candlecandle

IV. 6. DANCING WITH ANGUISH AND JOY

 

Anguish not fear haunts our days. We are most alive when we dance both in anguish and in joy.

It is common to speak of a "fear" of death, which religionists seek to meet by offering us a belief in an afterlife. But our deeper problem is our deep unconscious anguish at the prospect of losing what matters to us in this life, whatever the prospects of an afterlife. In fact, it is our anguish at losing our experiences of this life that we fear, not the concept of oblivion itself. The cessation of all experience would not be a frightening concept, after all, were it not for the meaning we attach to this experience.

Anguish is thus built into the human condition. The only way we can avoid it consciously is to withdraw from life, to not give value to our experiences. But doing so only increases our unconscious anguish, as we live with the knowledge that we are largely wasting the one life we have been granted.

But though we cannot avoid anguish, we can accept it if we dare feel it. Accepting a death we simultaneously experience as unacceptable is one of our most useful experiences of life, a gateway that can open us up to new realms of aliveness and life that we never before knew existed. Imagining that we have permanently accepted death after one or a series of spiritual experiences - a near-death experience, a genuine "moving beyond ego" in deep meditation or prayer, experiencing a health crisis in which we accepted our death - is one of our least useful approaches to life.

It is possible to accept death. But only temporarily. The process for almost all of us is rather that described by meditation teacher Jack Kornfield in his important book, After The Ecstasy, the Laundry . As Kornfield notes, even the most profound spiritual experiences alternate with ordinary, ego-based consciousness for all but the handful of those who are, in any age, "enlightened."

He explains how even the most advanced practitioners who experience relatively sustained periods of not identifying with the separate self and thus death, often find themselves reverting to more traditional behaviors in their daily lives. And if this is true for people who have become monks or engaged in years of practice, it is even truer for the rest of us. Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein believes that beings who experience permanent enlightenment appear only once every few centuries, and the evidence seems to support him.

The rest of us feel sadness about our death not only because evolution has bred into our genes a desire to live and thus an abhorrence of death . We are also anguished because we value our experiences in this life, and the thought of losing them for all eternity is painful. Anguish is thus inherent  to the life-process.

Direct spiritual experience thus cannot free us of our pain. But it can lead us into a dance with life and death. As we come to know the joys of valuing our lives more, we also feel more pain about death. As we feel more pain about death, they can spur deep spiritual experiences that increase our ability to experience our anguish and our joy.

In the end, the only "answer" to our anguish over death is not to deny it, but rather to surface and use it to more fully love and appreciate life. By helping us develop equanimity in the face of all of life's experiences, direct spiritual experience can both help us more fully feel our anguish, and also see it transformed into vitality, energy, and appreciation for life.

 

This process of fully feeling our pain about death, and then seeing it transformed into the joy of life, is what we mean by "the dance of anguish and joy." It can begin now. And it can continue until our last moment in this life.