a person negotiating the change develops a spark of wisdom. A lot of things happen at the stage of acceptance. Okay.

Section 5

Now, about meditation for the next twenty-four hours. What happens after I die? Now the matter of suicide has been mentioned a number of times. So. This is Shakespeare, by the way.

To be, or not to be—that is the question, and remember, this is being said by a young teenager who’s pretty confused about how things are in the world. And he’s pretty desperate.

To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would [these] fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

For one of the great mysteries of life is that we do not know—and cannot know—not only whether anything follows this. We do not know and cannot know what this experience actually is.

I didn’t bring it with me, but there’s a passage from Chuang Tzu. One night he dreams he’s a butterfly. The next day he writes this poem:

Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting among the flowers and the sun, sipping the nectar. Enjoying the blossoms. Dancing on the breeze.

Today I am Chuang Tzu. But how do I know that I am Chuang Tzu who dreamt he was a butterfly, and not a butterfly dreaming that he’s Chuang Tzu?

And this has been posed in many, many ways, you know. There is no way of knowing whether we are actual human beings or images in the mind of god. No way of knowing! So, for your meditation, what I want you to take is, How do I live when I can’t know what this experience is, or whether anything follows it?

Student: Can you say that last part again?

Ken: How do I live when I can’t know what this experience is, or whether anything follows it?

Section 6

The unknown country, from whose bourn no traveller ere returns—you’ve got to admit, he was awfully good.

Okay. We have time for a couple of questions.

Student: At the conclusion of the question you posed, how do I live when I can’t know what this experience is or—

Ken: Or whether anything follows it.

Student: Thank you.

Ken: To die, to sleep—To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. There’s one over there, Jim. [Referring to mics] Sophie, then Jim.

Sophie: This is just going back to the stages Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined. And I was just curious, is there a place in there where—I’m not sure where, just being confused, I’m not sure where that falls under.

Ken: I would say it comes up in three places. Denial, because being confused can be a form of denial. Like, “What do you think is going on here?” “I don’t know, I can’t understand anything. I don’t know what he’s saying.” It’s just denial. Bargaining. There can be a lot of confusion in bargaining. And in despair. So I think confusion can be the manifestation of any of those three stages. And you need to look closely to see which it is. Jim.

Jim: I’ll just ask one question here.

Ken: Go ahead with both. Everybody will starve.

Jim: The first question is in general, I wanted to know more about the notion of white light. That’s one place where it didn’t seem to follow, in the meditation. It kind of struck me—I felt everything was kind of going into nothingness after the senses were all going in and out and starting to disappear.

And the other question—I don’t know if you even want to touch this topic at this point—but I once heard, not too long ago, a very venerated Buddhist monk basically claim that through meditation practice he could develop sufficient mind power to see not only in past lives but in future lives. And it didn’t, well—it didn’t sit well with me at the time. And it contradicts everything that has been said about not knowing. But maybe you don’t want to touch that one just yet.

Ken: Well, we can touch that one tomorrow. We may not have time to go into it this evening.

When the level of energy is raised sufficiently, then many people have the experience of ordinary, their ordinary experience being suffused or dissolving into a kind of light. And many people have the experience of just a clear openness, with no definable characteristic at all, when the mind is resting very deeply. And that’s what the light is referring to—is those kinds of things. And from what I’ve heard from people with various, different sorts of experiences, there are different degrees and intensities to that. What I think is important, and this is why I said human beings tend to reify or make things out of things they experience—these are all ways of experiencing things. And so one experiences white light, and then people say, “There is a white light.” Those are very different statements.

Section 7

Okay. Last question Chris, and then—just leave it on, Jim.

Chris: Well, I’m very familiar with the five steps that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross put forth. But in thinking about suicide, it comes to mind—I might be wrong, or maybe there is no right answer—that perhaps a person in that state of despair cannot accept life as it is, period. Or perhaps they accept that their life will always be painful and full of suffering, and make their decision there.

Ken: I think there are several possibilities here. One of the things that I’ve noticed about suicide: when somebody commits suicide, I’ve found that the dominant emotion that the people close to that person feel is anger. There’s a tragedy, and the loss, and the confusion. But there’s also anger. And this suggests to me—and I think it makes sense—that suicide is an expression of anger. Anger at the world, anger at oneself, anger at life, anger at whatever. Because it’s the ultimate act of aggression. You follow?

Chris: Yeah. I would have an argument though.

Ken: Well, I think there are many…say it again, please.

Chris: I would have a bit of an argument with that.

Ken: Yeah. But I think that part of that is, you see, we get angry at what we feel weaker than. And so for many people—for many people who commit suicide—life feels too much.

Chris: I hear you. And I would like to make a precise correction to your language. The commitment of suicide, we don’t use that term anymore in support circles. Or in speaking or writing about it. Because it’s not a crime.

Ken: Ah.

Chris: You either suicide or you complete suicide.

Ken: Okay.

Student: Can you explain that?

Chris: I am not sure what you are asking.

Student: I didn’t understand the distinction.

Chris: Well committing suicide implies a crime has happened—against oneself or against perhaps others you leave behind. It’s not a crime. It’s a death. Yeah, it becomes a coroner’s case, usually, but it’s not a crime.

Student: So the language we use?

Chris: Suicided or completed suicide.

Student: Suicided means attempted?

Chris: No, it means…

Ken: No, It’s just making a verb out of it. Okay. So, thank you.

In people that I’ve worked with who have been affected by someone’s suicide, when they’ve connected with the anger component, something lets go. Because often it’s precisely that component that’s denied.

Chris: I’m not sure I heard you. In people who have attempted suicide?

Ken: No, no. People who’ve been affected by…

Chris: Like myself.

Ken: Yes. When they’ve connected with the anger component in their own experience, then something has let go.

Chris: I’ll have to sit with that one. I’ll need to sit with that one.

Ken: That’s fine. In any event, for our meditations going forward, what I’d like you to focus on is not so much the process of death, because that’s a fairly involved meditation. It’s a very useful meditation to do for the reasons I described, and that’s one of the reasons why I led you through the guided meditation. But for our retreat here, I’d like you to focus on, “When I cannot know what this experience is, or what follows it, if anything, then how do I live?” Now that sounds like possibly a frightening question. Well, maybe it is frightening. But I’d like you to explore it. Because there may be some hidden potential in it. Okay?

Creative Commons LicenseThis transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.