“Death is your guru; let it teach you.” Or, so said the Buddha. But, what could death teach anyone? I’ve thought a great deal about this, especially since the death of my father. That’s been nearly fifteen years ago now; but, I knew on the day he died, I would one day be writing about it. I had no idea what I’d write, even when or how. But, I just knew the day would come when I would. Well, it did, some twelve years later.
Yet, in the months that followed my father's death and burial, I was confused, afraid, and I felt lost. I tried to help my mother manage her grief even as I struggled to handle my own. To say that my life unraveled would be an understatement. Within twenty-four months of his death, I left the professional ministry, a place I had served for more than twenty years and thought I’d never leave until retirement. I began a new career altogether and I went through a very painful divorce. That divorce itself meant death to my professional career as a ministry. Why? It is because, in my religious tradition, if you divorce, your ministry is over.
So, if death is your guru, a legitimate question I faced was, “What could death teach me? Furthermore, what could I give of value to anyone else when my own life has unraveled and collapsed?”
I left the pastoral ministry and, for several years thereafter, I stopped going to church altogether. I was angry at Christians and at the church I felt had written me off and abandoned me. Besides, I was tired of pretending everything was O.K. in my life (and in my marriage) when it had not been for many years. In other words, I was tired of playing roles. Deepak Chopra rightly said, "When the pain of being the same is greater than the pain of being different, you will change." I had tried to conform to everyone’s expectations but, when everything unraveled in my life, I no longer had anything to protect or to hide. Change was inevitable.
So, what has death taught me?
Essentially, it is not the enemy it has been caricatured to be. Saint Paul was notorious for this and, much of what he said about death recorded in Scripture has been grossly misinterpreted by the church for centuries. To be sure, death is an enemy, but not to you; only to your ego. It is your ego that fears death and views death as “the last enemy,” as Saint Paul called it. You, however, do not fear death. Why? It is because you, the real you, never dies. Only your ego dies with death. So, if you die before you die, death is no longer an enemy to fear but a friend to embrace.
I’ve also learned that, though we typically resist them at first, a crisis like the death of someone you love, or any crisis for that matter, is a doorway, or “portal,” as Eckhart Tolle calls it, that Life opens to you. And, given the nature of our conditioning, it often takes a crisis to awaken us to our own spiritual nature. For some who are deeply entrenched in conditioned religious thought and expectation, or whose egos are fixed and strong, it may take a series of crises to wake them up. You have perhaps known someone who experienced a crisis, only to have it followed by a series of additional crises of equal or greater severity. Who knows but what they needed them. Yet, even with crises, some people never get it.
Pam, my wife now of several years, insists on setting her alarm clock to wake her up at 6 A.M. She seldom plans to get up, however, until 7 A.M.
I have often asked her, “Why not set the clock for 7 A.M., instead of being awakened several times, only to hit the snooze again and again?”
Her typical response is, “Because it takes four alarms to fully awaken me.”
Next time you hear of a four-alarm fire, you will know that the severity of the fire is so great that more than one truck and one team of firefighters is needed. You will also know it took both the death and the resurrection of Jesus for those closest to him to wake them up to his spiritual identity and to that of their own. Although he had said, perhaps over and over again, “I am the light of the world,” and “You are the light of the world,” none of this began to dawn until the darkness of his death.
Finally, my father’s death began the opening process of my own spiritual eyes. As it did, I noticed a profound difference in how I began responding to every event in my life, no matter how inconsequential. For example, I used to resist anything I interpreted as an obstacle upsetting my happiness or interfering with the pursuit of my goals. Shortly after the awakening, however, I boarded a commercial airline destined for Atlanta. It was 7:45 A.M and we were behind schedule by thirty minutes already. Presently, the pilot informed us, due to an electrical problem, the plane would be delayed even longer and could possibly be grounded altogether.
Before his death brought about my spiritual awakening, I would have been frustrated by this kind of minor disruption, even inclined to take it personal, as if airline officials were plotting a way to complicate my life. The resistance would have manifested itself as complaints to myself and to passengers seated around me. If none of that was sufficient, I would call someone on my cell and complain.
This time, however, I didn’t resist. Nor did I complain. I was noticeably surprised at myself. I saw it as an opportunity, almost as if it was supposed to happen, the reason for which was mine to discover. So, I watched and listened. I became present, so to speak, and looked for the message from beyond, or a stranger I was supposed to meet. I reached for my notepad and began writing of my experience. You are reading its results. Perhaps this happened to me for no other reason than you might read about it now. If you watch, you are likely to see what you’re destined to see. Who knows? If you are awake, you will know.
Where could you possibly go to find a healthier, happier, and more stress-free way to live than this? If you have not yet awakened, it is understandable why many of my words seem odd to you. You perhaps feel inner resistance to some of them, too. But, as you awaken to your own spiritual identity and destiny, you will know for yourself the truth in these words. You will cease to resist what is given to assist you in knowing God.
By resistance, I am not suggesting that you lie down and let life step on you. Nor am I saying you pretend to be happy about everything that shows up, although the New Testament does say, “In everything give thanks.” Some things are difficult to accept and a few things are very difficult. But, on the spiritual path, you will begin to instinctively know, since nothing is ever accidental, anything may serve as a portal into Presence. Your destiny could not unfold without the appearance of these things. In other words, everything serves a higher purpose. There is a beautiful way Eckhart Tolle makes this same point in A New Earth. He writes: “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.”
More profound words have seldom been spoken. When you remember them, as well as apply them to your life, they have the power to transform both how you receive and how you respond to everything. No less equal in beauty, and more familiar to Christians, are the words of Saint Paul, “All things work together for good to those who love God.” If this is true, why resist anything?
The sudden and unexpected end of my father’s life was the surprising and unanticipated beginning of my own. How could I resent something as amazing and perfect as this? The self-confusion, as well as the questions and doubts, have disappeared. Sure, I still question things, but there’s none of the background cynicism, the latent resentment, or existential fear like before. There is only a profound awareness of Presence and, with it, gratitude and joy. These remain to this day.
So, death has been my guru. And, these are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned. I have much more to share in a book that will be released this spring, 2010, entitled, The Enoch Factor: Sacred Art of Knowing God.