Fear and The Great Mystery

9 Dec

By Max Woodfin

In my last public writing, I mentioned books that corresponded with my thoughts. I will continue to do this occasionally, including here and now: Last night I fell asleep just as I finished the final chapter of Ian Baker’s The Heart of the World. When I awoke, this happened:

This morning, in attempt to create warmth while the outside air dropped to a daunting -10, I brazenly stepped outside with less clothing on than would sustain a typical human for ten minutes. My hands, unarmed, quickly drew in the cold, and my body responded to the signal with a slight sensation of panic. I gathered an armful of wood and made my way back to the door. Despite the knowledge that the warmth of my home was only thirty feet away, something in my body’s core of wisdom told me to be at least mildly afraid of impending death. This experience is very familiar to me because, as I now realize it, I have spent much of my life playing the game of encountering death. And somehow I suspect that I am not the only one.

I have endured many adventures of remote solitude in my short lifetime. When I think back on the first thirty years of my life, I see that I spent almost half of those years journeying into lands that many would consider formidable. I sought solitude in Southeast Asia’s remote forest monasteries; I pursued meaning in the conflict-ridden borderlands of Burma, Kashmir, and Laos; I walked off of roads in eastern Tibet and into mountainscapes that lie between the lands mapped to the outside world.  I have endeavored through numerous retreats, vision quests, and rites of passage in my life; and since my youth I have planned and executed many a solo journey into deserts, mountains, and forests.

But despite everywhere I have been and all the experience of survival I have endured, I am still utterly frightened of silence and space.  The more I lean into my fear, the more I understand what it is about. Death. And the more I understand that it is about death, the less I understand what it is really about. I am holding two seemingly irreconcilable motives. I seem to be cradling the child who seeks the comfort of the womb, and I am encouraging the child who first stood in the woods behind his home and uttered the words, “I am me.”

You might say that my experience of silence, space, and solitude is dualistic.  On one hand, my natural tendency toward introversion guides me away from what I perceive as superficial chatter and into the quiet and pure lands of solo being. I wander through silent forests, relish in boating on North America’s western rivers, and find the divine in waking up alone to the morning sun. It has only been 16 hours since I last looked upon another human, but these 16 hours have been a gift. In this very moment my world feels wide open, and I know it is because I have finally stepped away from society’s frenetic chatter.

On the other hand, my tendency as a social creature is to feel some discomfort and loneliness when I encounter silence, space, and solitude.  When I walked outside on this cold morning, my sense of panic was not just simply that I could die out there while gathering wood; it was actually a deep sense of loneliness – that my journey toward the great divine might ultimately entail a severance from what I perceive as connection. That I could die alone.

I have no hard beliefs, but rather have amassed some clues that death itself, or experience with death, is a doorway to some manifestation of ultimate reality. But the initial experience of death is harsh to our habituated comforts. When we lose someone we love, it is a drastic, traumatizing severance. The trauma lives on in the body long after we have found some sort of intellectual reconciliation. Every ensuing encounter with death provokes this trauma. My encounter with the cold; any time I climb mountains and feel the fear of impending, spacious falling; swimming in cold water; the moment a car skids out in front of me on an icy patch: These are the moments that kick in those feelings of severance and remind me that I have a bigger journey in front of me. Bigger than my career, bigger than building my social network, bigger than raising a family, and bigger than recounting my past successes. Yet all of these “accomplishments” are important worldly attempts to begin this passage into the unknown.

As I see it, we fill up our lives with events, materials, and other indications of outward importance as a way of avoiding our impending encounters with death. Death is with us always, and most of my heroes – perhaps most of your heroes – are those who have learned ways to accept our impending passage fully. As we remember those who fought to make our lives fuller, we might remember that they accepted death. Consider the contemporary likes of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. And then consider their historical predecessors: Christ, Buddha, Mohammed. Death was on their tongue, and so was life. The most dead I feel is when I indulge in the mundane material. The most alive I feel is when I walk in from the fearsome cold with an armful of wood and begin to build a fire. Life slowly warms back into my body, and I once again feel myself perched on the edge of some sort of deeper knowing.

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2 Responses to “Fear and The Great Mystery”

  1. Ben Bean December 11, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    I appreciate your thoughts, as always, Max. I wish I had time to write more. Maybe in my upcoming short break from grad courses, I can get back to work on my own blog.

    But I just wanted to share that I have had a relatively new fear of death ever since a near fatal car accident a couple of years ago. It’s not a crippling fear, but I think it comes from the unconsciousness I experienced in the seconds or minutes between when I crashed and when I woke up. It’s not a fear of dying before I’ve accomplished something meaningful, although now that I’m about to get married and maybe have kids in the next few years, I am certainly thinking about what sort of meaningful impact I might have on my new family. I think the fear mostly comes from that moment in which I might as well have been dead — no dreams, no ability to reach out and tell anyone that I loved them or that I was sorry for whatever I might need to be sorry for. I think that’s my main fear, maybe my only real fear of death: not being able to reach out to anyone when I’m gone.

    But that just makes me appreciate my ability to connect with people now, while I have a body and a voice. Not only that, but I can continue to reach people after I’m gone, if that meaningful impact I’m hoping to make is truly meaningful. Therein lies the ability to do something completely selfless: knowing that the positive impact we make will continue to serve others even when we’re not around to feel good about our legacy.

    • sukhophet December 11, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

      Ben,
      I often think about the concept of being able to reach others through death. I recall the many dreams I have had of my father and how he has morphed — in my dreamworld — from a man struggling to find his place after life, to a sage and guide for me. Whether this transformation is simply a projection of my own subconscious or a reflection of his greater metaphysical journey (or both), I really do not know. But it is powerful. And I agree, the gifts you give in your life will certainly continue to give once you are gone. And you, my friend, have given great gifts and I am sure will continue on this path.

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