Saturday, 1 September 2012

Dealing with the Fear of Death part 1

 I was asked recently why I started "doing" mindfulness. I answered by relating it to my work as a funeral celebrant. I've said often enough here and hereabouts that it is not depressing work, but it's Big Stuff. You find yourself staring at a lot of coffins in the course of a year.

I needed something to help me deal with what this magnificent poem by Thomas Hardy says, so painfully and so clearly:

               During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs—
       He, she, all of them—yea,
       Treble and tenor and bass,
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

       They change to a high new house,
       He, she, all of them—aye,
       Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
       And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

Well, 'nuff said. I don't think we help ourselves by pretending that the fact of death, of human mortality, isn't a pretty definitive smack in the gob. 

But n.b. mindfulness isn't an avoidance strategy. Trying to avoid our awareness of mortality, which it seems to me our culture does a lot of, gives death enormous power over us. It makes the way we live deathly, morbid, in many ways that need, individually and collectively, to be dealt with.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, questions such as is it fear of death or of dying that troubles us; does it make any difference if you believe in an afterlife; is stoicism the best answer, etc etc. Let's just consider if mindfulness is a way of living with the fact that life ends, so that we are not obsessed by it, depressed by it or dominated by it.

Easy, I humbly or arrogantly submit. Yes, it does, in many interesting and diverse ways, too many, you'll be pleased to hear, to address in one post. 

So here's one way I've found that mindful meditation helps: if you spend part of your day living as far as possible in the present moment, you are not anticipating, planning, dreading, worrying. And when you have to return, after your meditation (or quiet time, or whatever you want to call it), you may find that you retain more calm and more acceptance as you go about your daily life. Your calm will be disrupted, of course. But you know (sweet secret!) that you can go back to that place whenever you choose. It's a place where death has less of a hold on you. It's the timeless present.

"Quick, now, here, now, always....."

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