In the process of living, death is the most necessary thing that we do.
It isn't necessary for anything to live. With or without life, the Dharma -- the eternal reality and is-ness of the universe -- is inviolable and perfect. If we study Beelzebub' Tales to His Grandson, for example, we are told that the only reason that the universe -- and hence organic life -- exists is because of the decay of the place of Being of His Endlessness due to the passage of time, or, as Gurdjieff refers to it, the merciless Heropass.
That, of course, is a complex myth, with many layers of meaning. In the immediate context of our own life, we can only study the existence of our organism along with other organisms, which is closer to home.
Take the example of fossils-- for example, the above specimens of Damesella, an upper Cambrian trilobite species. Now, we probably never think of it, but when we look at a fossil, it rarely occurs to us that the fossil is a relative. Not conceptually, but literally. It is absolutely certain that somewhere way, way back in time, we share an ancestor with this particular fossil. So we are intimately related to these strange creatures from the dawn of time by the fact that we had exactly the same parents somewhere along the line of evolution.
All of the lines of organic life are one line. All of the kingdoms, the phylums, the orders, the families, and the species are one family. When, for example, American Indians on the Pacific coast used to kill the salmon and referred to them as "brother fish," it sounds like an allegorical reference, or perhaps even an affectation, to we "modern" men. But it is quite literally true when one views it from the point of deep time.
All life is one life, and all life exists together. There is no absolute necessity for any single life. The process of nature demonstrates this. Watch swarms of caddis flies hatching in the spring; birds pounce on them and tens of thousands are devoured the instant they emerge.
The living is not necessary, but the dying is necessary. And it's necessary on many levels.
In the first place, let's be strictly practical. If nothing died, the planet would have become so crowded there would be no room many billions of years ago. So within the very act of living--the moment that the concept of living itself is born--dying becomes necessary and proper. One might even say it's one's responsibility to die, mightn't one?
Secondly, dying feeds a sacred process which we are unable to touch or sense with the ordinary parts of our being.
To die is to offer.
When I die, I will come before a moment where everything within my vessel is offered up to the next level. If I look back at the ancient practice of pouring libations, of letting liquid flow out of a vessel, I may intuit a symbolic representation of the way that all of the impressions of life flow out of the vessel the moment of death. This is a kind of food for the level above me.
I can't expect to penetrate that idea very effectively from this level. If I begin to sense myself more organically, I may begin to get a taste of it, but the true moment in which I will finally and properly understand this is the moment of death itself, and, as Mr. Gurdjieff pointed out, that moment is supremely unique for each organism.
The Tibetans have a tradition that all of life is simply a preparation for death. Mr. Gurdjieff himself, perhaps drawing on that understanding, pointed out that the first and perhaps best hope for a man was to not "die like a dog."
And what is the difference between dying like a man and a dying like a dog?
The dog has no choice in the way that he dies. The dog must offer his death without any ability to prepare, outside of the mechanical preparation that nature provides. Man has been put in the position of greater responsibility. It's as in the parable about the talents (Matthew chapter 25): men are given what they have because they are expected to use it properly. A man is meant to arrive at death having taken his material and made use of it in a certain way. The one who does nothing has failed.
In taking on the gift of a body, I acquire the responsibility to take in my impressions properly. That is to say, in order to serve, I ought to drink life deeply so that there is plenty of wine to offer when I die.
There is a passage in "In Search of the Miraculous" where there is a discussion about the idea that life isn't fair. The example that is given is that all things have to die, and that that is not fair. But it's perfectly fair. It's the idea of "fair" itself that is flawed, not the process of death. The process of death is justified and necessary; our attitudes towards it are not.
I do not in any way mean to whitewash the real emotional anguish connected to this idea. I think real and compelling emotional anguish in relationship to the process of death exists on every level of the universe. In fact, part of the sorrow of His Endlessness itself is intimately connected to the necessity of death. Not just the death of organic life, but, in a broader sense, the action of time on matter.
What I do ponder is the fact that I cling so desperately to life, when death is, in fact, the most important thing I will do. If I meet my death with the right material and with courage -- which is a question every one of us must inevitably face -- I will die less like a dog and more like a man. This modern business of pumping us full of chemicals and attaching us to machines and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep us alive for just a little bit longer is a form of insanity.
Our time and money would be much better spent on educating us in the matter of how to die properly, instead of how to help us stay alive in the wrong way for just a little bit longer.
Does any of this pondering help alleviate each of our own fears of death? Probably not much.
I recall telling my group leader Henry Brown many years ago that I was terrified of death. It's not appropriate to pass his response on, as it was made in the group. I will say that as I have grown older, even though the terror always remains, there is another part that grows at discovers a greater acceptance of this inevitability.
There is even a part that understands that death represents an opportunity, and that if I can meet it with dignity, that will make a difference. The organism itself, which is the vehicle for manifestation of consciousness on this level, fears death. That can't be expunged. But the other bodies that form in a man have the capability of a different relationship with the question.
If I am able to more thoroughly understand death as a necessity, I may begin to approach the acceptance that is needed if I wish to open my heart completely -- not just in the moment of death, when I will no longer have a choice in the matter, but beforehand, when an offering can be made from this vessel in the midst of life.
All the traditions say that to immerse ourselves in the matters of the flesh is a form of denial. Each man has to make his own peace with these matters.
For myself, I see that I must learn to pay in advance, and pay often.
May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.
a note to readers:
there's an additional new post at lee's other blog today, in response to a reader question from the last post.