The Spring Equinox is the perfect time to contemplate the cycle of life -- death and rebirth -- and the ways it touches our lives. This cycle is seen all around us, in the life cycle of stars, trees, people, nations, civilizations, our physical bodies-- even in the inevitable cycles of gain or loss of an individual. There are times of growth and times of disintegration, which make way for new things to come. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle) Inherent in these cycles are change and impermanence, which can strike fear in our hearts if we let them, but resistance to death and rebirth is futile, as it is the nature of all things.
“We can begin our path to acceptance of the cycle of death and rebirth by recognizing that it is not true that the up cycle is good and the down cycle is bad. This is a construct of the mind. Growth is usually considered positive, but nothing can grow forever. If growth, of whatever kind, was to go on and on, it would eventually become monstrous and destructive. Dissolution is needed for new growth to happen. One cannot exist without the other. The down cycle is also necessary for spiritual realization. You must have failed deeply on some level or experienced some deep pain or loss to be drawn to the spiritual dimension. Failure lies in every success and success in every failure.” (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle)
Surrender is the magic ingredient. Whenever any kind of disaster strikes or something goes seriously “wrong” -- an illness, a break-up, a disappointment, things not going as planned -- know that there is another side to it. Contained in each of your struggles is an opportunity -- for growth, for learning, for your path to lead you in a direction you had not anticipated, for a new you. The opportunity is called “surrender.” This catharsis, this transformation will not always be easy. They are called “growing pains” for a reason. However, on the other side of any great rite of passage is a chance for living more deeply, which makes it all worthwhile. When you survive the challenges of a rite of passage, you learn that you are indestructible. Any rite of passage is precipitated by an act of surrender. You have two chances to surrender. “The first chance is to accept what is happening fully, release your resistance. If that is not possible, your second chance at surrender is to accept what is inside. This means: do not resist the pain. Allow it to be there. Witness it without labeling it mentally. Embrace it. Then see how the miracle of surrender transmutes deep suffering into deep peace. This is your crucifixion. Let it become your resurrection and ascension.” (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now)
We cannot know death until it is happening to us. However, we can reconnoiter the territory. We can investigate the many little deaths and births we experience in daily life, exploring loss, change and impermanence.
“All of these things you will have to relinquish sooner or later. Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to “die before you die” - and find that there is no death.” - Joseph Campbell
Here are some ways to get comfortable with the cycle of life and death, whether it be our own, or helping someone else through a right of passage or a loss:
Surrender to the little deaths. The acceptance of suffering is a journey into death. Each time we experience a loss or experience pain, we have the opportunity to bring awareness to the experience and face these little deaths consciously. The more often we navigate the “little deaths,” and live to tell the story, we realize that there is nothing to fear. Only the ego dies. “Like a ray of sunlight that has forgotten it is an inseparable part of the sun and deludes itself into believing it has to fight for survival and create and cling to an identity other than the sun.” (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle) “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” - Pema Chodron We have all experienced little deaths: We all have had to give up something we loved, sacrificed cherished plans or dreams, and felt grief and loss. So we have all already experienced impermanence, which is just another form of dying. Socrates said “True philosophers make death and dying their profession.” The qualities that help us deal with the transition of death, can help us deal with our life transitions as well, such as compassion, joy, and non-attachment. These qualities give us the resilience to face and possibly transform suffering. If we start training ourselves to observe the changing nature of our everyday situations, stay connected to source, and practice releasing expectations, we can be on our way to freedom from suffering.
Surrender to our Physical Cycles. As we all know, our physical energy has highs and lows. We have periods where we feel great and are highly productive, and other times when we are low energy and lack motivation to get things done. Many illnesses are created through fighting against the cycles of low energy, which are vital for regeneration. If we refuse to slow down, our body, as a self-protective measure, will create an illness in order to force us to stop so that necessary regeneration can take place. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle) As long as we define our self-worth by our productivity, we will have difficulty honoring our low energy cycles, which are not only a natural part of life, but a chance to re-group and find the space for inspiration to happen. In times of illness, our natural reaction is to resist the illness, to label the condition, and to obsess about the things we will miss, or the things we can’t do. We add stress to our already strained body by worrying about missing work, not fulfilling our familial duties, or letting people down. By focusing on this instant and refraining from labeling it mentally, illness is reduced to one or several of these factors: physical pain, weakness, discomfort or disability. That is what you surrender to, not the idea of the illness. When you cease fighting what is, and accept the moment fully, you no longer feed your own suffering. When we blame ourselves for being ill, feeling as if we have failed in some way, or if we blame life for treating us unfairly, we are resisting what is and feeding the illness. Practice intense present-moment awareness and see what happens. The condition labelled “illness” has nothing to do with who you truly are.
