On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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What is your personal view of survival after death? Do you think it is certain, probable, possible, improbable, or impossible?
While nursing my rosey two-month-old, I read of the death by starvation of a three-month-old child in — no, not India — but within the “Golden Triad,” in Winston-Salem. The child lived one block from a federally-sponsored health center and her mother qualified for ADC benefits and food stamps.
Birth and death, the most fundamental of all human experiences, are perhaps the least examined and appreciated from a subjective point of view. Birth and death are the two extremes between which the pendulum of life appears to swing. Consequently, such outer ranges of natural consciousness experiences are shoved to the far corners of the rational mind as strange and distant. These poles are regarded as something to be known consciously only at the appropriate physiological and biological moments. The froth and tangle of contemporary life overwork awareness to such a degree that time nor rationale for exploring the significance of the gates of being seem available.
Is there a way to practise, or rehearse, for the supreme adventure none of us can avoid taking — dying? Plato thought so — in fact he defined philosophy as the art and knowledge of dying — and modern-day parapsychology shows the way towards what Grosso calls “an experimental science of death.”
Human beings usually give birth to one child at a time. And it takes nine lunar months from conception to the birth of a child. Hence the preservation of the human species for the two million or so years that man has been on this earth has always been a near thing. It is therefore understandable that pregnancy and especially the birth of a child should have been invested with special value, as witnessed by the customs, ceremonials, rituals and other practices with which these events are associated in all societies.
You want to give birth to your child naturally. You want childbirth to be a positive experience. You have read about, talked about and surely thought about the labor and birth that lie ahead. Maybe you have taken childbirth classes to prepare yourself. Maybe your only preparation is a desire to do the best you can for yourself and your baby. You are in labor, you check in to the hospital. Now it’s all in their hands. Wait a minute.
Photographs of birth capture what an intense physical event it is: lots of grimacing, blood, nakedness and sweat. A film can transmit much of the emotion of the experience: pants, groans and cries, the anxiety and the joy. Birth itself, the experience of giving birth or sharing birthing with someone you love can be one of the deepest spiritual experiences of one’s life.
If you’re looking for a way to control your money from the grave and religious promises of spiritual immortality don’t grab you, then your brass ring may be cryogenic internment.
Selecting a coffin for my father, I noticed that the salesman, solicitous at first, turned cool when I asked for the cheapest box. This was hidden in a closet (I’ve since learned that in some funeral parlors the coffin showroom is bugged, so the salesman can eavesdrop on the bereaved family. This makes it easier to close the sale).
I imagine that you associate other people’s desire of you as determining your own worth. This is common for most homo sapiens, as we were raised to believe that what other people thought was good or bad, desirable or undesirable, loveable or unloveable were the correct criteria for evaluating our own behavior. Since the approval (which is often confused with love) of parents, relatives, teachers, peers was so vital to our well-being, we learned to believe that what they thought was right for us was right. Not only did we believe it, we felt it. Behavior that many of us spontaneously enjoyed as children, such as loud boisterous playing, eating and sleeping when we wanted, and touching our genitals often met with disapproval and control. These once enjoyable activities (and anyone whose childhood memory is open can remember many ways that his or her activities were repressed — some successfully and some not) no longer gave us pure spontaneous pleasure. Fear, anxiety, guilt tainted the activities that we knew would meet disapproval, or else, consciously or unconsciously, we stopped doing what was deemed bad. Some of this control is necessary for children to survive safely and sanely into adulthood, but, as we all know, much of our parents’ manipulation of our free expression was stimulated by their fear and insecurity.
Death and birth is the theme of this issue. There are no more powerful, and less understood, words in the language. To demythologize one, we must demythologize the other. Yet our very vocabularies stand in the way.
Although — with the possible exception of mediumistic communications — no one has returned from the dead to give an account of his experience, reports of people who have nearly died suggest that it is a profoundly transcendent experience.
The Tibetan Wheel of Life is a graphic representation of basic Buddhist philosophy. Though some say it was drawn first by the Buddha, historians say that it originated in India around the second century A.D. as a means of exposing an illiterate people to the Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and the cause of suffering. Preserved as a tradition in Tibet, it comes to us as a symbolic system describing Samsara, the unenlightened state of man caught in the web of his own illusion. It consists of four concentric circles. In the middle are the three obscuring passions (S. mula-klesa) which prevent us from seeing the world as it really is. The next circle is symbolic of the bardo, described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the home of the soul between incarnations. In the next circle the Six Realms (S. Lokas) of Rebirth are illustrated, and the outer circle depicts the Twelve Links in the Chain of Causality (S. Nidanas) whereby man continues to be reborn into life after life.
The author of an article I recently read took up the task of listing the twenty worst news stories of 1975. Despite the evidence produced it was a very amusing business, as indeed, any post-mortum of such atrocious fare would have to be to make it palatable. The passage of time serves the purpose of making almost any contrived indecency humorous and several of these specimens nearly shook my ribcage loose. Still, patting my tummy once the last bellylaugh had died away, I was left wondering about the general state of the profession that had delivered such dreadful offerings with a straight face.
Traditions are cornerstones in any society. They develop out of what are usually common-sense responses to common needs. Usually, the needs are basic and deeply felt, and the responses are simple, becoming more sophisticated and complex as time passes and the society evolves. Traditions are typically more static than the society which spawns them; ultimately society must evaluate their usefulness and desirability.
To many sport is another word for television or packed stands and six packs. To others it is a reminder of tanned muscles and small brains. Sport is quite simply thought of as entertainment and athletes tend to assume the properties of race horses or even motor cars. Just look at any sports booklet; a player is such a height, has so much speed, has a decimal point scoring average and has won such and such honors. Can you remember which ‘Grand Prix’ your car won? No? But you almost certainly know its 0-50 acceleration.
First of all, let us consider the fact just mentioned. There is no separate, indivisible, specific point of death. Life is a state of becoming, and death is a part of this process of becoming. You are alive now, a consciousness knowing itself, sparkling with cognition amid a debris of dead and dying cells; alive while the atoms and molecules of your body die and are reborn. You are alive, therefore, in the midst of small deaths; portions of your own image crumble away moment by moment and are replaced, and you scarcely give the matter a thought. So you are to some extent now alive in the midst of the death of yourself — alive despite, and yet because of, the multitudinous deaths and rebirths that occur within your body in physical terms.
Birth and death is a continual cycle. Like corn, you have a season. You grow, flower, give seed, fade away. But the energy within you keeps going — like the energy of corn. Have you ever been in a corn field and felt that energy?