Just the mention of death can make us quiver with fear. But do we misunderstand death's meaning?
I stand with my hand poised over the door handle of my car, not remembering exactly how I got here.
The last thing I remember is grabbing my keys and sunglasses from the cluttered shelf above my desk. After that, everything is a blur. I don’t recall the last minute of my life.
I must have walked down the narrow hallway to the lobby, past the small cramped offices on either side. Perhaps I even waved goodbye to a coworker. Then I must have exited through the glass door to the parking lot and walked the 50 feet or so to my car. But I don’t remember a second of it because I was so lost in thought.
I was dreading the rush hour traffic I’d encounter on the way home. I was lecturing myself about how late I was in getting birthday gifts out to my siblings. I was thinking about how I needed to drop a few pounds because my pants were getting snug. That led to thoughts about being younger and thinner and less concerned about what was going to happen the next day or even five minutes from now. The face of an old girlfriend popped up, and then the faces of my old drinking buddies. That triggered memories of brutal hangovers and my days as a smoker, and I wondered if lung cancer was going to eventually put me in the grave.
And now I stand next to my car, wondering what I might have missed in the last minute of my life.
Surely the birds tweeted as they do now, and car doors thumped closed, and freeway traffic groaned half a mile in the distance. And colleagues chatted as they strolled in pairs to their cars, discussing plans for the weekend or letting out nervous bursts laughter to release a day’s worth of pent up stress.
And the clouds crawled in animal shapes across the sky. And the wind parted my hair. And the scent of lilacs washed over me.
But I missed these precious moments of the only life I’ll ever know because my senses were switched off. I was living in another world, the one playing out in my head. Whole chunks of life pass by unnoticed when I am lost in thought.
What is it about the groundless, airless world of thought that is so compelling it can compete for my attention with a flock of honking geese sailing overhead and win?
Why do I drop whatever I’m doing to indulge my racing thoughts as if I were a doctor responding to a life and death emergency?
Because it is a matter of life and death: the death of me – thought-induced me, the whimsical invention of my whirring mental machinery.
When thought ceases, so do I. I die to the molecular world around me: the birds and cars and people and expressways. The trees and buildings and rivers and neon signs. I am the puzzle piece fitting perfectly into those around me. Out an airplane window I am an imperceptible dot in a sprawling, seamless mosaic. In death I awaken to this heavenly perspective at ground level.
And yet I resist this enthralling state of death with all my might. I race back into the arms of thought to keep myself alive, leaving a trail of ellipses in my wake...gaps in time when I lose touch with the world around me...during walks through parking lots…in the course of conversations…while immersed in a Chopin polonaise…in the throes of a kiss.
The thoughts that keep the dream of me alive interrupt the flow of life and defile its beauty. Life appears as a series of vaguely connected vignettes rather than a miraculous whole. By dying to the dream of me, wholeness is restored. I give up the ghost of a sovereign existence.
Is there another death worth pondering?
Is it the demise of my body that makes my knees knock, or is it the death of me, the person I assume lives inside it?
Do I quiver with fear when I imagine myself as a paltry pile of ashes, or does the terror begin when I imagine poor me pitched into nothingness when my eyes close for the last time?
Because I so misunderstood the meaning of death, I avoided it at every turn and as a result avoided setting foot on the only path leading away from a fragmented life. I have since chanced down that path and learned that in death all is not lost, only that which was never real. To die is to awaken from the dream of a separate existence.
And so I die to the dream of "me" every day. With the eye of an assassin, I watch the thoughts skittering through my brain – thoughts that, unobserved, would soon claim my identity. I watch them until they sink back into the silence from which they arose, taking any vestiges of me with them. Over and over I die this sweet death, shedding layers of separation that mask life's unbroken beauty.