Look at your Attitude Towards Death. The truth is, we are all dying. There is no life without death. We can become aware of the stories we tell ourselves about death and start to unpack these stories in order to discover what is at the heart of them. For example, if we tell ourselves the story that death is a tragedy and a defeat, this will color our experience of dying or our relationship with dying people. “If our culture were to recognize that life and death are inseparable, our approach to both might be different. For one thing, we wouldn’t be in denial, suffering collective grief and anxiety over the constant losses and changes we experience in life. Change inherently includes going toward one possibility and closing the door on others.” (Being with Dying by Joan Halifax) In making peace with dying, we might decide to try and have a “good death.” Having expectations about any big transitions in our lives can put unbearable pressure on us or others, and take us away from death’s mystery and the richness of not knowing. We also might be drawn in by the idea of “death with dignity,” but like so many of life’s great rights of passage, death is not always dignified. Even though death can be messy, confusing, and nothing like what we planned, old age, sickness and death do not have to be equated with suffering. We can live and practice in such a way that dying is a natural right of passage, a completion of our life, and even the ultimate in liberation. By studying the process of how to die well, we can learn how to live well. Life and death lie along the same continuum. The sooner we can embrace death, the more time we have to live completely and to live in reality.
Face our Fear of Death. Perhaps death and the fear of death is truly the greatest challenge to joy. We may fear death, and the loss of self, but we likely also fear the process of dying. In our culture, we avoid our fear of death by keeping distance between us and old age, sickness and death. The fear of death- annihilation, loss -- underlies all our other fears. For example, “even such a trivial and “normal” thing as the compulsive need to be right in an argument and make the other person wrong - defending the mental position with which you have identified - is due to the fear of death. If you identify with a mental position and then accept that you are wrong, your mind-based sense of self is seriously threatened with annihilation. Once you have disidentify from your mind, whether you are right or wrong makes no difference to your sense of self at all. Your sense of self is then derived from a deeper and truer place within yourself, not from the mind.” (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now)
Look to the Myths. Human beings might be unique among all species in that we are aware of our own mortality. Evidence of this is found throughout history. If we look to the archeological record of human history, we see that humans have been grappling with death from the very beginning. Neolithic gravesites and cave paintings of Paleolithic peoples capture images of death and birth. As early as 250,000-50,000 BCE there is evidence of people being buried as if they were going somewhere, supplied with tools, jewels and special belongings. Humans began to contemplate life after death and to develop stories, myths, to explain what we couldn’t see. (Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth). Somewhere along the way our culture got stuck in the metaphor, and missed the real message of these stories. Myths help us through the stages of life --coming into maturity and aging. They tell us how others have made these passages and found the beauty in these passages. Myths help us identify with more than just our body. Myths connect us with divine energy -- to die to the flesh and be reborn to the spirit. You can choose to identify with your aging body or with the consciousness for which your body is a vehicle. Joseph Campbell asks, “Am I the bulb that carries the light or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?” (The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell) Myths of death, burial and resurrection help us deal with death and recognize the circle of life. Rituals around death first developed because of hunting. Early humans recognized they were taking a life in order to sustain their own, so created rituals to respect the animal, to honor their sacrifice and send them on to their after-life. This is even reflected in the Catholic ritual of Mass. Christ was crucified, and from his body and blood, the food of the spirit comes. With the development of agrarian societies, a common mythological theme from cultures all over the world was the planting of a body (burial) and a plant growing up. When you cut down a plant or prune a tree, new life grows out of it. Myths reflect the culture they are from, but there are so many commonalities because they all seek to explain the same things -- life and death. (The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell)
Embrace Growing Pains. Joan Halifax, author of Being with Dying, often asked people which concerns them the most about dying -- the “thought of death” or “the thought of being in pain.” At the mention of pain, a hundred hands immediately go up into the air. Pain is a part of being human, there is no way to escape it. We try to escape pain by numbing ourselves with a myriad of addictions -- food, shopping, alcohol, work, keeping busy-- but we won’t be able to avoid it forever. It really helps if we can use our experiences of pain right now to prepare us for what’s ahead. Desmond Tutu points out that childbirth is the perfect metaphor for this type of metamorphosis. Nothing beautiful in the end comes without some measure of pain, some frustration, some suffering. It is the nature of things. (Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams). All of us have had growing pains. Most of us have been through some version of the underworld. We are usually better off having gone through difficulties. We are more robust for the challenges we have faced. Our pain softens us, provides perspective and makes us kinder. This is reflected in the physical world. Living systems become more robust when they break down and then learn how to repair themselves.
