IV. 3. FACING DEATH AND SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
Facing death has long spurred spiritual awakening and practice.
Facing our painful feelings about our death is critical to spiritual experience that enlivens. It is striking, for example, how often a confrontation with death has led major spiritual figures like the Buddha or Sri Ramana Maharshi to embark on their journeys in the first place. Millions of ordinary seekers over the centuries have been spurred on in their spiritual journeys by a desire to find answers to their own pain about the prospect of death.
It is neither easy to begin a spiritual journey, nor to continue on it. It is difficult to break with conventional society. And it requires enormous discipline to maintain a regular contemplative, meditation, yoga and/or prayer practice. Feeling our ongoing pain about our mortality can provide tremendous motivation for developing a spiritual practice that can use our pain as energy for appreciating life and expanding our experience of it.
The story of the Buddha, a myth, is instructive. His father, a king, gave strict instructions that he was to be raised in the palace and not be shown human suffering. When he reached the age of 29, however, he left the palace and encountered aged people, sick people, and corpses. Horrified, and seeing a wandering monk the next day, he left his family and began a spiritual journey. Rather than taking refuge in death-denying ideologies of the time, in other words, he fully felt his horror at death and used it to fuel a search to understand and deal with it.
In the end, he claimed to have succeeded, and taught his followers to face death with equanimity. One of his main teachings was on the nature of impermanence, i.e. that it was an inevitable part of life that made it more precious, and that if we can understand this deeply we can feel equanimity at even the prospect of our own death - and even make death our friend.
This teaching made sense in 2500 B.C., where death and suffering were an everyday experiences - from far higher infant mortality rates, illness and frequent death at a far earlier age than today. People experienced the pain of death in their daily lives, and the Buddha's teaching offered relief to a fully-felt painful reality.
Today, however, we have an opposite problem. People are encouraged to deny their feelings about their death. Although there is plenty of neurotic unhappiness - in relationships, child-rearing practices, at the workplace - our "existential" pain about death, aloneness and alienation, is usually not part of our conscious emotional lives.
Most of us are thus like the Buddha before he left the palace. While we know intellectually that we will one day die, we live on an emotional level, day-to-day, as if we will live forever. We may not live in palaces, but we - and our society - have developed numerous ways of living that keep us in air-conditioned comfort and shield us from the emotional realities of sickness, old age and death.
Spiritual teachings can help us accept our mortality only if, like the young Buddha, we are first willing to feel our pain about it. If so, we may well find that death-awareness motivates and sustains our spiritual explorations, and brings us into a healthier and alive relationship with death.
Death-awareness can awaken us to the failure of conventional society to provide answers to the most painful questions of life. And it can give us the energy we need to develop spiritual practices that can give us, if not answers, some measurement of peace in the face of death and other horrors of life.