what will you do at the time of death?

“I am ready to die right now.”

I remember the peculiar feeling that arose in me at these words – like being pushed off-kilter, my comfortable assumptions about how life was wobbling and shaking. I remember my shock, admiration, and perplexity; I did not understand how this could be. I feared death, of course I feared it, and my way of dealing with my fear was to pretend to myself that it was something that would never happen.

Of course, in theory, I knew that I would die. In theory, everyone knows that they will die. But do they know it in practice, do they really believe in it? I knew that looking really inside myself, being really honest with myself, I couldn’t make myself fully absorb and accept the fact of my own death – I could try to imagine it, I could try to convince myself of it – for brief moments I felt that I believed it – but then I would go back to walking around not thinking of it, with the same pleasant illusion of immortality as before.

To hear somebody announcing, “I am ready to die. I can die right this moment. I am ready,” – that was something extraordinary for me.

Ajan told me this one of the first times he spoke to me about meditation, one day in the heat of July. As he spoke he smiled broadly and waved his arms around so as to threaten to break the net that protected him from mosquitos; as was his habit. He announced that he was ready to die with the same enthusiasm that he spoke all the rest, and in a manner that allowed for not even one drop of doubt that he meant what he said.

He was a person unlike any I had ever met before. The happiest person I had ever met, and one of the few people for whom I felt no pity whatsoever. I was not “sorry for him” in the least – despite his list of health problems and pains as long as his arm; because I saw how happy he was, and I saw that to pity him would be as useless as pitying a tree whose branch is cut off. The tree certainly suffers the injury, but it does not suffer the pain and self-sorrow that we humans do. It just gets on with repairing itself, gets on with the fact of being injured. Ajan had his injuries, his illnesses, his reasons to suffer, but I did not see him suffering as anybody else would under the same conditions, and here he was actually waiting, almost expecting, for any moment to be his last moment. How could his life, I wondered – his life, his body his memories – mean so little to him that to let it all go in a moment was like nothing to him?

I had thought about death before a lot, especially as a child. I had tried to imagine the moment when I would really die, when there would be nothing after this moment – when my life would end. It frightened me, and it had become something I simply tried not to think about. I didn’t think about it and I pretended it would never happen,  and I couldn’t see how thinking about it all the time could make you feel lighter or happier, as light and happy as Ajan seemed to be.

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Some weeks ago, Véronique was driving home from Montreal and she came to a yellow traffic light. For a split second as she approached the light, she considered whether she should stop, or whether she should continue, and she decided that she could continue, focusing all her attention as she drove forward on the light – watching for whether it would turn red.

One moment she was watching the yellow traffic light, and the next moment there was a car – the side of a car – turning in front of her at one metre’s distance, too close to calculate what to do, too close to react, to break, too close to do anything except to have one thought.

If Véronique had been like almost anybody else, she could only have passed into a state of panic. But she was not like anybody else, because she was watching what was happening in her mind, and she had spent a long time being taught by Ajan, and preparing herself to face death at any second. She was calm; seeing that she was going to crash, she decided that there was nothing she could do about it and watched what would happen.

When her car hit the other car, for a moment she didn’t know what was happening at all – there was an explosion, a great screeching and groaning and she could have been upside down, sideways or backwards for all she knew. She had time to have one tiny thought as this happened, and the thought that arose was this: “Okay, maybe it’s time.” And she watched her mind in this that could be her last moment, and found no fear whatsoever.

After a very short time – maybe a second or two – it became clear that the accident was over. She was still alive, and not hurt. What did begin to arise in her mind at that moment was the panicky urge to get out of the car, to pull, frantic, at the door handle, to act without thinking or calculating. Yet she was observing it. And so she was able to see it and remove it very quickly, before it turned into a big fear or panic, and instead she thought about how she should get the door open, remembering that she had locked the door electronically, and she would have to unlock it before getting out.

She stepped out of the car, and she went to see what had happened to the people in the other car. (Nobody was injured, apart from some emotional bruising. Both cars were turned into scrap metal in the space of two seconds.)

Veronique, being Veronique, had not a feather even slightly knocked out of place after all this. When I asked her about it the day afterwards, she said “It was an interesting experience.”

Which, no doubt, it was.

Although, as it turned out, what happened to Veronique was not a mortal event, she said that for her the most interesting thing about it was how fast, how very fast, everything in her life changed in one instant. Everything was normal – then in less than one second she could have arrived at the moment of her death. If she had not been meditating and paying so much attention, she would have only had time to panic and scream, and if the accident had turned out to be fatal, she would have passed her last moments in a state of terror.

This terror, shock and horror at the moment of an accident, or of any kind of potentially mortal incident, is part of the effect of the lie, which is the greatest lie in the universe, the one that we all tell ourselves unconsciously and automatically: I will not die. Especially not now. Death is for others not me.

I am not like Ajan, I cannot say with such conviction “I am ready to die!” I am working to make myself ready to die. In myself I see only that when I try every day to face my death, it changes things. It forces me to let go a little bit each time, a little bit each day, or my life, my body, my thoughts, my memories. And it makes me lighter.

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