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Archive for the ‘microseries on death’ Category

Last week I found that I had a pure white eyebrow hair. Furthermore, this week was my first back to work after two months off. I’m listening to the Wailin’ Jennys. There’s nothing like a high, reedy voice with a mandolin, white eyebrow hair, and the last quiet whispers of summer to get a girl thinking about death.

Now as a metaphysician, I know that endings are a human construct. (As a kid I always loved to think about what was on the other side of the wall at the end of space. It couldn’t be more space, right? Because space was already ended! So what is it?) However, as a flesh and blood lady, I can tell you that I definitely experience endings, even knowing that they are illusionary.

I just returned from a trip to Guatemala. While I was there I went on a hike at Lago de Atitlan and, within the same span of a few hours, I saw a real live translucent butterfly, a creek bed strewn with plastic bottles and potato chip bags, a serene meditation center surrounded by immaculately tended gardens, and a machismo man in a truck running over a small black and white dog. Ends and beginnings, layer on layer.

In Brahma Kumaris meditation class we learned about the yugas–the four ages of humanity. We start with the Satya yuga–the Golden Age–which was a time of great contentment and happiness. These are then followed by the Dvapara Yuga (Silver Age), the Treta Yuga (Copper Age), and finally the Kali Yuga (Iron Age). These ages pass just like the seasons. In fact, each age shares certain attributes with a corresponding season: Golden/summer=plentiful food, restful; Silver/fall= harvest, turning inward, sweaters, campfires; Copper/winter=cold, gray, melancholy; and Iron/spring=chaotic, extremes…and the promise of a new beginning. At the end of the Kali Yuga is the Confluence, the time when the sun returns and brings back the bliss of the Golden Age.

It’s all a cycle. It will all come back around again…and next time will be even better, because we will be bringing new tools and new understandings that we hadn’t reached yet this go round. Bring on the white eyebrow hairs…

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A few weeks ago I became intrigued with Vincent van Gogh. I remembered a story that a teacher told me, about how van Gogh shot himself in the stomach (which is an excruciating place to be injured) and that it took two days for him to die. His last words were, “Who knew that life could be so sad?”  (The teacher wondered why he had chosen to shoot himself in the stomach. He conjectured a guess that perhaps that is where his pain was coming from. Solve et coagula.)

It has been said that Vincent van Gogh saw the world differently than others, which is reflected in his paintings.  It is certainly true that he related with others in a very different way than was socially acceptable (beyond cutting off his own earlobe, he held his hand in a lit lantern to convince a girl’s parents to let him see her, he threatened Gauguin with a razor blade after throwing a cup of absinthe at him [on a slightly different note, after being threatened by the blade, Gauguin apparently decided to try and stare van Gogh down which is not the course that I would have chosen in that situation. Alas, I wasn’t there. Had I been, history would have certainly been very different.], and he agreed to marry a woman ten years his senior, who he didn’t love, because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Or something like that.)

Vincent suffered in his life, that is assured. He failed at dealing art, quit his teaching job because he wasn’t being paid, was fired from a missionary gig, and failed the examinations for the ministry after fifteen months of study. At this point, he decided to become an artist, despite the fact that his mother thought his drawings were “ugly.”

After this, things got a little bit depressing. He was starving most of this time because he spent his money on art supplies, he had hallucinations and heard voices in his head, he poisoned himself by eating his own paint (probably accidentally), he couldn’t sell any paintings (the only one ever sold while he was alive is pictured above) and no women wanted him except the one he didn’t love. And yet, he continued to paint every day. In his words: “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Was it really necessary for him to make that choice? What about contentment? Where does that fit in? It is my goal to be happy by not holding grudges, by not talking negatively about people, by being compassionate.  My counselor once asked me if I wanted to become Jesus and I said yes. Why not?

But she (my counselor) felt like we need conflict in our lives in order to live authentically, to continue peeling back the layers of the onion. So here’s the question: If van Gogh could have been more content, would he have been able to paint the way he did?

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Yesterday I went and spoke with an engaging woman who is finishing up her schooling in embalming. The woman, despite the fact that she is learning how to embalm/preserve bodies in the “traditional” method, is a proponent of a newly re-emerging burial method called the natural burial.

Human beings have been burying their dead for 100,000 years. It has only been in the last 100 years that the funeral industry has taken over the ritual of caring for the bodies of the dead. In the past, if her child died, a mother’s job would be to carefully wash his body, comb his hair, close his eyes and set his features for viewing before his last transition.

The idea now is nearly blasphemous. Who would ever want to do such a thing? Who would want to be that close to the empty frame of a once lively loved one?

My new friend, the soon to be embalmer, feels like we have lost an important ritual. She said that the subconscious mind needs to say goodbye, to understand that something is forever gone, to grieve. Solve et coagula. Rip it open, clean it out, let it heal.

