Western religion has taught our culture that death is the ultimate enemy, which the Bible states directly. Fear of death is used to motivate obedience to god and state. But true understanding of death not only frees us from the fear of death; it liberates us from fear itself. Death is an ally, a friend in disguise if we are willing to let it. By suppressing and fearing death and the lessons it has to teach us, we resist a full experience of life.
In religion, the goal of god and his people is to escape death forever through eternal life, or salvation. As a result, western society teaches us to avoid, suppress, fear, and deny death. This is not natural; it is not the reality of the order of our universe. Death is eternal, and so is life. Reality is not linear, life and death aren’t eternally static states like heaven or hell; reality is cyclical, and life and death are eternally intertwining, disappearing out of and into each other. There is nothing bad or evil about death. The cycle of death and life goes on forever; it is embedded in the DNA of the cosmos.
The irony is we approach death as if it’s meant to be feared, but death is the antidote to fear. Lifelong terror of death is not natural, and it is not even normative in many cultures of the world. Death is a part and pattern of nature; the way things are and are meant to be. There is nothing to fear in death, for existence never vanishes but merely transmutes. In the act of dying, we lose our sense of separation–the sense of self which means I am separate from the world I am observing. Losing a sense of separation turns out to be ultimate bliss, union, a peace that surpasses all understanding, total rest. This kind of death of separate selfhood can be experienced even in life. This experience is sometimes known as liberation or enlightenment. Death teaches us to be free of the worries of life, and have a taste for the higher, spiritual principles that drive a meaningful existence. By observing the natural order of life and death, we may learn the lesson of a life well-lived.
Only by embracing death can we learn the art of living. There are so many ways death teaches us to live a better life if we could only befriend it. Sleeping, stopping, giving up, surrendering, letting go, these are all patterns of death. Only death teaches us to be more present to the moment, which is precious because of its transience. It shows us that we must let go as a practice, not clinging to anything as if it lasted forever. Death allows us to give up control, for we are not even in control of our own heartbeat, whether we will even exist in the next moment. Death gives hope to the suffering, for suffering never lasts forever, and relief is always around the corner. Death shows us life is not to be taken so seriously, or grasped on to as if the salvation of humanity depended on my decisions, for everything vanishes in the end. Nothing is ultimately serious, even while it is. The working out or not working out of life all ultimately works out, one way or the other.
Death will come, and when it does, we can embrace it with joy. Our sick and elderly need not die in anxiety, and we don’t need to hide them away in dark hospital rooms or lonely nursing homes because they confront us with our fear of our own fate. It’s time to embrace our fear of the dark and throw away the nightlights we had as kids. Any ideology that treats death as an enemy militates against nature, which is far closer to the notion of god than religion could ever be. Even though death is, life is the final and more ultimate state of reality. The nature of existence itself is to be alive and spread more life. A preoccupation with death is not fitting or rational, for our calling while we are human is to be alive. In order to live well, we must learn how to die well, and embody the principle of death in our daily lives.