All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow; acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings, in separation; births, in death. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping up, and building and meeting … Life is short, and the time of death uncertain, so apply yourselves to meditation…
All of my life, I had been afraid of death.
So afraid, that I had often awoken deep in the night, with the dreadful thought that one day, I would simply not be. I would be gone, unaware, unconscious. I would simply cease.
I would panic. I would have to sit up in bed and consciously calm myself; my heart would be pounding, my breath clutching, my chest tight. I would reach out to my partner and cling to them, reminding myself that I was alive, alive, alive and that this was just the hang over of a bad dream.
The worst of these panic attacks about death came when I was in Darjeeling, India, alone in a wonderful guesthouse. I’d just returned from a climb halfway up Mt Everest, where one is confronted with the fragility of life – the deaths of porters through altitude sickness, and the frozen and slowly disintigrating bodies of climbers once you begin to ascend from Base Camp.
In Darjeeling, there was no one to cling to. I had simply had to sit up, breathe and work through it.
That was four years ago. My fear of death did not go away, but the panic attacks in the middle of the night became rare as my battle with depression (after the break up of my marriage) became the focus of my life.
This year, my healing year, I have had no return of the nocturnal panics about death; now, just recently, a resolution and release of that fear altogether.
This is the story of that resolution.
I had began to go to a yoga class on a Tuesday and Thursday night at the YMCA taught by a wonderful and very experienced teacher, Marijyn O’Keefe. Marijyn is trained in the Gita tradition of yoga, and also by Swami Sarasvati, whom most Australians (those thirty-five or older) will know from her TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the class that I frequently locum for (along with another gym-based class).
One Tuesday night, I experienced a release, a subtle stirring and shifting of energy in my lower spine. It was a kind of warm, pleasant tingle coupled with a sense of deep relaxation. I was aware that Marijyn’s class had shifted something, and went away feeling deeply open and ‘awake’. This feeling lasted several days.
The next day, or perhaps it was the next, my son was watching The Return of the King, the third movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We have the extended version of these movies, and they are a family favourite. We watch them over and over again.
I walked into the room. It was at the part where Minas Tirith is under seige, and Pippin tells Gandalf that he doesn’t want to die. He’s afraid to die.
At this point, I became intensely aware of the movie. My entire awareness narrowed and focussed on Gandalf’s answer – which I had heard many times before. At that moment, it was if I had never heard it before in my life. It was entirley new. A revelation.
Gandalf tells Pippin not to be afraid. He tells him that death is just another journey, the greatest adventure of all. (He also tells Pippin about what to expect on the journey out from the Grey Havens, but this wasn’t the part that affected me).
Those words: death is the greatest adventure of all reverberated through my soul – which might sound cheesy, but it happened. At that moment, my fear of death melted. It was resolved.
I walked away, tears streaming. I was released, I was blessed because death might just be a descent into unknowing – but it would be also be release and an adventure. For some reason, those words touched somewhere that all of my Buddhist and Yogic studies have not – but in a way, it was part of them, too.
Weeks have passed. My fear has not returned. I feel a comfortable warmth towards the knowledge that one day I will pass away, all I know will pass away.
And that is simply how it is.