(to a student of his) “How often do you think about death?”
“Very often, probably dozens of times every day.”
“That’s not enough. You must think about death with every breath.”
Oh Buddha, you’re just like a man! It’s so much more honest to feel! Death is not an abstract thing to think about…however often. It’s as messy and as urgent as Life. And feeling, be it about Life or Death, is way more meaningful…and true…than thinking.
Life is urgent. The proverbial wolf is always at the door.
Let’s live. Let’s live now. Let’s live here now.
Yes it is. And Buddha not-withstanding, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s much more important to feel Death. This opens us to the Mystery in a way thinking cannot. Feel it looming. It’s everywhere.
I had a profound encounter with a baby deer mouse the other day. She was quite young and inexperienced and had wandered from her nest. She was lost and didn’t know she was supposed to be afraid. When I picked her up, she curled up in my hand and went right to sleep. Poor thing was exhausted. I bonded with her pretty much instantly. Her infant form, twitching and dreaming in my hand, was beautiful and perfect, a miniature mammal, the same as every other baby. So alive! After a while, I wrapped her into a comfy sleeping rag and put her up in the luggage rack, hoping her mom would find her. No such luck. The next day, there she was on the bed, soaked in dog spit, half conscious and gasping for breath. I did the only thing left to do for her. I killed her. It was fast. The exhaustion, fear and pain of her brief life was done, along with the comfort and love of her mother’s nest. It was all over for her (presumably), but not for me.
Brooding on the developing Extinction Event as I’ve been, combined with the feeling of horror at what I’d done, combined with the end of a new life knocked me on my ass. I spent the whole day crying. I felt Death. And something bubbled up through this experience, some Wisdom of The Body. This tiny baby was, literally, The Earth. Every single life, from the tiniest mitochondria to the mightiest whale, and everything in between, is, literally, The Earth. This was not a thought. It was more like a revelation.
What I’m wondering, is not how often we think about death, but how honestly? Death is as constant and as persistent as Life, but how does our irrational fear of death, combined with our thinking about, rationalizing of and justification for killing influence the ways in which we treat Life?
Thinking is good, and very difficult. As the ancient patriarch Henry Ford pointed out, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”
And if you think thinking is difficult, imagine the difficulties attendant to feeling. Especially the difficult feelings associated with our demise.
How, then, do we deal with these feelings? Covering them up doesn’t work. Trust me, encouraged by cultured, I’ve tried.
Our grief-denying culture is especially astute at developing and promoting myths about grief. John W. James and Russell Friedman identified six major myths in their 2009 book, The Grief Recovery Handbook. Covering up our grief falls squarely into the myth that we ought not feel bad. Other myths include replace the loss (e.g., have another baby when your child dies, or replace your dead spouse with another), grieve alone, give it time (“time heals all wounds”), be strong (for yourself or others), and keep busy.
Pull yourself up by your boot-straps. Yes. It’s even worse for miscarriages and abortions. Loss like that is not even acknowledged as loss. Let alone tolerated as a legitimate source grief. You need to be “over it” as soon as it happens. If a grief-denying culture cannot see the source of grief, grief is not allowed. Grief is only legitimate for something “real” and then, only in certain ways.
These approaches do not aid the recovery from grief. They merely increase the comfort level of others while avoiding recognizing and recovering from a sense of loss.
Imagine you have a spurting wound. Blood is pouring from your femoral artery. Do any of the following statements from your friends help you heal?
“Don’t feel bad.”
“At least you have another leg.”
“Please go to your bedroom, I don’t want to see that.”
“That leg will be fine.”
“You need to be strong. Big boys don’t cry.”
“You should think about how fortunate you’ve been, to take your mind off your troubles.”
When your heart is broken, these statements do not help. To effectively deal with loss, you must recognize the loss and treat it with something beyond irrelevant, amorphous statements.
Exactly. You have to acknowledge the reality of it and feel it…go all the way down and in, become it, even, before you can come out the other side. It’s similar to hitting rock bottom in order to recover from addiction. Because until you physical-ize it in some way, feel it in your gut and your heart, it remains an abstraction. Thinking is good, but not at the expense of feeling. The by-products of thinking without feeling are things like fear, hate, greed, exploitation, fascism, extinction events…
I spent the first 30-35 years of my life obsessively accumulating left-brain learning. (Like, really obsessively.) But when I came across the idea that it is actually illogical to be dismissive of emotional intelligence, a light-bulb went on. I began a quest (equally as obsessive!) to bring my EQ up to the same level as my IQ. Been at it for a couple decades now and, yeah–it is WAY more difficult. But it’s improved the quality of my thinking.
The cure is in re-learning feeling—and that takes courage, dedication and time.
Recognition of grief as loss is an important point I failed to understand for many years. When I left behind my life as a academic scholar, I lost connection with colleagues, friends, and even most family members. The commonly regarded idea that I was insane — which, by the way, I’m not ruling out — led to nearly instant loss of all the relationships I cared about.
To make the matter much worse, I had no idea I was grieving because I had never connected grief with loss. I knew I was experiencing pain, but I had no label to put on it. As a result, I had no way to deal with the pain. Without a diagnosis, treatment is a blind shot at a rapidly moving target. Success seems highly unlikely.
What does success mean, with respect to grief? More appropriately, what does recovery from grief look like?
I think recovery means facing the pain head on, acknowledging it, addressing it, and then pursuing a healthy life. I’m not suggesting the pain will magically disappear. Recovering from grief doesn’t mean the memory fades into a heroin haze.
Life is painful. Feel it, and you’ll know what it means to be alive.