Thursday, April 28, 2011
Dreaming oF My Death Sets Me to Contemplating My Mortality
The past couple of nights I have been having dreams seemingly involving death and my own mortality. Whether it is just my subconscious responding to my rather morbid way of thinking during the day, my conscious mind having relaxed, being free to regurgitate a symbolic jumble of meaningless nonsense or there is a true value to these dream images I don’t know. Perhaps, like Mr Scrooge believing the specter in front of him is merely a piece of undigested beef, instead of a reality he wishes to not believe, I am in the same position being the eternal skeptic that I have become.
I am not prone to finding hidden meanings in symbolic dream representations. The meditation tradition I practice instructs to disregard symbols, dreams and other occult manifestations as distractions presented by an ego invested in keeping you from enlightenment. As things arise from the field of the mind we simply, gently push beyond them focusing on the horizon and travel the length of our out breath. The ground of being is the point where the out breath and the in breath meet.
Nonetheless these particular dreams have been disturbing to the point that upon waking it feels as if I have truly died during the night (although my dream consciousness shifts prior to the point of death each time preventing me from experiencing my own death).
“Have I died?” I ask myself. The world that my eyes perceive is muted grey like a thin gossamer curtain separating me from the color of reality. It seems a place of transition; a bridge between the world of the living and whatever awaits us in death. It is a place of sadness and isolation. Is this what the scriptures mean when they speak of a “veil of tears?”
Once the warbling of my waking consciousness steadies and the veil drops revealing the colors of wakefulness I breathe deep finding satisfaction in the fact that I am still among the living. For a brief moment the world seems serene, the light is warmer and the colors more vivid. I imagine that this is what the world must look like for a blind man who suddenly regains his vision – the textures and construction of the world suddenly appearing differently that he has previously experienced or dreamed.
I am halfway through my 44th year (almost) and there is a certain dawning realization of my mortality. Death or thoughts of death have preoccupied me. I am aware that my own death is the only uncertain certainty in existence. I know I will die; I just don’t know when. My eventual death is what makes living so sweet. It’s what makes each moment precious in its own right and, if I would allow it, it makes each irritation, disappointment and failure nothing to cling to or pine over. What could have been is not nearly as important as what is and what is to be.
I fear death.
And that at the same time I don’t
I think it is the uncertainty that is most terrifying.
Actually, I think I fear living more than I fear dying
That seems odd given my reaction to my dreams of late
But it seems true
Living and dying (especially dying) is about loss of control
And control is an illusion
In my limited and myopic experiences those who live and die well seem to have overcome the illusion of control. They live moment by juicy moment and their deaths are just as vibrant.
The philosopher Simon Critchely speaks of the fear of annihilation. We fear the obliteration of our personality more than the decline of our bodies. We fear the loss of conscious awareness, the snuffing out of the “I” like a candle flame as we suddenly dissipate into the darkness of nothing.
I wonder if that is what will happen when I die. Will my field of vision get narrower as the light in my eyes goes out, darkness playing bout the edges of my sight until I fall into a dark, dreamless sleep never to wake up again? Or is there some type of afterlife?
The afterlife envisioned by my native Roman Catholic Church haunts and terrifies me. I certainly hope that this is a falsehood. The psychic Sylvia Browne says that when we die all of our beloved pets are the first to meet us as we cross over even before relatives and other loved ones come to greet us. As preposterous as this seems if an afterlife exists that is the version I am hoping for.
I have embellished upon this fantasy and draped it with my own desires. A paradise for humans seems hardly plausible, but dogs seem worthy of an eternal paradise. If I have a choice I’d rather go to dog heaven than people heaven. I prefer most dogs to most of the people I have known. Every dog is pure dog, while people are less than pure and often not what they seem. Spending eternity surrounded by all of the wonderful dogs I have known in my life would be heaven.
I imagine a vast meadow lushly carpeted with green grass surrounded by tall beautiful shade bearing trees and beautiful wild flowers where dogs romp, roll and chase after each other, butterflies and squirrels happily all day, pausing only to drink from the cool babbling brooks and streams or to receive belly rubs and treats from me.
That is as childish as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy!
And I don’t care.
But, it’s just a child’s fantasy!
I don’t know how to break it to you, but quite possibly what you believe is a fantasy too. It’s that you are so invested in it you can’t be objective. Perhaps your beliefs are founded upon an interpretation of ancient scriptures and the hoary, enduring nature of these writings give for you a sense of permanence, a sense of the absolute truth we all opine exists.
What makes you think what you believe is any less absurd than my beliefs?
I was actually asked this question as a young philosophy student in my early 20’s when I had the poor manners to laugh at an older man who believed, quite earnestly, that what humanity thinks of as god or gods is residual race memory of an advanced race of people who either existed before us or visited from some far away galaxy (or dimension).
When I reviewed what I believed I saw that what I took to be “evidence” of my faith’s veracity was equally absurd. Which beliefs are sillier?
An advanced civilization visited primitive humanity, teaching and educating us.
Invisible effable super being creates man out of dust and give him law
A virgin girl is impregnated by a formless god and her progeny is god in the flesh and his blood sacrifice upon a wooden, splintery cross redeems humanity cleansing them of their sins.
And yet each compelling in their own way
I have observed something over the years, which is hard for most people I know to accept. You make it up as you go….spiritually speaking at the moment. What you believe is choices you make drawing from the rich sources of religion, mythology and spirituality that has accumulated over the millennia since humans first created writing and began recording their thoughts, musings and beliefs. You pick and choose from a buffet of religious imagination. Your choices subjectively bear out according to your experience. They are also influenced by the circumstance of birth. Your parents, your culture and the prominent religions or beliefs it holds play a big role in what you initially believe.
But, at the time of your birth you are an atheist
A natural atheist, to borrow from Dr. David Eller
An infant knows nothing of god, death, good, evil or religion. The newborn must be taught all of these things.
As a born again skeptic I shudder whenever I hear someone say, “I am not religious, I am spiritual” or some similar inane post modern piece of nincompoopery. They generally don’t understand that religiosity and spirituality are tied together having little to do with orthodox creedal based religions and everything to do with our psyches. Spirituality requires religious imagination and a proclivity for mythmaking. We make our own myths even those who think they are living the “true gospel” or by the “Koran.”
God is a concept that exists in your mind. God exists in no other place. This is why mystics tell you to go within to seek truth. Your concept may be based on the tenets of the Judeo-Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, by way of example, but what happens to them within your own mind is unique to you. The god you believe in is not necessarily the same god the person sitting on the pew next to you Sunday morning believes in, even though you profess the same creed, read the same bible and listen to the same sermon. But, then your experience of the color blue is hardly the same either so why should god be different?
God wants no graven images depicting him
But, we are never free of graven images even if we never fashion a golden calf or carve one out of wood or stone.
An impossible, impractical and unfair commandment…
Thou shall not kill
Thou shall not steal
Thou shall not bear false witness
I can live with these. These are good, fundamental principals necessary for an orderly and just society. They are not a Hebrew innovation either. Humanity had figured these out long before Moses came down from Mt Sinai, face covered because it was transformed by the majesty of god’s light, bearing the Ten Commandments. In fact Israel may have been a little late in developing these prohibitions.
I read the words of the prophet Isaiah and see an angry, vengeful god thirsty for blood and destruction. This is the prophet whom Christians believe foretold the birth of Christ right down to the virgin birth. I see where they get it. But, even in the New Testament this god has hardly changed. It’s that rather than dealing directly through us as he did with Israel, he places the mantle of his power on his anointed one, who he sacrifices to himself to satisfy his lust for blood.
Marcion, an early Christian and among the first to collect scriptures, believed that the god of the Christian scriptures and the god of the Jewish scriptures were two separate gods. But, remove the talk of “God is love” and you see this is not true. It is the same god he has just disguised himself.
This god scares me.
But, then the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord.
This is not the heart trembling awe that is fear or wonderment
This is fear of the raw primal power that is often unmerciful and unjust
He’s a perfect god of the desert; a god of storms and war. But, as a god of enlightenment?
This god is death
But, his death is not a quiet annihilation. It’s hell, a living annihilation.
God is as the world appears to his believers. This is how the medieval church saw the world. Its how the world appears too many post modern evangelicals.
God is a concept that exists in your mind and no place else.
It occurs to me now that ideas of an afterlife are not useful. They create fantasies that prevent us from embracing life now. It creates a disingenuous morality as people curry favor to escape punishment. Afterlife dreams keep alive a false hope that we don’t die and that our existence beyond physical mortality is guaranteed. It keeps us in fear of death rather than embracing it as a bosom lifelong companion.
We have sterilized it and tried to make it invisible except in our more visceral forms of entertainment where it is a surreal experience that is a mere phantasm. We have taken death out of the home and made it institutionalized. We prolong life unnaturally through life support systems because we cannot bear to let our loved ones come to their normal end.
We no longer die.
We pass over
Make our transition
Go to our heavenly reward
We go to heaven
The famous doctor and writer, Bernie Siegel MD writes about one of his textbooks that devoted 2 pages to talking about dying without using the word die.
Simon Critchely observes that once upon a time people took their hats off when a hearse passed by. Now we ignore death until we absolutely are forced to face it. Victorians took pictures of the dead. I believe, as does Critchely, that if we can’t accept death and live in the embrace of its knowledge we are not really living, we are sleeping.
I vaguely recall from the works of Carlos Castaneda, that I devoured in my youth, the supposedly illiterate Yaqui, Don Juan (who often sounded suspiciously like a Stanford educated ethno biologist or anthropologist) tell his young protégé, Carlos that he needed to make friends with his death. The wise old shaman emphasized “his death” and not just death in general.
Death is uncertain and that is what makes it scary
In my mind I suspect there is no afterlife, at least not one where the “I” that I am in this world consciously transitions from mortality to spirit and continues to exist. I suspect it to be just the extinguishing of the light of my consciousness. My body becomes food for the worms and microbes that will eat me and recycle the material that was once me into countless other things.
Nothing going to waste
The ultimate annihilation of me is not what scares me. I am comfortable with losing consciousness. It would be like one of those seemingly dreamless nights where you wake up as from the dead or are reborn into the world as you awaken with no dream images remembered, just darkness. Only this time you will never awake. Once I am gone my problems, fears, desires, hopes and disappointments are left behind no longer a concern.
It’s the final moments of anticipation as your heart, brain and consciousness stop resisting the embrace of death that scares me. Will it hurt? Will I feel distress? Will I be at peace or will I be in fear?
Fear of death is normal. To not be in fear of it is to not be human or to be an enlightened saint. But, then religion is a gamble. The trick is to embrace it without being obsessed like the late Ingmar Bergman who was purportedly frightened of death.
But, what frightens me more than my own death, which I basically accept, is the death of those closest to me – my girlfriend, my dog, a cherished friend, whose death is at once an inescapable and painful loss. I selfishly pine to be the first to die. I much prefer to die first than cope with the death of those closest to me. I am a coward.
Fear of death is then the fear of loss of control
The illusion that I am in charge of my life
I have to give in to death
We all do