Since I lost the function of my left lung a few years ago, and was told that my heart would wear out within three to five years, the reality of "The End" has been close in a way that can only be understood if you have been given a timetable for your own mortality.
A few weeks ago, when I was told that I was essentially "in heart failure," reality again tapped me on the shoulder.
Also in recent weeks, I have had some interesting debates with a devout Christian friend of mine who believes, I suppose, that I will be cast in the lake of fire since I don't believe Jesus was divine. The way I feel about death is probably a foreign concept to a Christian -- just as their beliefs, the beliefs I grew up with, are now foreign to me.
After 40 years of embracing Eastern philosophies, particularly philosophical Taoism, I can only explain how I feel about death in the following paragraphs.
The moment you were born into this life you cried.
So did I. Everyone does. The doctor pulls us into the world and either massages us or slaps us and we let out a wail, already protesting the violence we’re suddenly experiencing.
Perhaps we have a sense that this isn’t going to be easy. If so, we are right. The easy stuff ended the moment we took our first breath and saw light and people around us.
Before that moment, all was peaceful and calm, unless our mothers ate burritos with hot salsa while we were in the womb. From the moment of conception, as we slowly formed inside our mothers, we could hear muffled sounds outside, but we were at peace.
Have you ever thought about the eternity of time that passed before you were born? Have you ever calmed yourself, closed your eyes, and tried to remember what it was like?
For an eternity, all we knew was perfect peace. No pain, no fear of death, no judgment of what is good and bad. No one judged us for what we believe, what we wore, or how much money we earned. We were at one with the universe because we were the universe – part of the same energy that created it all.
When we were born, we had no complaints about where we had been.
And so it must be with death. We will have no complaints when we get there. It is the only concept that makes sense.
Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Before we are born, there is an eternity in which we do not exist. Then we are born and exist for a brief number of years. Then we do not exist for another eternity.
Before birth, we are aware of nothing. It is perfect peace. When we are born, we are aware of everything around us, full of emotions – happiness, fear, love, hate – and we are full of striving and desire.
After we die, we are aware of nothing. It is as if we had never existed. It is perfect peace.
This is not what we want.
Each of us would like to see loved ones on “the other side.” Now that we have tasted life, we want it to continue. But even in the quiet moments of the most religiously devout, the gnawing realization is there, reminding us that this is it. There are no invisible beings watching us, none to take our hands and lead us to Heaven, none to punish us in a lake of fire, and none to sit on a throne and judge us for being human. These are fantasies created by men who want to control others. It is the philosophy of fear.
Eternal peace is a comforting thought, but only if you can get your ego out of the way, the ego that makes us feel that we are special over all other forms of life, that only humans live forever.
When you become enlightened, you are “born again” in a flash of illumination. All the man-made burdens of judgment and shame, guilt and invisible judges vanish. You are born again because on the day you are born, you have none of these concepts. You do not live under the shadow of a threat unless your parents tell you that you do -- the threat of believing their way or receiving eternal torture.
When we free ourselves from these mental and societal chains, we may now enjoy our lives, savoring each moment and each relationship. And when it is time for our lives to end, we have nothing to fear. We have lived good, moral lives full of love. We have done the best we could. We have failed at times, we have been petty and angry and jealous at times, but we have also soared at times. That’s life. The only tragedy is if life ends too quickly. I had a daughter, Shara, who died 33 years ago tomorrow, on October 23, 1980. She was six weeks old. She did not have a chance to experience the joy and pain of life. That is a tragedy.
The night before she died, she grinned so big that her mom and sister and I burst out laughing. A big, toothless grin as I talked to her in baby talk. So perhaps she did experience some joy in her short life.
There is a wonderful quote from Master Po in the Kung Fu TV series. He says, "Learn first how to live. Learn second how not to kill. Learn third how to live with death. Learn fourth....how to die."
I am now in the "living with death" phase of this cycle, but after enduring my daughter's death, it is, in some strange way, familiar territory.
If we are lucky, we reach the end of our lives accepting the reality of death. Perhaps it is best if we live long enough to be ready to die. But regardless, there is nothing to fear and perfect peace to gain. We came into this world crying, and we should all leave this world smiling.
There is nothing to cry about.