A talk given at EastLake Community Church in Seattle:
I fear that I must be developing a reputation among you. I am graciously invited by your leaders and then proceed to talk on such things as trauma, grief, and alas this morning, death. I promise to never give a talk on taxes! But it’s not my fault. Every serious philosopher, psychotherapist, poet and saint—and that includes all of us here this morning—must at some point come to terms with death.
Or not. But even if “coming to terms” means denying it until the very end—and, yes, we may choose to leave it alone—it will not leave us alone.
You can be a King or a street sweeper but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper.
— Robert Alton Harris
I am aware that we’re in the midst of a series here, leading up to Easter. The thing about Easter is that it’s always preceded by Good Friday. Again, it’s not my fault! I spent almost thirty years presiding at both Good Friday and Easter services in the church. One thing was guaranteed. Easter Sunday would be filled to the rafters. Good people would come with their families to hear, in word and music, the alleluias and the trumpets heralding the triumph of life over death. We had bouncers stationed at the door to prevent Death from making any appearance. We had a hundred bouquets of lilies, overwhelming our senses, ensuring that the stench of death did not disrupt the ecstasy. It’s how everybody wanted it.
Good Friday services, however, not so much. Its minor chords and its story of how an indispensable human being was dispensed with unceremoniously was attended by a mere smattering of the faithful. “O death, where is thy sting? asks Paul. But, if attendance figures are any indication, death still has some sting left in it. Like it, or not, there is no Easter without Good Friday.
This morning, I would like to share with you a few elements of my personal journey with death. Futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil, thinks I’m being defeatist at giving in to death. When Steve Jobs wrote: “Death is one of life’s greatest inventions. It’s life’s greatest change agents”, Kurzweil called it a “deathist” statement. It’s part, says he, of humanity’s rationalization to come to terms with death. His preference is to conquer death, to achieve immortality, which he believes is within our grasp.
When I was in seminary I devoured a book called the Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. It won him a Pulitzer Prize. He didn’t share Kurzweil’s optimism. But neither did he try to rationalize death. In the end, he was defeated by it.
I must have driven my fellow seminarians mad because I was always going on about death. I viewed everything through the lens of our transience, both our coming and our going. Becker pointed out that at both ends of the life cycle, death is our constant companion. In our coming into the world, the birth process itself is a harrowing journey. Still today, we comfort ourselves by believing that as embryos in the womb and in the birth process, we are not sentient beings—we do not feel or intuit anything. This is the predominant consensus still today of the birth industry. This consensus is wrong.
Those brave souls who have done various forms of regression therapy, holotropic breath work, or used psychedelics in a therapeutic setting, will attest to a birth process that is filled with apocalyptic images of bloody battle, near death experiences, and terror at the possibility of dying. Easter, as it is related to the birth process, is the ecstatic experience of light at having survived an epic battle. It was Becker’s observation that the awareness of our mortality is forced into the unconscious so that we are not paralyzed by it. For him, all of civilization is, at bottom, a flight from death: all institutions, technological advancement, art, personal ambition, you name it, these were what he called “immortality projects”. We fashion immortality through our monuments, through our children, our creative projects. Our very lives are flights, says he, of transcendence, away from the unbearable truth of our mortality.
We are alone among creatures in having to contend with the awareness of mortality. My dog, Koa, for example, has never had a single moment of anxiety about this life moving inexorably toward an ending. Maybe that’s the secret of his apparent joy, renewed every morning at the mere site of me! Humans, on the other hand, are saddled with and by the archetype of the Grim Reaper. Deep in the unconscious is the knowledge of the temporary nature of reality. Stuff comes to an end. We come to an end. So, you can tell that I was a lot of fun at a party!
