We are born with only two fears, of loud noises and falling. Fear of spiders, heights, water, scary movies… whatever, we learn through the multifarious experiences we call life. One of the greatest and most common aspects of life that we learn to be afraid of is dying. Yet the only thing that is certain about life is the fact that, one day, we will die. So perhaps, rightly, we should fear death. Or should we?
I learned this fear really well while growing up, I never wanted to entertain the idea of death at all in my life. Why consider something so abhorrent? But of course the subject keeps raising its ugly head, not prepared to be shunned and ignored. Again and again we have to face it as gradually, over time, we encounter people around us following the ultimate trajectory that signifies the end of a life.
Many, if not most, of us, live our lives as if we will never reach the destined ending. Intellectually we know that it will happen. But we don’t feel it. We haven’t experienced it. A bit like riding a bike. Before we have the actual experience, we know that we sit on the saddle; next we lift one foot off the ground and place it on the pedal (the right one if you are a lefty like me); we push away with the other foot, balancing ourselves, we are off – easy. But, easier said than done. We don’t really know how to do it until we do it.
Well, while not of a similar level of magnitude, this is the same with death. Just as we came into the world breathing, we will leave it again when we stop breathing – obvious. We all know this, but only in the mind, it is not a felt experience. And what we haven’t experienced we don’t truly know. But how to know? Not so straightforward to move from intellectual understanding to visceral knowing of this particular topic! We can’t so easily get up and ride the bike in this case. Death, surely, can only be a one-off experience?
Well, actually, I have discovered, we can know death in life. There is a way to experience it while living. By focusing the mind on minute parts of the body, we can begin to feel the continuous vibrations from the constant dying and renewing process. Trillions of cells that make up the organic mass of our bodies in perpetual, changing motion. We can tune in to the cycle of birth and death that normally goes on unnoticed within us. And oh, how liberating to really know death. When we feel it, we really can begin to live. No longer gripped by this learned fear, life has a new freedom.
Vipassana meditation is a tool that can help us do this. Just as we tamed our fear of lifting that second foot off the ground to pedal freely, we can understand the phenomenon of dying, through experience. A meditation from the Buddhist tradition, Vipassana is taught in dedicated centres across the world. The experience begins with a ten-day silent retreat. Not for the faint-hearted, a typical day begins at 4:30am with a two-hour meditation. From then onwards, meditation throughout the day is interspersed only with breakfast at 6:30am, lunch before midday and an evening discourse. All courses are run by volunteers and are free of charge, though donations are gratefully received to continue the service for all that follow. I have attended two such ten-day courses in England, in Hereford, as well as a three-day course in Suffolk. https://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schdipa
Vipassana inspired me to develop a six-day walking meditation course in ‘The Art of Dying’. I will be offering this free of charge as I walk my way around various parts of Europe over the next few months. If you’d like to join me, I would love to hear from you. And if you don’t get to experience it for yourself yet, I will continue to share my own experiences with you.