DEATH, DYING AND BEYOND

Evening primrose - Oenothera speciosa, Pink ladies, gently scenting the twilight
For most, death is either a taboo subject, at least until we are thrown into its orbit, or it is simply too painful to visit. Death of a loved one, be it a person, a pet or a place is a profoundly affecting, intimate and personal experience. Yet if we are willing to embrace all the feelings that come up in its presence, death can become a gateway to greater consciousness, a fuller richer life and a direct encounter with one's own true nature.

In many ways death, like birth, is the unsolvable mystery that effects us every moment of every day, until we experience it directly.

The Wake-up Call

As I watched the inferno of the fires in the mountains of Santa Barbara in front of our home, I saw death in all its raw untamable power, its surreal beauty and horror. It will not be controlled, destroying in accordance with the whims of the wind. One cannot but be humbled in the face of the immediate inevitability of life's end. As the recognition of one's mortality reaches into people, everyone's priorities suddenly shift. Fears are exposed. Attachments to possessions reveals the history of love. There is a transparency to what's important in life that pierces the smoke and frenetic activity. Friends, family and acquaintances reach out to offer protection, comfort and care. Strangers become friends and intimacy becomes the currency of survival.

At times like these, death presents a strong wake up call. We can fall into the collective hysteria and confusion or we can slow down and open ourselves to our personal communion with what really faces us. When we face death, a whole gamut of feelings and emotions gets activated, which may launch us into a higher frequency of appreciation for life. Or it can be too much to face and feelings and associations about it get repressed and ignored. Sometimes death scars and torments us for the rest of our days.

As I ponder the smoke obliterating the sky, I feel the call to write, to share a little of my relationship with death. I wonder, will we grow and remember what is important in this brush with death or will we go back to sleep and forget what we felt and saw about ourselves? Perhaps in sharing our stories, together we will remember the way home, to that place inside that is able to meet death rather than ignore it or deny it.

Life and Death

Unlike birth, I have not been through the final permanent doorway so I cannot claim to fully understand what I have yet to experience. All I know is what others have shared with me and the events that have shaped me. My awareness of death began at a very early age and so it feels like it has always been with me.


Evening primrose - Oenothera lamarckiana, loved by birds, bees and butterflies
By the time I was thirteen, I could remember counting a significant death for each year of my life including most of my grandparents, my best friend at school and my surrogate mother. From childhood, I frequently met people who were to become important in my life, just as they lost their nearest and dearest. I often showed up just as someone was entering their final stages.

My father's fatal heart attack, the day before my eighteenth birthday, threw me into unrelenting anger and grief. The intensity of the shock opened spiritual channels within me that I could not integrate, so there followed years of depression as I repressed my energy and awareness. The torment of watching my brother die too young from cancer several years later propelled me onto my healing journey. Another spiritual awakening at the time confronted me with the reality of a world beyond just the physical and I knew I had to explore it.

Remembering the Original Patterns

Through years of breath work sessions, I uncovered the source of even deeper loss. I had had a twin brother with me in the womb. Before ultrasounds, no one knew he was there or that he had died. This is a phenomena now known as "the vanishing twin syndrome". When I remembered my lost love, I began to appreciate the depth of the death wish that saw me die during my birth, the many near misses and life long feelings of impending suicide. The irrevocable constancy of death in my life was very debilitating, until I developed the courage to turn and fully meet it.

Showy evening primrose - Oenothera speciosa
Loss

The processes of divorce and moving countries, leaving behind relationships, shared histories, culture, language and landscapes has opened me to many adventures but they have made loss a familiar visitor. Sometimes these choices were difficult to grieve because I initiated the changes.

For many years I could not see that the ashes of destruction held the seeds of my new life.

