There is one show that we are all guaranteed to attend.
I did a couple of plays when I was younger. The process is the same: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, until you fully embody the role you play. Until the actual performance is just another rehearsal, one you get to bow at the end of.
And there is one show that we are all guaranteed to attend. One in which we take center stage. Or center coffin, as it were.
The exact date is unannounced. Over here, it could be any minute. Just the other day a girl around my age was shot in her office in F-8, Islamabad. One minute she was contributing to the community, the next minute she was dead.
Over here, the flavors in which death presents itself are many. Booms, kabooms, ratatatats, illness, accidents, stress. This bothered me initially. In the States it is easy to ignore mortality; the system is effectively designed to make this so. The old and the sickly are shipped off to keep them out of sight. The young ones are kept insanely distracted by flashy rat-races. The big wheel keeps turning, and people can almost forget the one show they are guaranteed to attend.
Not here. Here it’s in my face, poking away at my brain, forcing me to pay it attention. There is no rat-race, unless you subscribe to a career. There is mainly just a pit of people playing out their lives, waiting for death, toying with death, threatening each other with death. Living lives of suppressed and unspoken fear.
It is this last part that didn’t sit well with me. If it is in fact the most inevitable thing a human being can face, then is fear really the most appropriate response? It’s natural of course. As biological entities our primary purpose is survival for as long as possible, for which the fear response to existential threats is a necessary defense mechanism. But given the wonders of the human imagination, and the incredible fuck-yous it has been giving to our basic biology since way back, is it the most appropriate response?
And so began the rehearsals. I’m not sure where the idea came from. I’ll put money on Dr. Steven Covey (RIP). The idea is to ‘die before you die’, as the Buddhists say. To imagine your death in great, excruciating detail. It is uncomfortable initially. It is meant to be. But as with all rehearsals, it gets easier.
The first time I rehearsed I was teary eyed. The next time too. These days, not so much. But through the process profound changes have taken place.
The process, roughly, is this:
Get comfortable and close your eyes. Imagine your funeral in your mind’s eye. In vivid detail. The time of day, the place, the setting. Imagine the people arriving. Imagine your dead body being brought in. Imagine the people settling down. The mood of the place. Imagine your loved ones, grieving. How many people are there? What are they sitting on? What smell fills the place?
The funeral starts. Imagine the molvi saying prayers for you. Imagine the people you care about. What are they saying about you? How do they remember you? What regrets do they have about you? How does your memory live on, on this rock in the depths of space?
Imagine them burying your body. Imagine all the people standing around your grave. Imagine the tombstone that is put up.
Imagine them leaving one by one. Imagine your grave out there, alone. Within it, bones .Yet the memory of you lingers on in the hearts of those you touched.
Much like light shines bright only because of the darkness around it, life is that much more wonderful only through the contemplation of death. Every moment, every breath, every incident, is perfect just as it is. Every event, every occurrence, every joy, every sorrow, is exactly as it is meant to be. Since death doesn’t have that tight a hold anymore, I am now free to actually live. ’Important and unimportant’ are now realigned with the one absolute in this life. How I choose to spend each day as well. Compromise can go fuck itself. Making do too. It is all or nothing anymore. This makes people uncomfortable. But the only real thing that matters is being absolutely true to myself. The second most important thing is making an offering, or two, or ten, for the benefit of my species. But this is secondary.
This is a morbid topic, and one people are not comfortable openly talking about. We talk about death as though it is something unnatural and unholy. We talk about it indirectly, through news items and statistics and horror movies. “Tsk tsk” usually accompanies these discussions, or “OMG how scary!”. It is painted as something grisly, evil. Grim reaper evil. Each death we hear about makes us sad. Because we suddenly remember something we had been trying ever so hard to forget. This is all part of what it means to be human.
Yet if you dig deep enough, it is the most natural thing in the world. It is just a different side of the same coin. Peeling away the layers, and seeing it for what it is, has made me see life for what it is too. Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink, says Shunryu Suzuki. So we may as well enjoy the ride.
Suppressing the fear of death is a fool’s errand. The fear exists, and it will keep manifesting in different areas of life. Most of the time by confining us to lesser lives than we ought to live. I urge everyone to read The Denial of Death. It will change the way you see the world.
Through the rehearsal of death, through it’s contemplation and complete acceptance, you may understand that this life isn’t the past, and it isn’t the future. It is right now. This moment, these breaths, this computer screen, these sounds. What you do with it is then entirely up to you. But forgetting this truth, or ignoring it, may just be the biggest waste of time you can indulge in.
And it is great. All I have to do now is live with complete acceptance of the present moment. With an open mind, free mind. If there is fear, so be it. If there is joy, fine. Just jive with it, man. The only thing we can do is jump in and join the dance. No stories, no narratives, no justifications, no excuses. Just dance. Fully aware that the dance will end one day.
It all comes with practice. I do the full-scale death rehearsal about once every fortnight. For the remaining days I remind myself of it whenever I feel myself losing perspective. Then the days are spent, as Zorba the Greek says, in sacred awe.
This has nothing to do with theologies and ideologies. This is more fundamental, more basic, more primitive. Just be. As powerfully and wholly and fully as you can, as true to your basic nature as you can, until you can no longer be. Everything else is just window dressing, distracting us from the truth.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” – Steve Jobs