Accept Help. We are loath to accept help, even when we really need it. We fear being helpless or dependent, when interdependence is actually the nature of life. If we continually refuse help, we repress our fundamental tenderness towards each other.
Self-care. Self care is not an indulgence, but an absolute necessity when it comes to going through intense transformations, or helping others go through intense transformations. See your limits with compassion. Set up a schedule that is sane. Know what practices and activities refresh you, and make time for them. Develop a plan for doing your work in a way that is mindful, restorative, wholesome and healthy. Without adequate self-care, caregivers can get “compassion fatigue”. When this happens, know that this too is not permanent, and see it as an invitation to slow down and give more attention to your life. (Being with Dying, Joan Halifax)
Don’t add to our suffering unnecessarily. Our lives include both pain and suffering. These could be seen as the “two arrows” -- pain or physical discomfort is the first arrow, and the second arrow is the story around the pain. (Being with Dying, Joan Halifax) Buddha taught that “When touched by a feeling of pain, the ordinary uninstructed person sorrows, grieves and laments, beats his breast and becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental, just as if he was shot with an arrow and, right afterward, was shot with another one, so that he felt the pains of two arrows.” Liberation comes when we realize that the first arrow doesn’t necessarily have to be followed by the other. Science tells us that pain is really made up of non-pain elements. We feel sensations such as duration, intensity and cadence, and our brains do the rest, interpreting these sensations as pain and making up the story that goes along with it. An alternative is to separate from the story line, and stay with the physical sensations of pain, realizing that all sensations ebb and flow. If we can look for the lessons and opportunities for growth which are contained in the pain, and realize that many others have pain like ours too and use it as a source of compassion, then we can navigate pain without adding to our suffering.
Find the lesson. Often it takes an accident, a catastrophic diagnosis or a disaster for us to break open and be able to accept our suffering. We can no longer fight it so we become resolved to face it. We have two choices, we can allow our pain to close us off and harden us, or allow our pain to open us up and soften us. Desmond Tutu tells the story of Nelson Mandela. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years simply because he fought for a cause he believed in. He was full of anger when he was first imprisoned, and understandably so! However through the experience, he became magnanimous, and willing to listen to the other side. He discovered that the people he regarded as his enemy were also human beings that had fears and expectations. They had been molded by their society. Against all odds, he used an unimaginable experience to soften and open his heart. (The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams). Our situations are not likely as extreme, so we can start off small, and practice finding the opportunity in our struggles -- the opportunity for growth.
Every morning when we wake up, every time we move from corpse’s pose to fetal pose at the end of a yoga class, with each new breath, any time we choose-- we can be reborn. You don’t have to wait for tomorrow to start again, you don’t have to suffer from mistakes of the past, regret or resentment. Our choices from before don’t have to be the choices we make now. It’s never too late to embody the rebirth of springtime and experience renewal and new growth. It’s never too late to be born again.
** For further reading on this topic, check out these insightful works which served as the basis for this article: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, Being with Dying by Joan Halifax and the Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell).