The first part of this post was about death and depth, depth as in “deep end” of something (yes, I likened it to the familiar swimming pool, with those rope float dividers) that is distant from us, unfamiliar, unknown and just plain scary. So now I will continue the analogy with a different topography, but along the same theme of that invisible mystery which spooks many of us. . .
For those of us who have experienced earthquakes, we have a different sense of the relationship between what is the visible ground that appears to be solid and the deeper ground where stirrings can cause a shearing away of that surface, revealing new ground, new possibilities, even amidst massive destruction.
Of course there is a choice about how to react when the ground breaks open. We can be careful to try and repair it, admiring the petrified crust and not wanting to upset any apparent order or appearances. Or we can break through the crust, willing to fall hard and break through the known into the unknown.
Into the depth of a center. Symbolically and mythologically speaking, there can be many places which can serve as a deep center, a mountain or a tree, which one could ascend or which can be reached only after a descent, the undoing of the apparent, exterior, the superficial. Where is the center? Well, that depends of course. Often we simply fail to slow down and consider the obvious question because we are so accustomed to looking past it, well beyond where we are at the moment. What is it that we know or we think that we know? I’m thinking of a quote from the poet and essayist Wendell Berry here (this from his collection of essay Standing By Words at 50) about the shortcomings of language – “It is not knowledge that enforces this realization [that you cannot act in your own best interest unless you espouse or serve a higher interest] but the humbling awareness of the insufficiency of knowledge, of mystery.”
Perhaps that mystery is the center for which we long and the voyage to which we dread. Again there is a choice – to do our won spiritual excavation to uncover truth, the meaning in our won life . . . . or we can admire the relics of another’s questioning or their excavation, from the comfort of an armchair. What does it take to move into uncertainty and “go with it?” Sometimes we don’t have a choice. This is the dying process. I’ll include another quote, this one by Vladimir Maximov:
All is mere ashes and dust-
All except the Temple within us.
It is ours and with us forever.
(From Henry Corbin’s 1986 book Temple and Contemplation.)
So if that movement, that moving away from and toward something, is in terms of a center, it is a place where we may realize that we are no longer separate from it but rather identify it as part of a larger whole of existence. In this way conscious living, along with conscious death, can be our final act of creation in this life. If death is a transcendence, of words or being, the question follows “to where?” I had the pleasure of reading “Creation and Recreation” by the late University of Toronto professor Northrop Frye, who observed: “Every unit is a whole to which various parts are subordinate, and every unit is in turn part of a larger whole.” [Creation and Recreation at 73.]
If death is a return, a remembering, a completion, then many of us may feel stranded by a sense of things undone, words left unspoken during a now-deceased dear one’s lifetime. Guilt, resentment, helplessness, remorse are common feelings here. These may arise from a denial of death, that we will indeed have time to finish our life to our own satisfaction. I have seen this approach in more than a few people. Many of us have never lived liked this before, so how can we be expected to change all this in preparation for a death that is most certainly not desired? It is difficult to determine when the time of sickness transitions to the time of dying, but an inability to accept one’s life seems to ensure that it will be much more difficult to accept impending death. Death is a final act, unknown and mysterious, yet it happens every day, all over the world. It is a final act, an ending, that realization that someone is “over and done with,” but our experience of course tells us otherwise. In one of the chapters of “Who Dies?” Stephen and Ondrea Levine look at how to finish business with someone who is no longer around? They note that the answer is always the same – one need not see that person in order to send them love, in order to finish business the other person doesn’t even need to acknowledge your presence, much less the process you are sharing. Like other types of forgiveness, this type of work is done for its own sake and is not dependent on any “results.”
To conclude this, I will loop back around to that idea of the deep center – which we can travel a path to in our lifetime if we choose, as part of our conscious living, or which we can travel to as part of the final destination in our physical body. The Levines attribute the following quote from Albert Einstein:
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Levine at 183. Just a gentle reminder that Einstein spent his life searching for a unified field. . .
Depending on how we look at it, we have been practicing dying all of our lives. When we get stuck on or attached to particular outcomes based on our expectations or who we think we are – we suffer. Perhaps we can practice this living and dying mindfully, so we can look beyond those prison walls and lessen our suffering in this life. At the very least, practicing it will make our dying and most likely the acceptance of our loved ones’ dying, much easier for us.
©Barbara Cashman 2013 www.DenverElderLaw.org