Now what we likely see when a loved one dies is a painted up and waxed over body, filled full of formaldehyde, put into a beautiful wooden box and placed in a concrete and steel tomb underground. The ritual resides in the broccoli casserole and the scalloped potatoes, but no longer in the preparation of the body. We are now told that it is better to leave that job to the experts, who know better than us what is best. It’s a job that is too painful and difficult for the untrained.

When the ancients buried a body, the flesh was likely broken down in less than six months (depending on the soil conditions and temperature). When an embalmed body is interred it can take decades to decompose.

When I die, I would like to allow the organic process of decay to take place. I’d like the elements stored up in my body to be returned to the earth in a timely fashion. I don’t want pink #4 in my veins. I’d understand if nobody wants to wash me up, but that’d be nice too. I’ll put in a good word for you on the other side…

http://www.beatree.com

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Character assassination. The police won’t come for me, but I’ll feel like crap. I might not even know why I feel like crap. (This is where I think Steiner’s demon [the one you create when you try to control a person] comes into play. I think of it more as an energetic demon that eats away at my sense of peace.)

I make a choice to assassinate someone’s character. I feel justified in doing so, because she is not a good person! Well, that might not be exactly true, but at very least, sometimes she makes poor decisions! I need the world to know that person X made a poor decision and I noticed it!

Self righteous anger also can be very enjoyable. In a perverse way we can actually take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us, for it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority…Here we are not trying to help those we criticize, we are trying to proclaim our own righteousness. (from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions)

I’ve been really getting into the death thingie lately. Today I’m mostly focused on the idea that a fear of death keeps us from living the life of complete bliss that we could otherwise be living if we weren’t afraid of dying. How ironic.

Is it possible that we slander other people because we’re afraid of dying?

I’m reminded of Barack Obama’s state of the union address, during which he uttered the phrase “I will not accept second place for the United States of America” several times over. This is dualistic thinking at it’s prime: I need to be in first place at all times.

How does this apply to being dead? Dead v. alive is dualistic in nature as well.

Oh descendant of the Kuru dynasty, resolute intelligence dedicated to Me is one-pointed–I am its only objective. But irresolute intelligence is splayed by endless desires for mundane enjoyment…[Unwise persons] hearts are filled with desires and their goal is heaven. They advocate the many sacrifices and rituals that yield wealth, worldly pleasures and high birth. (from Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 2)

Since I’ve begun this (pleasantly titled, if I don’t say so myself) microseries on death, I’ve come to recognize that the clench I feel in my stomach and heart when someone challenges my first place status is my fear of death. Recognizing it and saying it out loud takes some of the power out of it. I also recommend deep breaths and Terra Firma Nerve Tonic #2. Good stuff.

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I watched this video (in its entirety) in college. Not in the lederhosen class. In a different class, with a different professor. This class was taught by a really lovely professor who told us a story about getting a severe injury when paint spattered into his eye. He told us how he made up a ritual which included a handmade styrofoam boat with mascara on it that he sent out to sea in order to save his eye. (It worked.)

The metaphor of the aghori is lovely. He is an acetic who lives in the cremation grounds. He rubs his face with the ashes of the dead, drinks and eats from a bowl made from a skull, smokes copious amounts of marijuana, and eats flesh fresh off the funeral pyre. I can’t say it better than Jones:

Aghora (literally, “non-terrifying”) is the spiritual path that seeks to negate all that is ghora (“terrible, terrifying”) in life. The ghoraencompasses all those experiences that most people find intolerable, for almost everyone is as ready to enjoy life’s pleasures as they are to avoid misery. Most spiritual advisers admonish their devotees to shy away from the ghora, but aghoris (practitioners of Aghora) embrace the ghora fervidly, for what most terrifies an aghori is the prospect of becoming mired in duality. Aghoris go so far into the ghora that the ghora becomes tolerable to them; diving deeply into darkness, an aghori finally surfaces into light. No means to awakening is too disgusting or frightening for an aghori, for Aghora is the Path of the Shadow of Death, the path that forcibly separates an individual from attachment to every ordinary self-descriptor. (http://jonesthought.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/sadhus-indias-holy-menliving-with-the-dead/)

I used to be afraid to dance. I was terrified of looking foolish. So terrified that I would stand with my hands in my pockets, head bobbing to the music, while my friends let loose and boogied all around me. That sucked. I wanted desperately to be able to let loose too. But I knew that if I did, people would surely think to themselves, what is this lady thinking? She is not cool enough to dance like us! They knew. And I couldn’t prove them right. In hindsight, I remember the feeling: I was mortified with the idea of being vulnerable.

mortify

late 14c., “to kill,” from O.Fr. mortifier, from L.L. mortificare “cause death,” from mortificus “producing death.”). Religious sense of “to subdue the flesh by abstinence and discipline” first attested early 15c. Sense of “humiliate” first recorded 1640s (in mortification).

