Inevitably when we do our deepest work, we come to what may be our greatest cultural taboo: Death. Even at funerals we tend to focus on death’s antidotes – the flowers, the embalmed bodies that “look better than ever”, and the religious belief that the dead are in a “better place.” The truth is, we can’t know with certainty what lies beyond this life. What we can know is that nothing in life is permanent and this impermanence often makes us anxious. As we approach death psychologically and emotionally, admitting its reality and reflecting on its meaning for us, tapping can help us to explore the fears we have absorbed from our family, friends, and culture.
When I was in my early twenties, I awoke from a night terror about my personal death. In this nightmare, I saw myself lying in a plain wooden box as my flesh disintegrated to reveal my bones. I woke abruptly, aware of my racing heart, my dry mouth, and my sweat-soaked body. To calm my terror, I turned on the light, made tea, and went to my writing desk. There, amid stacks of books and papers, I found one of the Carlos Castaneda books. In those days I’d developed the habit of standing at the entrance of a bookstore and asking what I’d come for. In a short time, I’d feel pulled in a specific direction and, once I’d arrived at a section that felt right, a book would catch my eye. So it had been with this one.
Although the claims of fact in Castaneda’s work have been questioned since his voluminous exploration of the teachings of the Yaki Warrior Don Juan, I and many others have found in these Shamanic teachings important guidance for life, just as the legends, fables, and myths from all cultures can be our teachers. One such teaching I learned from Don Juan through Castaneda that helped me to deal with my nightmare was to live with death at my elbow. As soon as I read this memorable phrase, I could reframe my terror. My nightmare wasn’t necessarily a sign that I was going to die in the near future; rather, it was a reminder that my life was not infinite, and that like my ancestors and every other person on the planet, I too would experience that process we call death.
After viewing my nightmare through the live-life-with-death-at-my-elbow lens, whenever I found myself making decisions that suggested I had infinite time to mess about with my life, I remembered my inevitable death, sometimes with panic, and sometimes with the sober recognition that I, like everyone else, was mortal. Remembering the fact of my physical ending has made it possible for me to make death an ally, a phrase Don Juan used when instructing Carlos on the best way to relate to adversaries in life. When we turn what we fear into an ally – a teacher – then its presence in our lives helps us to evolve beyond the polarizing good/bad or right/wrong dichotomies to a deeper understanding of life’s, and death’s, interrelationships.
Our culture’s focus on success, competition, and winning at all cost doesn’t leave much room for death. When loved ones become seriously ill, we find ourselves urging them to fight for their lives, and when as caregivers we are in charge of ending life support, our conflicting beliefs often counsel against the simple decision to allow the person to die, even when this is what the person has requested. “Pulling the plug,” can be a terrifying burden in our climate of life-at-any-cost.
When my mother was dying of colon cancer, we had many frank conversations about how she wanted to die. She had never been afraid of death, or even of suffering, perhaps because she’d been raised during the Great Depression and had a firm handle on the wide range of life’s experiences by the time she came to death’s great gateway. Because she talked about her death, she gave us permission to do so as well. We cried, of course, because life in the flesh, despite hard times, is sweet. We also laughed and reminisced about the joyful crazy memories we’d made together. Because of her openness to her own death, her final days were full of loving leaving taking and authentic expressions of a full range of emotions. Hers was a beautiful death, a teaching death, and all our family members are grateful for it.
In a culture that teaches us death is something to be avoided at all costs, cultivating a relationship with death, “living with death at our elbow,” is more challenging than it might be. Tapping can help with all the challenges that tend to come with taboo subjects – from strict religious attitudes, to life support or non-support choices, to unusual burial/cremation wishes. One of the very recent cultural shifts toward openness regarding death comes with the opportunity to attend a Death Cafe.
These cafes are manifestations of a global movement to demystify death by sharing great conversation and great food. Lots of on-line support exists for the Death Cafe experience, including rave press stories about specific Death Cafe events and a great website to support the spread of the death-cafe concept. If you like the idea of attending such an event, or hosting one, but find fear, disgust, or other emotions are holding you back, you can take the time to explore your personal attitudes to death with a few tapping sessions. Recognizing that we all die and that our culture is in denial about this fact (along with so many other vitally important issues such as climate change) is a wonderfully freeing experience. To learn more about the Death Cafe history as well as how to find or host one in your area, visit http://deathcafe.com/
Continuing this theme of demystifying death, next week I’m making a departure from my usual blog-post style; I will be posting a short story about death, one that was inspired when my mother died in 2006 and first published on the carvezine.com website.
Until next week