Death is an opportunity. When we witness death, whether face to face or our of the corner of our eye, we can start to let go of the belief that anything is permanent or substantial.
Before we come in contact with the Dharma, we may identify death with the passing away of the body; I certainly did, and to some extent, still do. I find our hamster in his little house, bound up with cotton wool; no longer asleep, but unmoving. Or a grandparent, one day baking us fresh bread, the next in hospital, and then gone. Perhaps we’ve contemplated our own deaths; written wills, talked to loved ones about our wishes. Or perhaps we’ve put all this off because we know it will happen a long, long way in the future.
When my husband Tom’s parents died within three and a half years of each other, death moved to the forefront of my experience. I watched his father shrink and fade over weeks; I saw his mother laid out in the Chapel of Rest without warning. The sadness in the faces of bodies of Tom and his brother sinks deep into my own heart. But amongst this sadness, because of this loss, there is great beauty.
Death is beautiful to the extent that we can turn towards it. And so death is synonymous with honesty. Meditating besides David in his last days, and sitting beside the bed in which Bridget died after she was gone, I leaned towards this opening in reality their death had torn. I mostly practised the Metta Bhavana, as I do in my daily practice, and the layers that I often rely on to divide myself, my body, my emotions, from others, started to fade and slip away. As I recall Bridget, I wonder to ‘what’ I am contacting metta in relation to? Where ‘she’ may be? Her body is gone but I still sense her, in my memories and in those she touched. These questions dissolve as the veils between things become very thin. I’m left with a bare witnessing of a richness and beauty, and a gratitude to them for this glimpse of the experience I will have one day.
Since coming into contact with the Dharma, I also bring my contemplation of death into my everyday life; it becomes spiritual death. Most strongly I experience this in relation to my ethical practise, which more and more I understand is inextricably linked with my emotions. My emotions, those of my heart or my heart-mind, are what cue me to look at my actions of body, speech, and mind. That slight constriction of the chest; a furrowing of the forehead; an uneasiness in my gut; all these help me navigate through my reflection on my actions and their impact on others. The humiliation, fear, and uncertainty that arise guide me towards the precepts, and allow me to approach others candidly, with a bare heart. When I am met with the same openness, from my Going for Refuge group, my friends in the Order, my fellow wayfarers training for ordination, my husband, and my family, then I can allow my preconceived notion of what I hold onto or what I am drop away. When I start from a place of metta, a longing to be in line with reality, then I can move through these transitions with confidence. I die and what is reborn is different: less tight and fixed. If I continue to open up to life from this place of confidence and love, then I can meet the death of my habits, my notions and my body without fear. For what is necessary for true spiritual death is great love.