The boundaries which divide life from death
are at best shadowy and vague,
Who shall say where the one ends
and where the other begins?
– Edgar Allen Poe
The practice of Mindfulness and the experience of death are intimately linked. We may be using our practice to find a safe place to hide from emotion, discomfort and fear, but actually every time we sit with our breath and body, we are edging nearer to a much needed confrontation with the fact of our own mortality.
We cannot escape death because we cannot escape ourselves.
In fact, we could say that Mindfulness is the practice of familiarising ourselves with death and loss in each and every moment.
The death of each moment, the death of each thought, emotion, situation, breath, sensation or state of mind. We experience loss in every single moment without exception. We may not experience the physical death of a loved one in every moment, but we certainly experience the loss of how they are in each particular moment, which is never repeated exactly.
Of course, paying attention to this constant falling away of experience is transformational when brought into full awareness: if everything passes away in each moment, then how can we – or life itself for that matter – ever get stuck?
Through an awareness of our own transience we may discover that death is not what we had thought. It is not a one-time event waiting for us “out there” somewhere in the future. In fact, we have only ever known death. Everything we have ever experienced passed away the moment it arose. There is only this “dying;” the ceaseless falling away of phenomena, moment after moment.
This is a moment of death, right now. We die as much as we live, we disappear as much as we spontaneously appear.
We are both the phoenix and the ashes.
The verifiable fact of your own moment to moment vanishing has profound implications. It means that you cannot be the same as your thoughts, emotions, sensations, experiences or states of mind, because they pass away in every second.
Can you fundamentally be the same as something which has gone? Are you, here and now, equatable to something which has disappeared?
For me, the term “Stream of Consciousness” refers to something more than the mind-stream of thoughts, beliefs, memories and imagination. Our stream of consciousness is everything we are aware of in every moment.
So, there is the mind-stream, the sight-stream, the sound-stream, the smell-stream, the taste-stream and the touch-stream. These all flow together as one apparently seamless river of experience we call “me.”
Which part of this stream can you isolate? Which part of this effervescent flow can you grasp in your hands? Try it now: stop this moment, pause the experience of yourself, freeze life right now.
It’s impossible because this stream of consciousness is ungraspable, transparent, dream-like and empty of solidity. Even a diamond, which is the hardest substance we know of, is actually 99.99999999999999% empty space.
Our so called reality is never “real.”
In fact everything is more non-existent than existent. Just consider this very moment: it has not existed for 13.8 billion years and then spontaneously appears for an instant, only to die back into the non-existence it sprang from.
Similarly, you have not existed for 13.8 billion years, and now here you are. You will exist until your physical death and then return to your original state of non-existence.
Life is so short in comparison to non-existence. What makes us believe that we are the flash of consciousness, rather than the eternal oblivion which engulfs it?
Going further, we might even say that there is only oblivion, flickering, as this.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”, wrote Shakespeare, “and our little lives are rounded by a sleep”.
And yet how fresh, rich and textured is this dream? This spark of aliveness? This ungraspable shadow play? How beautiful, mysterious and magical is this thing we call life?
By observing this stream of consciousness pass away before our very eyes we begin to realise that it is not fundamentally who and what we are. We disentangle ourselves from the flow of body-mind and cease habitually identifying with the fizz of experience.
Without trying to stop the body-mind or fight against it, we step back from it, allowing it to unfold in each moment, resting as what Zen Master Bankei referred to as the “Unborn.”
“Deep down, fundamentally, we are the Unborn. We never came into being and we never go out of being. All these comings and goings are just pulses in the pattern.”
Existence is just existence, it’s a spontaneous flow. We are what existencehappens to, happens within.
Life – which is only experience – is a passing show, dream-like, magical, often marvellous, but essentially empty of substance. Life is weather, passing though a vast and boundless sky.
We – if we can assert that we are anything – are the substance, the ground, the source. We are never really born, but remain essentially unborn, already free, already fulfilled, whole and complete.
From this unborn ground springs forth each moment of life, each moment of mind, body, self and others, world and universe. Everything is woven from this unborn emptiness and dissolves back into it.
Yet we identify with the very things we are not: mind and body, thoughts and emotions, experiences and situations. It’s no wonder that we live in fear when the very things we cling to are dying in each moment.
But actually, suffering, fear and misery only arise when we hold tight to our unexamined assumption that we must be someone and something. But which part of the passing away could we be?
Non-existence has no complaints.
It’s our real home, it’s our true essence. What we seek is only the realisation that here and now is just a firework, it cannot be labelled as who and what you are. You cannot find yourself in it.
For, as the fierce sage Nisargadatta Maharaj instructed seekers towards the end of his life from throat cancer, “What were you before you were born? Be That.”