On Facing Death

By Ingrid Van Mater
For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself — Romans 14:7

Death is so inevitable, so familiar, yet it still remains one of the great mysteries of consciousness. Our human dilemma regarding the many imponderables it involves is that we are literally between two worlds. We fasten slavishly to what we can see, and are dissatisfied; yet in wanting to know more we feel insecure about what we do not see. It is logical that we accept birth more happily than death, for birth is essentially a bringing into visible life, an adding to, whereas death is to our tangible world a taking away. For every death, moreover, there are two aspects: there is the one who is dying, and there are those who remain behind. Whatever the situation, whether the imminence of our own death or the loss of a family member or friend, facing death tends to throw us back on ourselves and arouses such ultimate questions as Who am I?, Why am I here?, and What really happens at death?

Shakespeare, in writing of the impermanence of this outer world, answers the question, Who am I? in this way:

. . . We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep . . . The Tempest, iv, I

What a comforting thought it is to recognize that death is linked with sleep, which we enter confidently, knowing that we will awaken the next day. But what do we really know of sleep? "Sleep," says Shakespeare, "the death of each day's life . . ."

If we combine these two thoughts, we get the unfolding picture of sleep as a little death, and death as a long sleep that rounds out our "little life." Among the ancients death was often referred to as the Greater or Perfect Sleep. We know how necessary sleep is for our well-being. It is a law of nature for man and beast. The "stuff dreams are made on" suggests that the real part of us is not the body or the personality, both of which are transitory, but the inner consciousness. When we go to sleep at night, we are obviously in a different state of consciousness. We dream, but we have little memory, as a rule, of what has happened, except that when we awaken we are refreshed, and simply take up from where we left off the previous day. Sometimes, however, we have disturbing dreams, or exceptionally beautiful ones, which seem to us far more intense even than what we experience in our waking state. There are profound mysteries as to where we go when we sleep and the various stages of dreaming.

In the light of the grander panorama of many lives, each life is truly but a dot in eternity, a "little life" rounded or temporarily completed by a welcome rest and interlude. Depending on the quality of our thinking and living, this longer sleep in its ultimate after death, is filled with wonderful dreams that were never realized during life here on earth, a fulfillment of our highest aspirations. And while the human soul is enjoying its blissful dreams, the highest part of us, the deathless divinity, is free to wing its way to its stellar home. Recognizing this link between sleep and death, and that nothing completely foreign or frightening happens to us when we pass on, is in itself a relief and a solace both to the one who is facing death, and to those who are left behind. We simply realize all we have been and hoped to be while in incarnation, the essence of what we are.

How vital it is to grasp the underlying pattern of the continuity of the spirit behind the ebb and flow of manifested life. We begin to see ourselves as fitting into a divine scheme of endless evolutionary unfoldment, with ever-widening horizons before us. Such an outlook gives perspective to the present life. Knowing that ours is a self-made destiny, we see the justice of the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we have created from far past times. In this framework we can understand that for each of us there is a right moment to be born and a right moment to die, and that this is in consonance with the cyclic laws of being that transcend time and space. Obviously, if we interfere with these laws there is trouble. How sad it is to see suicide on the increase among young people today, for this is a case in point where taking a life is a disturbance of nature's harmony and inner timing. This is an agony not only for the ones remaining, but for those who have chosen this step, for instead of its bringing immediate peace and respite, the unsettled and desperate condition that led to this act becomes intensified in a dream state after the body is gone. If only they could know in time how precious life is, and that the depths of despair can bring forth from us new dimensions of ourselves, new insights, new strengths. Those who succumb to this method of trying to solve their problems are often either under the influence of drugs and do not know what they are doing, or are overwhelmed by pressures and demands on them that they feel they cannot handle. But nature, although exacting, is also merciful. It is only logical that a thoroughly good and conscientious person, no matter what his mode of dying, will in due course receive in death the peaceful rest that he has earned. For after all we are in death as in life — ourselves.

Of course one cannot change the feeling of sadness, the loneliness of those left behind who lose someone through death. If there were no caring in this world, it would be a desolate place. True love endures through life and death and those who are drawn to each other by bonds of love will be brought together again and again in other lives. At the time of passing the concern of friends surrounds and protects the one who is suffering and is a tangible help. When we have been involved closely with another, there has been a network of thought and feeling, an exchange. After that person is gone, this exchange is cut off. Therefore it is as though a part of us dies with the one who has departed. The experience is particularly acute for those who have been schooled in the idea that death is the end or that there will never be another association on earth again. Nature is infinitely kind, however. The full realization of what has happened takes a while to penetrate into all levels of our being. The awareness comes gradually, often considerably later than the event. It would be too great a shock were this not so. Certainly there shines through the deepest sorrow an unspeakable beauty when we even begin to feel the true nature of what is occurring, realizing that inwardly there is no separation and that the one who has gone on is totally at rest.

There is a passage in the Bhagavad-Gita which may at first reading seem rather callous, yet speaks to the strength within each of us, and does not deny true compassion:

Death is certain to all things which are born, and rebirth to all mortals; wherefore it doth not behoove thee to grieve about the inevitable.

Such enlightened wisdom as contained in these words would not have been given in a scripture that has guided the lives of untold millions through the centuries, unless it contained a philosophy that could be understood and applied. As human beings we have earned the right, because of our mental and spiritual potential, to handle the assignment, difficult as it still is, to become more and more universal and impersonal in outlook and understanding. Life is not an easy road, and death, which comes to all mankind, is one of the many awakening experiences through which we prove our mettle and come into our own. Within each of us is a sustaining power which carries us through any trial. We cannot allow ourselves to dwell on the past, but must move forward always with confidence and hope, knowing that when one door closes, another opens.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)


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