My fascination with Becker blessedly came to an end. I realized that, in the end, his book could aptly be titled The Denial of Life. He trapped himself in a no-win situation. Either you denied death. Or you allowed it into consciousness and were so overwhelmed by it that it shut you down. Humans were mercilessly in bondage to death. After all, according to his theory, even his Pulitzer Prize winning book was an immortality project, ultimately sentenced to insignificance by death. This is one of the glaring inconsistencies with philosophies of despair and meaninglessness. The philosophers of such work, like the French existentialists and the muscular atheists of today write book after book pointing out the inherent purposelessness of the universe—and yet apparently assume that their books are nevertheless worthwhile, purposeful endeavors.
Becker set death as the ultimate context for life. We get to play around in life for a while but ultimately it’s all a tale told by an idiot. All that creativity and life is in the service of death. So, what’s going on here? My take on this privileging death over life, along with philosophies of despair, is that they are in support of unconscious emotional and psychological trauma. The trauma of not being loved leaves us under-resourced to live our lives. When we experience personal obstacles, tragedy, evil and social injustice we default to a strategy that we learned when we were young—hopelessness. We experience depression or anxiety. The unconscious belief and the associated feelings of “I am unlovable” attracts philosophies that legitimize our depression. Then we create the experiences in life, along with how we interpret these experiences, which prove the belief. I convince myself and others that life really is futile, meaningless and purposeless. It is not until we do some work and understand that the life we’ve created from this early experience of despair is a memory, that we can integrate and enlarge our perspective beyond the thin sliver that despair reveals.
If death itself is no justification for despair, how do we come to terms with it, consciously? Is it possible to turn our mortality into an opportunity for more life? Catholic priest and paleontologist, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, said that the spiritual advance of the universe was from bien etre to plus etre (from well-being to more being). Can awareness of our mortality be in the service of more being?
I don’t know if it’s because I’m 62 and have more life behind me than ahead of me, but Death has been visiting me in my dreams and visions. This is a poem I recently wrote that describes one of these visitations in the form of a dream.
The Lord of Death riding an elephant
tells me to return to my village.
The Lord of Life, riding his own elephant is silent.
(Speak up, man!)
They say a dream of riding an elephant
is a sign of mastery over one’s life.
To face death without denial, maybe this is mastery.
Death has been intruding lately,
its grey, hulking presence
shaking the ground beneath my feet
as I sip tea looking out the window
marvelling at a budding vine,
or holding my beloved in the theatre,
weeping at the thought of leaving her behind one day.
It’s true, the original elephant in the room
is coming for me,
Big ears waving, feet pounding, trunk swinging,
every step real and heavy,
What’s to be done,
except hitch a ride
and ask to be taken to this elusive village,
for the purpose, I presume,
to lay my bones down
and find those who will honour my memory.
Take me home, then,
but not before my heart has exploded a few more times
for love of budding life and my sweet, sweet beloved.
The Lord of Death riding an elephant! I woke up in the morning and googled Lord of Death riding an elephant, thinking that this must be some ancient archetypal symbol. I could only find one reference and that was to a cartoon series called Hell Boy. It became a feature film. Sure enough, there was the artist’s rendering of Death riding an elephant! I had never read the series or seen the film.
There was no denying it. He was coming for me! His words to me, “return to your village” baffled me until I started writing the poem. As I wrote, tears fill my eyes. It became clear that I was being told to find and move to the land and the people where I intended to be buried.
Stuff like this has been happening to me lately: I’m sitting in the theatre with my wife, Mia. I’m holding her in my arms, and I’m overcome by the realization that I’m going to be leaving her. She is younger than me and so it’s very possible that I will die before her. I began to weep for love of my beloved. Or I’m sitting there having a cup of tea and the beauty of the force of life that is manifesting in a budding vine overwhelms me with its beauty and truth. This is how it comes to me: I’m going about my life and then it comes to me that I’m going to die. This living is a time-limited offer.
But this isn’t an intellectual exercise. I say to myself: “No really, I’m going to die. This is no joke. It’s all going to end. I’m going to end.” And then there is a deepening. The life around me registers a little more deeply. We’ve been told not to sweat the small stuff and that it’s all small. But now I see why we all sweat the small stuff. Every worry we’ve ever had is centered on the feeling that we’re not okay. Dig a little deeper and this all amounts to fear that our very survival is at stake. If, at these moments, we could allow our fear to carry us down stream, we would come face to face with the Lord of Death. We might discover that none of this need be morbid.
