Death is all around us, an intimate friend who accompanies us every moment of the day. Thousands of tiny bacteria and viruses perish each time we sneeze or blow our nose or pee or poop. We see death each time we clip our nails or pick up strands of fallen hair in the shower. Each new moment follows the death of the previous one. We are born again each moment, never the same from one moment to the next.
We know in our hearts that death is inevitable and our phenomenal existence will end one day. (I only use first person, plural pronouns (we, us, our) here for convenience and not to imply that whatever I’m writing here necessarily applies to all of us or is the way we each experience our lives). Death implies loss. We live with the fear of loss humming in the background all day long – loss of our physical existence, loss of the physical existence of our near and dear ones, loss of money/property/possessions, loss of our youth, loss of our social standing/reputation, loss of our health – you name it. We live each day trying to protect these in the hope that somehow we can avoid them or at the least postpone their loss for as long as we can.
Death and fear are congenital twins, joined at the hip. Our biology ensures that we have the necessary fear to preserve our bodies for as long as we can, to reproduce and propagate our genes and to ensure the survival and wellbeing of our offspring. Our entire sympathetic nervous system is designed to let us know when we are in danger of losing our “selves” – both our ego selves and our physical bodies. The fear of losing our ego selves is responsible for so many acts of hate and aggression we see in the world around us. By ego self, I mean the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the stories we identify with. The whites and the blacks, Hindus and Muslims, the Israelis and Palestinians, the gay and straight folk – each have a storyline that they want to preserve and protect for as long as they can. The history of our human existence is full of such stories. This is true at a personal level too. We have a story we’ve told the world and ourselves about who we are and we protect it with all our might. Our social egos are so fragile that we need to exercise all kinds of control and manipulation to preserve it.
Humans place a high value on human life. Because we have the story-telling capacity, we read everyday in our newspapers and online news sites of various selected tragedies of human death. One never hears of “collateral damage” deaths from drone strikes, for example. Some human lives are portrayed as being more valuable than others. Muhammad Ali’s life is seen as more valuable than say the poor tourist who fell into a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park and died. I’ve often wondered about the ants in my kitchen. Every summer they visit for a few weeks and then go away. I hate it when they come. They line the kitchen counter, get into the snack cupboard, and swarm all over my honey bottle. I first try benign ways of getting rid of them – cinnamon powder, chili powder, etc. None of it works of course. So I take a wet paper towel, say mentally, “Aum. May you be born as a higher life form in your next life.” or something to that effect to ease my conscience and wipe them all away in one smooth motion. I wonder if there are little ant newspapers with headlines the next day that read – “Mass genocide in Palo Alto kitchen! Hundreds dead at the hands of nasty woman with wet paper towel!” The ants don’t tell stories.
Yet it is in the telling of stories that we make our lives beautiful – our stories of love and hate, all the comedies and tragedies that take the form of novels, poems, dramas, song and dance. All our creative endeavors as a species including scientific discoveries and technological inventions are another subplot in our collective narrative. It’s a wonderful thing!
All we need to do to make our lives a little more pleasant and happy for each other is to stop identifying with our stories. We can create them, enjoy them moment-by-moment and let them go. Just don’t make them more than what they are. They’re a narrative, a story. Death and life are all stories. To be truly free, we only need to die to our small sense of self and instead identify with that which is deathless, changeless, eternal.
There is a beautiful line from Rumi who says, “The whole world has taken the wrong way, for they fear nonexistence, while it is their refuge.” It echoes St. Francis of Assisi who says, “It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life."