Monday, January 11, 2010

Death

Tree, Life Preserver, Bench, Snow, Rime, Mist
Tree, Life Preserver, Bench, Snow, Rime, Mist

Actuarially speaking, I'm hovering somewhere near the halfway mark between birth and death. Of course, I could bust an aneurysm and croak tomorrow, or I could beat the odds and continue some way into the three digits, but either way, sooner or later, I will die.

I remember quite well the first time it occurred to me that death isn't something that just happens to other people. I was about fifteen, and I was undergoing the kind of existential crisis that, I believe, most teenagers go through. I had ditched my childhood faith some years back -- as in, I no longer believed that there was someone who looks like Corwin's avatar sitting on a cloud somewhere, deciding whether you were naughty or nice and handing out rewards or punishments accordingly. However, I was entirely, profoundly uncertain about the whole God business. What's more, I was in Nepal, surrounded by a culture with a profoundly different approach to the spiritual than what I was used to seeing.

Nothing much else to tell about that. I woke up one morning and realized "Fuck, I'm going to die some day." It was depressing. It was also an important station for the train of thought that eventually led me to conclude that there's probably no God, and ultimately to the position that I've held for most of my adult life, that the very definition of God is so slippery that the whole question about her existence doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Then I pushed that thought away.

Eventually, some people died. Others got older. And the awareness of death slowly kept growing, from a little gnat at the edge of my consciousness to something that's just a little bit bigger every day. Scary shit.

We make up stories to make the scariness go away. Then we try to believe them. The Tibetans who first impressed me in Nepal are pretty big on death, and have a rather nice one. They say that we have (at least) three minds: the crude mind, which is what I'm using right now as I'm typing this post, the subtle mind, which is what I'm using when I'm dreaming, and the very subtle mind, which is what I'm using when I'm sleeping without dreams. They believe that when you die, your very subtle mind leaves your carcass and goes into an intermediate state called "bardo," wherefrom it will eventually be reborn in another body in one of the six worlds (understood either metaphorically or literally). (Unless you've become perfectly enlightened, that is, in which case it'll just enter parinirvana and exit the cycle.)

It's a cool story, but from where I'm at, it sounds just like another nice fiction to make death more palatable -- and it doesn't even seem to be particularly solidly grounded in the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy regarding the mind, never mind Mind. Not that I'm any kind of expert on that, of course.

Then there's the concepts of the four levels of enlightenment -- stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant, particularly important in Theravada Buddhism. The idea being that a stream-enterer has managed to conquer some of the defilements but still has a handful of lifetimes to go through to get completely clear of them, a once-returner is close enough that s/he'll only have one lifetime as a human to go, a non-returner is even closer and will be born as a deity in a Buddha realm, where s/he will attain enlightenment, and an arahant is someone who's conquered all the defilements and has no need to be reborn at all.

Those concepts make pretty good metaphors, though. They relate pretty well to our fear of death. Normal people hate the idea of dying, and would love the idea of an indefinite number of rounds around the block in progressively better states. A stream-enterer would be a bit like the young St. Augustine -- "Please, Lord, give me a chaste and moderate character, but not just yet." A once-returner and non-returner would already feel pretty comfortable about the idea of the end of their existence as an individual -- and an arahant is really, truly, genuinely cool with dying any time, as long as it doesn't cause anyone any undue inconvenience.

I have a quite a way to go before I'm anywhere close to any of that. The idea of dying scares me shitless, no matter what kind of spin I try to put on it. But I'm actually thinking about this fear "out loud" as it were, and that's gotta count for something.

5 comments:

  1. I've always found sickness to be far more scary than death. Mrs dte works in a nursing home and I don't know how she does it. Places like that make me nauseous. People laying there, waiting to die. Gives me the heebiejeebies. Give me a nice cold graveyard any day.

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  2. The worst of my fears is probably the fear of losing my mind. I've watched a few people gradually descend into dementia, or in the aftermath of brain damage, and that terrifies me.

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  3. Your photo commentary is really becoming very beautiful and impressive, Prime J--lovely work.

    I have a few reflections on death, myself--I find that one tends to get quite cozy with it at my age, really.

    Now that I'm firmly entrenched in my sixties and so many of the emotional highs and lows of life have been smoothed out into more or less a neutral, peaceful state, death is much less frightening for me. There's a sense of repetition, of pointlessness to our animal existence that needs a higher purpose, and I don't think most of us have the skills to find it merely in living longer and doing the same things a bit better.

    Also, pretty much everything good that can happen to you has already happened--you have very few of those serendipitous moments of surprise and amazement that you have when you're young and see or do or find something for the first time. There are no more first times--or only some you might prefer to skip. And while nostalgia, reflection and amusement at one's past or the occasional new revelation is entertaining, it only goes so far to combat the sludge of sameness.

    So many trials, so many losses and griefs, so many scars and so much of the pain involved in life are made up for by joy, not neutrality, and without the corresponding exhilaration, beauty and rarefied air of the peaks, the valleys of contentment are pleasant enough, I suppose, but ...numb.

    I've heard that older people cling to life much more strongly than the young, but I can't imagine it personally. I read silly books about immortal races who've lived for hundreds of years and can't imagine a worse curse than to repeat the same life forever. I suppose it all depends on your level of happiness with what you have contrasted with fear of the unknown.

    This really comes off sounding rather down, but that's not the case. I enjoy my life, have lots of amusements, and am very fortunate in many ways. I'm certainly not *unhappy* and I do have a lot of interest and curiosity about what will happen next to humans and the planet, but I find that as my edges wear down, the impact of experience, positive or negative, is reduced. Letting go of this existence at some point just seems exactly the right thing to happen, to me.

    Well, not today, though. ;-)

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  4. Ha! That would make you a stream-enterer at least. Shaved your head yet, Mags?

    I think people deal with it in very different ways. My paternal grandfather really, really did not want to die. Until about her last week, she was still sort of clinging to the hope that a miracle would cure her cancer. During that last week, though, she finally made her peace with dying -- and a number of people with whom she had had very complicated relationships -- and let go. When she finally did die, it was almost... beautiful.

    My maternal grandfather, OTOH -- the one with the stories and the fishing -- always was ready to go at any time, or that's the impression I got. Perhaps he had to deal with that during the war, when he saw what must have been a LOT of sudden death close up. (He drove a hospital train evacuating the wounded from the front, all through the sorry affair.)

    I'm sure some of us do figure it out, but I think you may be in the minority -- our society has sanitized death out of view in the reality, while making a spectacle of it in entertainment, which makes it rather easy to ignore, unless and until something -- like cancer, for example -- pops up and forces you to stare it in the face.

    Iain M. Banks's sci-fi has the Culture that has attained biological immortality, and is even capable of taking backups of people and restoring them in case they get accidentally killed. Nevertheless, most of its denizens eventually choose to die. I think he may have something there.

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  5. (Oh, and -- I'm glad you like the piccies. I'm rather proud of them meself. ;-))

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