In my dream, I wasn’t frightened. I felt more alive than ever. And this is the thing about death. Treating it intellectually can scare the crap out of you. It can send you running to the hills, or to your TV screen, or to the bar or the local cannabis dispensary, anywhere other than right here and now. The secret seems to be willing to face it and feel it. Death then becomes a portal into increased intensity of life. By “intensity” I mean a grasping of the absolute value and mystery of life. By feeling the approach of death, and not turning away death becomes an agent of wisdom. Death instructed me, for example, to find my village.
This is why I’ve given the rest of my life, however much there is left of it, to being a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy is simple in its intent: create a space in which people’s heart can open to the gift and intensity of life, so that they can feel it before they die. Mythologist, Joseph Campbell, has written: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
We’re more likely to feel the rapture of being alive if we realize that it’s all going to end. Instead we close our hearts. The reason we close our hearts in the first place is because we formed an early belief that we cannot open our hearts and live. And it was true when we first experienced failures of love. But then we carry that belief into adulthood and we stop feeling life. Unconsciously, we still believe that we can’t feel life. But it’s a lie. Here’s the trick. If you really open to life, to its beauty and absolute value and feel this is in your heart, the next thing you might feel is sadness because it’s all so fleeting. It comes and then goes. But then feel the sadness, and the life you have actually starts to brighten. It becomes more real. The intensity increases. And then your heart breaks again. And then you have more room, a bigger heart, to feel even more beauty.
The mystic poet William Blake captured the secret of this rhythm in a couple of lines:
He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy. He who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”
To kiss the joy as it flies requires accepting death. Kissing a joy that will always fly from us is a competency, a life skill, that is a preparation for death. Nothing lasts. Let the joy and the beauty break your heart as it flies away. In doing so you grow a bigger heart that can take in even more life. “Joy and sorrow are woven fine A clothing for the soul divine… But if we’ve learned to not feel deeply because of trauma, we will have been robbed of this holy rhythm. This is one of the reasons that it is so important to heal from trauma.
If you haven’t seen the 1986 German film, Wings of Desire, I recommend it. The story is about invisible, immortal angels who inhabit Berlin, before the demolition of the wall. Despite being a highly populated city, the angels see how much loneliness and despair is present. They come to comfort the lonely in times of despair. One of the angels falls in love with a mortal, a trapeze artist in the circus. So great is his love that he decides to relinquish his wings and his immortality so that he can experience sensuality, something denied to angels. He wants to know the feel of skin on skin, the smell of hyacinth and wisteria, the taste of coffee in the morning, the pangs of sorrow. The beauty of the film is that it reminds of what we have as humans, if our hearts our open to feeling it. If our hearts our open to feeling it, despite its temporary nature, despite—or because—it’s all coming to an end.
Last time I had the privilege of being with you I spoke about some visions that came to me. At the time I was on a mountain, living in a tent for a week and fasting. I mentioned that my teacher or spirit guide was an Amazonian plant. Toward the end of the week, it was time for the death lesson. In the first vision, I came upon a table that was set for feast. I was excited by the idea of a dinner party and so looked around for my name on the table settings. I couldn’t find my name anywhere, and then I noticed that on every place mat there a heading that read: In Memory of Bruce Sanguin! I was attending my funeral.
Then came the next vision. I was deep in the forest and noticed a huge Douglas Fir lying on its side. I captured it in a poem.
In a vision a dead, Douglas Fir lying on its side
stretched out 50 meters, rises up,
a coniferous resurrection.
Except, I was to learn that in the forest nothing is truly dead.
The spirit lives on in the giving of life:
sprigs of cedar, salal, mushrooms and moss
living off the offering of her corrugated body.
This towering brown spirit curls her finger at me,
beckoning me to disappear in her roots and bark.
