Death and the Meaning of Life
What if death isn’t the enemy we perceive it to be?
“Any matter directly or indirectly related to death is present in our daily life, even if we do not acknowledge it or pretend that it does not concerns us yet. Death is by definition the very last moment of life, but there is a lot more to it than that… There are forms of psychological or physical deterioration that are little deaths to the fullness of life.”
— Dr. Ramon Prats
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time in a rural geriatrics (elderly) mental health ward. I spent the day speaking with and listening to various staff members, patients, and ‘shadowing’ the occupational therapist (OT) on the ward. Now, usually I’m quite critical of the role of mental health/psychiatric wards in hospitals: they’re rarely geared towards recovery and, instead, function as a kind of ‘holding station’ for people who are severely unwell. Sadly, many vulnerable people get ‘caught’ in the system, spending lengthy periods of time (months-to-years) going in-and-out of these wards, usually being medicated up to their eyeballs. As someone who has had lived experiences in these very wards, I can affirm this: they’re geared towards reducing risk and keeping you ‘safe’ rather than promoting holistic, multi-dimensional recovery.
Nevertheless, I was incredibly impressed by the work being done in this particular ward/s. The OT I was shadowing shared about the various approaches they were trying to implement or had implemented: utilising sensory-based interventions to address challenging behaviours (as opposed to ‘restrictive’ interventions), providing opportunities for meaningful activities and engagement within the ward, and seeking to make peoples’ end-of-life experiences as meaningful as possible (palliative care). The work being done was truly ‘cutting edge’ in terms of caring for people who often had a mixture of mental, physical, and cognitive impairments.
This experience got me thinking, along with some lectures I’d been listening to by the late Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) who spent many years accompanying people as they experienced their last moments. It’s no secret that — at least in Western societies — we do not do death, ageing, and end-of-life care very well. In fact, we spend most of our time trying to deny the reality of our mortality and conveniently ‘hide away’ the elderly because, you know, they’re not really ‘productive’ citizens anymore (hopefully you can sense my sarcastic voice here). And, on that very note, the notion that we judge a person’s worth by their level of productivity is, frankly, a disgusting dogma of our age (even if it is only implicit).
Yet, I’m convinced that in order to truly live a meaningful life, we must both accept and embrace the the reality of death. And, by this, I don’t just mean that moment at the end of our lives, but all the ‘little deaths’ we encounter along the way: the various (painful) losses and endings we all inevitably experience. We all know from direct experience that, although these can be incredibly painful, such ‘little deaths’ are often what is required for fertile ground to be created and the seeds of new life sown. And, this process cannot take place unless we practice a radical acceptance and an openness to learning from each experience.
In a fundamental sense, we’re all undergoing this end-of-life process, regardless of age: some are just a little (or a lot) closer to that final moment than others. The little deaths we all experience, then, could be seen as a kind of preparation for that ‘big’ death that we all must face. It’s why the mystics say things like, “If you die before you die, you will not die when you die” (a quote taken from an inscription at a Greek Orthodox monastery). Ram Dass spoke of this life as a kind of ‘curriculum’ in which we each have particular lessons to learn. And, for every single one of us, the process of learning how to die (well) is a non-negotiable condition of life. In his book One Taste, Ken Wilber writes:
“Death: the mystics are unanimous that death contains the secret to life — to eternal life, in fact. As Eckhart put it, echoing the mystics everywhere: “No one gets as much of God as those who are thoroughly dead.” Or Ramana Maharshi: “You will know in due course that your glory lies where you cease to exist.” Or the Zenrin: “While alive, live as a dead person, thoroughly dead.” They don’t mean physically dead; they mean dead to the separate-self sense… the ultimate “spiritual test,” then, is simply your relation to death.”
In centuries past, a plethora of spiritual practices (from many different religious traditions) have been central to sense-making around death and the process of ageing/dying. It’s precisely why, particularly in the Vedantic (Hindu) and Buddhist traditions, that non-attachment is so heavily emphasised. As much as we like to think we’re in control, we really aren’t, even with all the gifts modernity has bestowed upon us. And, it honestly doesn’t surprise me that there is a meaning crisis in the West today when so much of what used to sustain and nourish us has broken down (and the fact that our material wealth has failed to nourish the longing/s that reside deep within our hearts).
Nevertheless, we know that new life can burst forth on the other side of death if we commit to consciously, compassionately, and courageously embracing it. Indeed, we can see this very pattern play out in the natural world. Whilst impermanence is a reality of our material existence (and that can be a very scary thing), the flip-side is that each moment presents us with the opportunity to begin afresh; to begin again as the Buddhists say. Grace is built into the very fabric of the universe.
What would change if you were to perceive death not as the enemy, but as a wise teacher?