Archive | August, 2013

“Death is a Force that Gives us Meaning”

21 Aug

Deep in the high desert of southwestern Tibet sits the lone peak of Mount Kailash. Along the footpath that pilgrims walk around the base of Kailash lies the ritual death ground of Siwastal. Pilgrims come to Siwastal to contemplate and enact death before completing their journey around the mountain. On my first walk around Kailash in 2004, I was mildly intrigued by the piles of clothing left behind by pilgrims who had slept on the rocks and shed their worldly possessions. On my second walk in 2006, I was a bit more intrigued by the fact that this 17,000 foot high, living graveyard was still being used. I noticed other things like bones and shoes and the stark gray of rock and ice that seemed to say, “You too will pass.”

Little did I know then. It was five years later that I would encounter death in a way that would rip me open to fears and terrors that were previously tucked away. And how little do I know now, which is why exploring death is so important to me.

In his book, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes that “Even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” When I saw him speak back in 2002, this former war journalist had a cold, almost resigned air to him. And although I had difficulty connecting with him because of this, I understood his message to us – it was a message cloaked in shadow and obscured by the icy entrails of the more destructive side of our nature. Death lurks around every corner of our conscious and unconscious minds, and our encounters with it have the power to help us fulfill our human potential. But our society does little to support us in our encounters with death. In fact, our tendency to suppress death, nominate it to distant war zones, or otherwise box it into funerals and graveyards forces us to live with the low hum of impending nonexistence.

North American society appears to lack a conscious confrontation of death. And it is no secret that we avoid speaking about death, let alone confronting it in ourselves. Often, when we speak of or witness death, we do so in the sensation of news reports and courtroom drama, or in war. The sub-populations that come closest to confronting death ritualistically – the men and women who serve in the armed forces – confront death in an absurdity of modern warfare, often returning home not with palpable wisdom and a message about death, but with an internal chaos and non-integrated knowledge of ultimate demise.

Mary Pipher, a renowned clinical psychologist who has recently written about our conscious evasion of environmental disaster in The Green Boat, speaks to people about humanity’s grief over loss; in this case, she is speaking about loss of a healthy world ecology. I look deeply into this grief. Like Chris Hedges, she is speaking to something deeper in our society, the tendency to avoid not just negative feelings, but the ultimate fear of collective and individual death. Through the voice of our media and political infrastructure, we have developed an unrivaled institutional avoidance of death. And as our avoidance of death and all the fears surrounding death may lead us to experience it through unhealthy rituals of war and evening news violence, so does our institutional avoidance of death promote the clamoring fervor of material wealth to the detriment of our world’s ecological equilibrium.

When we avoid death, our flailing and costly attempts to live grow out of control. And we suffer. I know this personally. Since the death of my father, I have flailed and spurted, searching externally for the feeling of walking on solid ground. I have crashed and burned and taken people with me. And every once in a while, I have faced his death head on. And in his death I see my own. In those moments of clarity, of tears and honesty, I have felt more alive, more centered, more real. In those moments, I have seen the suffering of others, especially those close to me, and I have loved them even more and hurt them less.

Death needs a reinvigoration movement. There is nothing more life-giving than an honest, face-to-face conversation with death – a conversation in which we listen carefully to the silence and stillness that death gives us. In this conversation we will meet with terror and demons, mostly our own. But the outcome of this conversation is our ultimate triumph, our evolution as a species. Just think of what might happen if the fathers of war all meditated on their own demise, or if investors in natural resource extraction had a conversation with their own death and the collective death of us all. Perhaps there would be peace in the knowledge that we will ultimately die, but also an invigorated effort to live a balanced life. Life and death are impossible without each other; one reminds us that the other is sacred.

This all starts with you and me. I encourage you to meditate upon death – yours and others’.  This is a necessary part of our effort to confront all the material and nonmaterial problems of our world – environmental, political, and spiritual. It is an ancient covenant shared across traditions by pilgrims to Kailash, Mecca, and Jerusalem. It is a covenant that we should take comfort in.  Our conversation with death releases us into life, allowing that we may all say we are fully living.  In the next few days, I encourage you to watch the way death manifests in your environment. Notice what stirs inside you, and move toward that stirring. I assure you that I will be doing the same, and am perennially curious to know what your conversations with death may bring.

-Max Woodfin

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