The Faces of Death

I often felt I was gifted or cursed with this uncommon companion, seeing so many of its different faces. Death is the ultimate mirror, reflecting all our projections of our individual and cultural fears and hopes:
  • The Grim Reaper, the hidden face of the collector of souls, cutting off life with its scythe
  • Thanatos the gentle, winged Greek god accompanied souls to the underworld
  • There are many forms of the Angel of Death - avenging, wrathful, judgmental, benevolent, often androgynous
  • Death as a woman or goddess - old, beautiful or ugly, even sweet, like the teenage goth girl as in The Sandman comics granting people's best wishes as they die
  • Some cultures see death as a child of no gender
  • Elderly impartial Father Time is seen as holding the hourglass of our days
  • Then there are our projections of death as a thief, a cheat, a horror, a crime, a threat, a mistake, an enemy or as a friend, a relief, a gift, a blessing etc.
  • Sometimes death is seen as a monster or an animal like a toad, snake, jackal, owl, crow or vultures

Pets as Teachers

I certainly never knew death could be beautiful, not until my dog, Maddie, died in 2005. Those who have survived near death experiences have reported that there is a continuation of self awareness after separation from the body and Maddie proved this to be true. I felt her leave her body and the room lit up with a presence that was incredibly wise and beautiful. As I poured out my feelings for her, I was suddenly told to stop and she showed me her life from her perspective. I was filled with so much gratitude for all I had done for her that the agony of her passing was washed away.

Her death was profound in other ways too. Not long after, I went back to Australia to care for my estranged mother as she also died from cancer. The experience with Maddie gave me the maps I needed to be able to walk through the painful gateways of my mother's illness with an assurance that it was to be a transition, not an absolute end. This became an incredible comfort for mum and another profound story unfolded for me.

Showy evening primrose - Oenothera speciosa
Death of a Parent

My family had been joking prior to my arrival that it would be interesting to see who killed the other first. I had not seen my mother for over ten years and her rigid religious personality constantly clashed with my need for freedom, creativity and exploration. When she opened the door, she screamed at me for being ten minutes late.

At that moment, I knew. If anyone was to change here it had to be me.

Two weeks turned into nine as I did the only thing I had dreaded doing for the entirety of my life. I was sure glad of all the session work I had done to heal my side of our story. I learnt more about unconditional love in that time than at any time before or since and a healing occurred between us that could not have happened any other way.

There was a certain grace that seemed to surround the house and contain the process. I was able to hold her as her brain deteriorated, as she lost the use of her speech and her body and her lifelong religious beliefs failed to comfort her. We laughed and cried together and In one consummate moment towards the end, she said she was sorry, something I realized I had never heard her say to me.

I had read that loved ones often come to assist the dying person's passage through to the beyond and my mother showed me this as she passed; the whole clan arrived. Just after she left her body, she revealed her true Self, numinous and filled with gratitude and peace. I felt our karma together was complete, both of us set free.

Learning from Death

"So how do you have a good death?" I asked my shaman friend when I returned home. "By having a good life" he said.

Mexican evenig primrose - Oenothera speciosa, gentle perfume for days end
The cycles of life and death have become more familiar the more I relax into the stillness within and the death wish has been replaced with a love of life. What I have learned is that when the shadow of death falls, we loose all choice except one: Will we now surrender into life or will we choose death, slowly but surely for however long it takes to claim us?

I have experienced what it means to be humbled by the humanity of grieving in all its forms. At times when it seems there is no comfort, when our hearts feel so broken, we are vulnerable to feeling every betrayal and every separation we have ever suffered. But the profound lies within that abyss. These are the priceless moments to allow all feelings to emerge, to let new love and awareness come in. Therein lies the surrender to our own life and death, opening the possibility of being cradled in the heart of the wisdom of all spiritual traditions - that consciousness is not bound to the physical body. What if you believe death is the end? Well, we won't know until it happens whose beliefs are ultimately true. I will certainly never try to convert you. After all, 'tis a mystery.

Joy

There lies within us all the pathways to experience our own essential nature and at some point it may even become a joy as we truly face death. It arises out of the intense appreciation for each moment of life, every interaction of every relationship knowing that it may be the last. Knowing the fleeting nature of the breath of life magnifies awareness of all sensations and maintains focus on what is really important in life. It supports staying awake rather than falling back into the complacency of "ordinary" life.

There is a presence which emerges as we maintain this meditation, the awareness of our whole Self. This awareness creates a sense of peace with all that happens, allowing all the vibrancy of life and all the coldness of death to be accepted. It is our essential, eternal nature, beautiful and blissful which transcends the polarity of life and death.

Reverence and awe replace fear when we pierce our projections of death and see it for what it truly is. It is the greatest of mysteries, the heart of love and death is love's promise.

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