Sometimes it’s that which shatters us that liberates us. (recent twitter by Marianne Williamson)


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As a part of my religious studies major in college, I took a class called death and dying. I didn’t want to take it, I had to to complete the coursework. The best thing I remember about that class was when I ran into the class professor at a PRIDE parade and he was wearing nothing but lederhosen and combat boots.

What’s my point? Summed up in a quick quills quote from Cemetery Stories by Katherine Ramsland:

These days, funeral directors take great pains to protect the public from seeing how disturbing the various stages of death can be. They take a corpse behind closed doors to make it presentable for viewing and burial.

I did not want to take a class to learn about death and dying. Who wants to learn about that? Weirdos, that’s who.

For many of us, death represents pain and decrepitness. We spend billions of dollars a year (or something like that) on pain killers (including prescriptions, television and video games) and mood menders (including prescriptions, french fries and Krispy Kremes ©) (I’ve been wanting to use that symbol a lot. I’m not sure it’s appropriate there, but it shore looks good), in order to avoid feeling pain. However, in some cultures and historical periods, death is/was a normal part of life, viewed every day.

In the Middle Ages, cities became overpopulated and burial grounds quickly reached capacity, and then some. Then epidemics swept through Europe, which only make things worse. Some people were buried in the church floors, but others were tossed onto trash heaps or stacked against a church building. At that time cremation was banned, so there was nothing to be done but let these bodies lie around and rot. (from Cemetary Tales by Katherine Ramsland)

My first thought, of course, is about all the bacteria and deadly viral creepies crawling about ye olde Catholic Church Yarde. Ever since that crazy Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovered those “animicules” with his homemade microscope, the world has become increasingly hyper-alert to germs. Antibiotic pills, antimicrobial squirty things, death wipes. (I bought a canister of cleaning wipes the other month and read the small print: do not use around small pets. Seriously.)

I believe the desire to dominate creepy crawlies is a symptom of a desire to dominate death. Other symptoms include: fear of dancing, not taking the good chair when given the choice, uttering the words “I don’t care. What do you want to do?,” automatically blaming other people when bad things happen, and not changing the empty toilet paper roll out for a fresh one.

I also believe that when we were children, we believed that we might actually die if we didn’t do it right. We believed that we could somehow control the outcome of a situation by doing something right. We could make our mom not sad if we could fix the burned dinner. We could make our dad not angry if we mowed the lawn. That sort of thing. And now that we are grown up, we still unconsciously feel like we are going to die if we aren’t perfect because, as my wise old counselor used to say, “It takes our brains a long time to reboot.”

My hope is that reading about dead people, seeing a few dead people, talking to some people who see dead people a lot, and watching some interesting youtube videos will begin to cure me of my fear of death.

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A good friend survived an operation during which a large tumor was removed from her brain. She commented on a blog post that, despite the fact that we all know we are going to die, it’s still very scary to be given a life threatening diagnosis.

I am afraid of dying. I know that I’m afraid of dying because when I feel threatened, my body tries to protect me by enlisting the ye olde fighte or flighte methode of situational dealing (that was supposed to sound olde fashionede like my anciente relatives). If a co-worker (or partner or the garbage man) makes me mad my heart beats fast and my face flushes as the blood rushes out to my limbs so that I can fight or run.

My brain must know on some level that my coworker is not going to attack me physically (although that might make faculty meetings more interesting). So why does my body react physically? Because my brain doesn’t know the difference between an perceived emotional attack and a physical attack. It will react the same way in either situation even though elevated heart and breath rate and a burst of adrenaline will only help me when I’m being stalked by a mountain lion. At a faculty meeting it’s just embarrassing.

I once read an article in a magazine about evolution of humans. It gave a picture of two cave men Og and Ugg (or something like that). Og rushed into a cave to find food, got bitten by a snake, and died. Ugg walked up to the cave carefully and peered inside to see what was there before entering, saw the snake, and lived to sire a happy healthy type A cave baby later on that year. Humanity has been genetically selecting for trepidation for hundreds of thousands of years. People are tetchier than they’ve ever been, says the magazine (can’t remember which magazine it was), and it will only get worse.

fear (n.)
O.E. fær “danger, peril,” from P.Gmc. *færa (cf. O.S. far “ambush,” O.N. far “harm, distress, deception,” Ger. Gefahr “danger”), from PIE base *per- “to try, risk, come over, go through” (perhaps connected with Gk. peira “trial, attempt, experience,” L.periculum “trial, risk, danger”). Sense of “uneasiness caused by possible danger” developed late 12c. The verb is from O.E. færan”terrify, frighten,” originally transitive (sense preserved in archaic I fear me). Sense of “feel fear” is late 14c. (online etymology dictionary–emphasis added by me)

Can I train my mind to not be afraid of death? If I can, would that make me less likely to get all flustered when I feel emotionally threatened? To be continued…

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