I guess I could have resisted her allure
but it never occurred to me.
In conjugal union she lays down with me.
There, in her body and soul
she shows me what it feels like
to make an offering of one’s life—
all that is required is a vanishing
into the great offering that is the universe,
to die, and so to discover,
in the dignity of dissolution,
the ecstasy of Easter.
I’m accustomed to calling a tree that is lying on the earth “dead”. But the Douglas fir pointed out my error. The tree showed me that what we call a “dead” tree is not dead. The spirit of the tree never dies, and the body becomes a source of nourishment for the life of others. A friend told me over dinner the other night that there are now mycelium suits (mushrooms) that you can be adorned with when the body dies, to help you journey back to the earth. I like this.
In the modern age we identify with the body. We are this flesh and blood and network of nerves. And, of course, it is true. We are our bodies. But we are more than our physical bodies. Pre-modern people intuitively grasped or even experienced it. The Hindu name for these bodies is koshas. There is the physical body, the mental body (of the mind and the vital energies). There is a causal body that defies time and space. These two bodies don’t dissolve at death. The apostle Paul speaks of the physical body, that dies and goes back into the ground, and a spiritual body—claiming, with other faiths, that this is the body that is resurrected.
I was being shown in my dream that it was the physical body of the Douglas Fir that was decomposing, but the spiritual body was very much alive, and beckoning me to lie down with him—presumably to show me that even this physical death was a source of life for forest life.
To summarize what the Lord of Death has taught me:
1. It’s a mistake to pit life against death. They are not enemies or opposites. Life and Death are aspects of the Great Mystery manifesting in time and space. Because life is absolute, death is part of the life cycle, not its opposite.
2. Death is a great reminder that we are not in control. In accepting this, our ego is surrendered, we give up trying to control everything and everybody, including our own life. In this surrender, we identify more with the Great Mystery than with our survivalist ego.
3. As Jesus taught, this death to the fear-based ego is the source of life. Unless a seed falls into the ground, and dies, it cannot give life. So it is with our own lives. Death is not the enemy, it is a portal into abundance.
4. By denying death, we deny life. We rob ourselves of intensity—of knowing the absolute value of life. Its absolute value is revealed when we realize that it is not forever. We can only feel the magnificence of life if we are willing to feel our own mortal limits—the ultimate emblem of which is death.
5. Life is a rehearsal for death. Death teaches us to let go. In dying we shed everything we thought mattered. It is the great purge. We discover what really matters. My sense is that what we are left with is the Heart. We discover the truth of the affirmation: “I am in my heart”. And so life is meant to be a dying to all that stands in the way of the heart.
6. One of the most important things we can do with our life is to find our village, our people, and the land that will receive us at death. I am still coming to terms with what this means, but I feel compelled to find the land that will receive my bones. Our village, I suspect, includes the living and the dead—our ancestors.
7. Time, not money, is the currency of our lives. How we spend it is the measure of our wealth. When the Lord of Death approaches, with its time-limited offer, these are a few questions I am asked to answer: a. Who do you choose to spend time with? You will have your own answer, but currently mine is, only those who respect me and respect life. I will indulge no others and that includes family. b. How much time do I want to spend living someone else’s life—the life that society, or my parents, or my trauma self tells me I should or must be living? Death reminds that I’m here to find my own unique and unrepeatable life. c. How much time do I want to spend feeling and behaving as if I am unlovable, unworthy, too much, not enough, etc.? These feelings and behaviors are the result of being shamed and they are voracious. They will gladly consume all of our life currency. d. When will I finally and unambiguously commit to being in my heart, no matter what the circumstances? When I am in my heart I become a font of life for all creation, because I am in the Creator. I become, with the spirit of the dying Douglas fir, a creator, in life and in death.
8. Finally, we don’t have to “achieve” immortality, by defeating death, a la Kurzweil. Immortality is a given, if we’ll just learn to die, again and again, and ultimately to our physical bodies.