V. 4. Experiences, e.g., Work With The Dying
Exposure to death and dying can particularly help us be truly alive
Exposing ourselves to real-life experiences that lead us to affirm life by facing death is by far the most valuable way to develop a life-affirming death awareness.
Mere exposure to real-life death when we are in the habit of denying our own feelings about our mortality is often harmful. People in denial usually respond to reminders of death by unconsciously repressing feeling, withdrawing from meaningful contact with others, engaging in addictive activities from workaholism to excessive TV-watching to legal or illegal drugs, turning inward, embracing deadening "immortality projects", and/or acting out their repressed feelings in ways that harm themselves and/or others.
But consciously exposing ourselves to real-life reminders of death with the goal of developing a life-affirming death awareness can be extremely important. The many real-life experiences that can be used to make us more truly alive are too many to list here. Examples include:
(1) Involuntary experiences, e.g. dangerous accidents
We are usually involuntarily exposed to real-life death fairly frequently, more often than we consciously use or remember. Examples include witnessing or having near- or actual dangerous accidents; a health scare of our own, such as being told of a high cholesterol count or having an actual illness; hearing about or interacting with a close friend, relative or acquaintance who has a serious illness; learning of or being involved with the death of a friend, relative or acquaintance, including attending a funeral or memorial service; talking with or counseling friends who have lost loved ones.
Such involuntary exposures to death have several elements, including both our love, compassion and/or empathy for a person suffering, and painful feelings that get triggered within us about our own mortality. Such experiences most help us become more truly alive when, in addition to feeling for those in pain, we allow ourselves to feel the pain about our own mortality that has likely been triggered by the experience, and consciously convert it into a life-affirming death awareness.
The eulogies at most funerals, for example, are focused on praising the deceased. In addition to mourning the deceased, however, it is also useful for us while at the funeral to be aware of the painful feelings within us about our own mortality that are being triggered, to feel them fully and to see them transformed into aliveness.
It can be particularly valuable to be at the bedside when a relative and/or loved one dies. The feelings that can be triggered in these situations are literally indescribable, but have transformed many lives over the centuries. ( My Father's Death )
(2) Voluntary Experiences, e.g., Work With The Dying
Direct Exposure to Death
Many people voluntarily choose to expose themselves to death in real life. The training of young Buddhist monks, for example, includes length visits to burial grounds, slaughterhouses, crematoria, funeral parlors and anatomy labs. The purpose of such experiences is to help the monks disidentify from the body and thus is quite different from the approach advocated here of using exposure to death to affirm life including the life of the body. But they demonstrate human beings can benefit from even extreme exposures to death. Hassidic Jews regularly volunteer to wash the dead in preparation for burial and/or, in Israel, visit scenes of carnage for the same purpose.
A perhaps more relevant example for most of us is the important work with the dying of the hospice movement. Most hospice organizations accept volunteers, and the experience of working with a dying person can be a powerful one for developing our capacities for love, compassion and empathy for others. But it can be even more powerful when we also use such an experience to feel our own pain about our own mortality in order to be more truly alive.
Working in hospital emergency rooms or other healthcare that deals with death can also be similarly useful.
Work for relief organizations that combat starvation and/or illness, and or resettle refugees from war, also provide direct exposure to death. Doing such work not only to help those in need but to develop our own life-affirming death awareness can be powerfully transformative.
Indirect Exposure To Death
Attending a support group to deal with the loss of a loved one is another kind of real-life experience which can help us develop a life-affirming death awareness.
An accessible experience which can be particularly useful is periodically visiting cemeteries which are, of course, present in every corner of the world. Few experiences can be more touching, profound and meaningful, if we do so with the goal of feeling our own pain about our own death in a way that affirms life.
Living in the Third World in general, and visiting places where death is particularly relevant in particular, can be helpful. Death is far more a part of life in the Third World, especially in villages, and anyone who lives in such a setting will likely be periodically directly exposed to death.
It is also possible to visit places like Varanassi in India, where people come to die on the banks of the river Ganges, in the hopes of achieving eternal life. Few experiences of life are more powerful than walking down the shores of the Ganges, past burning pyres of corpses. If we engage in such experiences to develop a life-affirming death awareness, they can powerfully help us in our journey to be more truly alive.
It is also possible to find psychological and/or spiritually-oriented workshops which include powerful experiential exercises and discussions aimed at helping us deal with death.
(3) Voluntary Risk-Taking
Extreme sports - parachuting from airplanes, sky diving, bungee jumping -- raise interesting questions in regard to developing a life-affirming death awareness. So too do experiences like engaging in or reporting on combat and police work. In general, simply exposing ourselves to the actual physical risk or fact of death is not particularly useful to developing a life-affirming death awareness. There is generally in actual life-and-death situations an element of extreme fear present, which prevents people from feeling their deeper, more decontracted sadness and anguish, and seeing it transformed into love for life. Also, extreme sports are often undertaken in the search of extreme highs which, like taking drugs, lead to a craving and/or addiction to even more intense highs. They also often result in serious injury and/or death. The former inhibits, the latter of course prevents, further progress toward becoming truly alive.
Nonetheless, it is wise if we are voluntarily risking death or injury for any reason, to do so with the goal developing a life-affirming death awareness. Although not recommended for this specific purpose, if we are going to be in life-threatening situations anyway, we are better off doing so with the goal of learning to surface our painful feelings about our own death, and using them to touch our love for life. (At which point we would probably disengage as quickly as possible from violent situations, and find ourselves less inclined to take risks in extreme sports . )