“Insight (εἴδησις, seeing, understanding) we take as a fine and worth-while thing..”
– From the opening passages of Aristotle’s ‘De Anima,’ quoted in Gendlin, Line by Line Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Bk 1.
Because my topic is how we think about death and dying, and how we can best benefit from these facts of life, this work has insight as its primary topic. My OED gives, as a definition for ‘insight’: “The fact of penetrating with the eyes of the understanding into the inner character or hidden nature of things; a glimpse or view beneath the surface.” I want to look into the not-so-obvious dimensions of death and dying. Insight, from a Buddhist perspective, is about care, growth, and precision of understanding; hence, it is about more life, and that can occur even while one is dying.
A further major theme in this work is the exploration of the kind of thinking which fosters insight into death and dying; and, not only the how of that particular thinking, but the how of any thinking freshly. It sounds funny to say, because we adults think we know how to think. Yet, we are get along in our day-to-day thinking by relying on a mode of thinking acquired before the age of… say, mid-teens? Early, anyhow.
Death did figure in our thinking early in life, but we hardly got on top of the topic, did we? If so, why is there not peace abounding? We didn’t master a training in death-thinking, nor in thinking in general. In respect of death, we fell in line with our cultures, and adopted a ‘don’t-think-the-unsayable’ strategy.
A student recently came to see me shocked that her life-long friend died accidentally, unexpectedly, in the midst the friend’s routine daily activities. When this happens, the mourners find themselves without ground. They’ve mastered much else – engineering, medicine, building, creative arts, therapy, driving, or whatever – but they haven’t mastered the process of insight, which alone can light up the ‘space’ where death matters the most. People die in innumerable ways, frequently unexpectedly – and we are shocked. Why the shock? You might say it’s normal to be shocked. Is it? What do you mean by ‘normal’? And, if it is, maybe ‘normal’ is not optimally responsive to life’s powerful moments. Can we learn from death, when we are in shock?
I heard of a five-year-old who cried in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” That little one had seen it; he had commended that he will in fact die. From the point of view of the growth of insight, and of wisdom, that’s a precious moment. How do we carers respond, when that occurs?
There’s a YouTube of another five-year-old, inconsolable because she realizes that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she wails, keening before the event. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute.” She’s seen the fact that no matter how much she loves him – he won’t stay the way he is. She seems to Intuit that none of us will be here forever, because next she bawls: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!”
I was uncomfortable that someone – presumably a parent – was making a video of her so interior moment, but seeing the video did get me thinking about other times, of other cases, when I have heard of children having this particular anguish. I think that most of us (if not all) have a child somewhat like that in us, a child who once said, or thought: “I don’t want to die.”
Tragically, if asked, the adults around us didn’t know what to say, except for the usual conventional, distracting platitudes. Things like: “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it – you’ll go to heaven and meet Toby” (or whatever our pet’s name was – or the grandparent’s name). You know the kind of thing. At best, the carers whom I’m talking about – the parents and teachers of curious or bewildered children – are thrown into a sea of loving pain, upon witnessing the anguish of these innocents; but they still can’t respond in a grounded way. Apart from platitudes, they might treat the child as cute (as in the YouTube video); or they might be embarrassed at their lack of capacity to meet their child’s existential angst.
Of course, I’m generalising, but think back to your education. Most adults in our society lack insight into death. Insight training didn’t happen in their childhood, either. So, how can they help their children, when they weren’t trained to investigate the subtle dimensions of life? For, death, despite appearances is a subtle matter. It’s as subtle as ‘mind.’ WeWe aren’t trained to investigate our minds – as rigorously as a good scientist would – to investigate that which is less obvious than chemicals, organs, and nervous systems; that which is closer to us than breathe – our actual, interactional being-in-and-of-now.
Before the age of twenty-six, not one person that I meet in flesh and blood suggested to me that it was legitimate to question what the ‘mind’ is. Not one. And I’d gone through university by then. No educator had helped me get a practical handle for the territory of ‘mind,’ until I meet the Buddhist teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe, in 1976. Yet, can we comprehend death without penetrating the hidden mind of freedom? Where are we teaching this in our schools?
As a result, we are left to depend on, and we daily serve, the standard body of our culture’s thought. Presently, in the standard training, we are expected to believe that we are fundamentally made up of non-living things – sub-atomic particles, elements, molecules, and so on; and, that at death, we simply re-become non-living entities – food for worms, or dust – and that’s it. The rest of the standard story is that between birth and (that kind of) death, we simply muddle through, heroically making up whatever story we can about what this life is, and who we are in it – any story that will work. Since post-modernism, all stories are equally true. This is the dominant model, isn’t it?
While useful in the operating theatre (where, of course, I want my surgeon to have this view in great detail), such a version of human bodies doesn’t include the experience from the inside, and so it doesn’t include what is most important to you – your experiencing. And, isn’t it experiencing death and dying that we are afraid of? So, another central theme of my project is experiencing.
Isn’t it true that, in our English-speaking scientifically literate culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matter at the heart of their discovery of death; this discovery which, powerfully for them, includes the striking realization that death separates us from what is dear to us? More importantly, we don’t encourage our children to cherish the questions; a more important response than giving them answers.
To the extent that this lack of training was so for you and I, we got on with growing up ‘normal,’ and we learned to tuck the inconsolable doubts away for as long as possible, in a compartment the therapists call ‘the unconscious,’ far from the reach of insight. Does this seem a healthy and happy course? Perhaps instead we can turn toward death and dying, and find gifts in a fresh approach? Perhaps this is the next step in our development in the way to becoming truly homo sapiens – the wise human.