A beautiful article on the spiritual lessons in the most universal of human experiences: death.
Twenty-five years ago when my father was dying of cancer, I was horrified by the degree to which it withered and ate him alive. I could feel how strongly I wanted to turn away, not take in the sight of it.
Then I remembered something a Native American friend of mine had said. That his grandfather had told him that death is a friend. That Life is afraid of losing you, will lie to you, try to get you to fall asleep and pretend time isn’t passing, or that you can live a life so small that Death will not notice you.
Death, on the other hand, knows that no matter how long you live, eventually you will come to him. Spend eternity with him. And therefore wants you to be as interesting as you can be, as wise and experienced and COMPLETE as a human being as you can be. Will therefore be the very best of advisors.
And grasped that this terrible sight, of a man I knew so much less than I had wished, who had sung onstage with Nat “King” Cole and Louis Prima, and appeared on radio, stage, television and film…this handsome man who was rotting away until he looked like the Crypt Keeper, was offering me the very last gift he had to offer.
You see…he was dying well. He was still my father. Still had the same sense of humor, the same clarity, the same love for me in his eyes.
My mother had died in terror, incomplete, unfinished, resentful of a world that had denied her her full humanity because of a smattering of the “wrong” blood. It was sad to watch, and all I could do was be there and be sure she knew I was finished, and needed nothing more from her, that her work was done…and that I loved her.
My Dad and I had dealt with our relationship, and were clean. All I could do was help him in any way I could. Offer what grace I could. And in exchange he gave me the little man that sits on my left shoulder, whispering not just “Momento Mori” but reminding me to love, and be strong, and speak truth, and help someone, anyone, every day.
What is the syntax of consciousness?
SLEEPING CHILD > SLEEPING ADULT > AWAKENED ADULT > INTERMITTENT NON-DUALISTIC AWARENESS > SUSTAINED NON-DUALISTIC AWARENESS> ?
The question mark represents those states beyond ordinary language, the territory of “enlightenment” and ego extinction. The last “useful” state (in general) is the “Awakened Adult” state. Any activity in which you ask “Who am I?” and “what is true?” is an activity that inclines toward awakening.
Writing can be as powerful a tool for this as meditation. So can the martial arts. So can loving your family.
But let’s focus on writing.
- In creating a character, ask if that character is behaving like a real human being. Have you felt, experienced or witnessed people believing/feeling this way? (“Who am I?”) Every character is another opportunity to make a statement about what you think human beings are or are not. And if you don’t’ have a solid opinion, every story is another opportunity to explore various ideas about what we are: why we say and do what we do. Why we do evil or kindnesses. What we really want and need. Whether we are shaped more by essence or existence. If you don’t consciously make choices, you will make them unconsciously. There is no way to avoid it.
- In plotting your story, remember that plot is the way the universe responds to the actions of your characters. The ethical structure of the universe. “What is true?” Does life reward us for our labors? Is it fair? Unfair? Is the human world better or worse than the natural world? The same? Is there meaning to the world? Yes? No? If not, are human beings committing folly to care about anything at all?
Again, if you don’t take conscious control of these things, you will default to your unconscious beliefs and tendencies.
Sleeping Writer > Awakened Writer
An awakening writer asks these questions consciously. An awakened writer has answered those questions for themselves, and expresses what they have found in their work. Structures stories as an argumentation: “this is what humans are. This is what reality is.”
Either is better than abdicating your responsibility to question, to study, to live, to observe, to test. And when you have tested a notion in your own life, to build your conclusions into your work, trusting that your readers are intelligent enough to decide for themselves. Your job is to present life as you see it, have lived it, fear it is or wish it could be.
Do this, going deeply into your experience and emotions, leaving your love of life and flirting with the territory o death, knowing that you will one day enter that realm, that there is no obfuscation or cleverness that will save you, that that avoidance itself is early death because you are avoiding the very emotions and perceptions that make life intense and beautiful, make love the only thing that makes the entire experience meaningful.
All of the talent and skill you are looking for in your work comes from embracing this duality, looking directly at the apparent contradiction. A rose, in the midst of a battlefield. Beauty, arising from the greatest uglinesss.
Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear, and pain, and discipline. And love.