The Two Ways to Die

As human beings, we really don’t understand death, either its transformative power or its nonfinal nature. When I say that death has a transformative power, I’m referring to that aspect of death – to that kind of death – which is not the end of the body. Rather, it is the death we each need to experience while we’re still alive here on the planet. It is death as a way of living. It is the death of the old self and its old ways.

To truly live is to experience each moment. To experience each moment is to be born into each moment with a new skin. Yet to be born prefigures a death. That which is born must die. To be born in each moment means to die in each moment, too. It is to die in the last moment. And that is why, from the human perspective, it is necessary to die continuously. Humans tend not to understand this since we live in time, and time prevents us from living in the now. We see ourselves as experiencing one birth – at the beginning of our lives – and one death – at the end of our lives. We celebrate this birth, and mourn this death. More than anything, we fear this biological end, for it means the final death of the ego.

Yet by believing in the reality of time and living in it, we experience another kind of death – a perpetual death of the spirit. It is really more like a sleep into which we lull ourselves. While we believe that we live in time, we experience the absence of awareness. To live in the past displaces the now. And we can always and only be fully aware in this moment. To live in the future also dislocates the present. This kind of death, brought about by our experience of time, is a spiritual one. It is the death of awareness. Awareness dies because it’s taken into dreams of the past or future.

The ego dies when we live in the now, in which awareness is total and the soul awakes. When we live in the present moment, the operations of the ego are temporarily suspended, though not ultimately terminated. The ego experiences itself as past-present-future. It sees itself as the continuity of time, living within the flow of time. It spends the vast majority of its moments in the past or in the future, and can only experience the now if it is shocked into it through various vehicles, things like drugs, sex, or jumping out of an airplane. The operations of the ego are suspended when we are confronted with death or a facsimile of death, like when we watch a good movie. Yet this is not the only way the ego dies. We can just as easily be brought into the now when we spend time with another being – like a child or a puppy – which itself is very relaxed into the present moment.

Yet most of the time, the ego defaults to its memories of the past or to its projection about the future. The ego’s faculties of memory and prediction are highly suspect. Its ‘time travel’ into past and future are really just distortions, fantasies. We seldom remember events accurately, and our predictions about the future are usually pretty off. Yet without time, the ego ceases to be. So it spends most of its time wasting time in either the fantasy of the past or the fantasy of the future. If we are to truly live, we need to die to these states. This is the kind of death to which we need to aspire.

When we live in the now, we constantly discard past versions of the self which are no longer real, since the past is no longer real. This shedding of the past is the kind of death which makes possible continuous renewal. It is a transformational death that makes true living possible. Yet we seldom experience this authentic life, since we are born into time, and the mind has conditioned itself to hold time as the only reality.

Now, what of bodily death? This is the kind of death that the ego really fears, for it represents the permanent end of the little self. At least in the spiritual rebirth described above, the ego can (and does) pull us back into time and re-attain its status quo existence in temporal reality. But when the body dies, the ego dies along with it. From our perspective as individual humans, that’s the way the ego sees it. As to the second kind of death – biological death – it seems as if we have no ultimate choice.

As to the first form of death discussed – the death experienced when we forfeit the aliveness of the moment and escape into the past or the future – we choose. We can live in time, or we can live in the endless present, which is a form of eternity. For if time is suspended, by default, nothing else can surround us but timelessness.

We see only through the eyes of our human selves, and perceive lives that end always in time. We cannot see that perhaps no matter the species of death we behold, if we hold it rightly, it is simply the ultimate transfiguration. In death, the shadows of matter and time dissolve in the light which in its ceaseless love shines on us always.

© 2020 by Michael C. Just

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