Death as Trickster

A reflection after participating in Steven Goodman‘s “Tibetan Trickster” workshop at CIIS several weekends ago. See my follow up comments to this essay here.

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I should begin. I don’t know how much time I have… I’d like to tell you a secret, even though I’m not sure if I can repeat it exactly as I hear it whispered to me inwardly even at this very moment. It is my secret, you see, and by verbalizing it in order to share it with someone else, it will undoubtedly lose some of its existential force. However, despite its being my secret, and so difficult to communicate to others, I know intuitively that it is of ultimate concern to everyone. I must risk telling you, even if it sounds at first like something obvious, something you’ve known since you were seven years old. It is a Big Secret, but it won’t dispel The Mystery or explain Life’s Meaning; knowing it can only deepen the mystery of your life’s meaning.

Are you ready? You may never be. It takes a whole life to prepare for. Here goes: it is absolutely certain that you and everyone you love will die.

Did you hear me? Now listen for an echo of what I’ve said within you. If you hear it, know that it is not an echo, but your own soul sharing the essence of her earthly mission with you. Ask your soul: “Why have you wed yourself to this mortal body?” I imagine she will answer as mine has: “Because love means nothing without death; there is no other way for Spirit to truly matter, no other way for your soul to find its way back to heaven but to die with love in your heart.”

  Behind death hides the Immortal Soul. It is not your’s that lives forever, mind you, but the World’s Soul. The World-Soul is love itself, the center of all creation, the gravity that “moves the sun and other stars.”

The Soul is a universal embrace holding all things together in the radiant space of Wisdom. But Wisdom’s light is not always bright enough to make the meaning of matter transparent, and so the Soul is also a battlefield upon which the chaos of shadow confrontation unfolds. Human history, which provides the background and container of your own personal life, is a “tangled web of fate” spun by the sustained encounter of Soul with shadow, Spirit with matter, Self with other. Death is denied by most human cultures, becoming a great evil to be fought against at every turn. Our fear of death’s ego-dissolving depths leads to all kinds of violence against other mortals, since the only power over death we are capable of securing comes by taking the life of others.

Perhaps it is not ignorant power that truly defeats death, but clear insight into the mystery hiding in its depths. Do not forget to hear death’s secret. Turn inward and face death squarely: Wisdom can be heard, in the still, dark center of our souls, beneath the crowded places and tormented faces of earthly time, silently speaking the Truth of freedom and love. History cannot escape the gravity of the World-Soul, and so inevitably there germinates within her the seed of enantiodromia: the shadow, confronted and integrated, becomes its opposite. When the horror of the shadow is swallowed, the Soul becomes pregnant with the Savior. Light shines through matter from the far side of death, escaping its dark lie to emerge within our soul as Wisdom, becoming our spirit-guide or daemon.

What had been a fearsome phenomenon observed only second hand through the death of others becomes what it always really was: the numinous source of all meaning and spiritual substance of all love. No longer something abstractly held at a distance from life, death becomes itself the point of the emergence of the mind’s present perspective, the Seer behind all that is seen. The Soul is not living as opposed to being dead, she is the Life that conquers death, the portal through which eternity flows into and transforms history, one generation at a time.

Death is a trickster. At once the most sacred and the most desecrated of rites, it shapes your life long before it ends it. If Socrates was right and the Soul is immortal, then death does not end our need of her love.

“…The soul demands our care not only for that part of time we call life, but for all time… If death were a release from everything, it would be a gift-of-Hermes (hermaion) for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul” (Phaedo).

But death, despite the Soul’s everlastingness, may still be Hermes’ gift to saint and sinner alike, since it carries with it a secret message to each individual human being from the gods. The secret is one I have tried to tell, but in the end it can only be heard in one’s own heart, there whispered by the Soul. In truth, it is a secret that cannot be shared between mortals, since its meaning cannot be limited by any language, nor pointed at by any finger. It is an open secret whose signature is nowhere in particular precisely because it can be found everywhere in the universe: in the passing clouds of the daytime sky, in the folds of our aging palm, in the names of those we love. There is no great significance in anything but for its being a sign of transience and death. All earthly things point away from their origin and toward their own demise, and it is precisely by indicating that which is before and beyond them that they are illuminated and made alluring to the Soul. A beautiful thing is never just what it is. It also is not, and in the space of this not, the whole of eternity is opened to our loving contemplation.

Humans are unique in our ability to sense what is not there, in our capacity to think and to feel not just actuality, but possibility. This power to recognize what is not is as much our gift as our curse, since it all but erases the instinctual “species knowledge” that so perfectly situates other creatures in the world according to their natures (Trickster Makes this World, by Lewis Hyde, p. 42). For this reason, despite the apparent harmony of the cosmos in which we live, we are generally riddled by anxiety and shame, imitating others since we are never sure how to behave ourselves. We lack our own way, and sense also in the life of the world that a certain arbitrariness is responsible for its beauty. There seems to be no universal principle to determine what is aesthetically pleasing from what is not. Beauty is unruly; its concreteness cannot be made to conform to formal notions of symmetry or measure. Tragedy is as touching as comedy, the absurd as provocative as the ordered. Beauty is seen or felt in a thing not because of what it is, but because of what it makes possible within the Soul who sees or feels it.

Perhaps our anxiety is due not only to our sense of the possible, and to the lack of a natural way that results, but also to our aborted knowledge of death. We know only that we will die, that a threshold will be met that surely will transform the ego and the arbitrarily ordered world it has come to think of as real. We do not know, however, what this transformation will produce in us, nor how we ought to conceive of the eternal nowhere and nowhen that it takes us. Knowing that, while not knowing what–this is the recipe for a lifetime’s worth of anxiety.

Typically, human cultures construct “cosmetologies” to cover up their ontological insecurity. These stories provide us with masks to hide our deep wounds and to avoid our having to face the forms of cosmic order and chaos at work outside our feeble comfort zones. What is needed is a more compassionate and developmentally open ontology, a cardiontology or mettaphysics, that provides a way of encountering the demons associated with death as our teachers. Demons can be invited into the Soul in order to help us heal, since it is they who carry to us an awareness of that which we are least aware and least compassionate. Only when demons are rejected do they seem to be motivated by evil intentions; faced with loving kindness, they lose agency altogether and are revealed to consist only of our own unclaimed traumatic material.

Has the secret been adequately told? Perhaps not. Though its meaning can only be postponed by being summarized (since its essence is either heard at once or forgotten), the limits of my medium require that I do so.

In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan says, “At the moment of death I hope to be surprised,” and doubtless death will be quite a surprise for most of us. Why so? Because, according to our common sense, death is the end, something we have never experienced before and can never experience until we die.  Sure, plenty of us give ourselves various religious labels, belong to such and such a church, temple, mosque, or monastery, believing in this or that kind of afterlife… but how much of it is genuine? How much of our own spiritual opinions do we take seriously? It has become hard in today’s skeptically-minded times to truly believe anything but the standard company line that our entire existence on Earth consists of nothing but this one fleeting breath of life between birth and death. It is commonly thought that to demand more is to regress into fantasy, to ignore the hard fact of life that is death. But surely even the skeptical rationalists, beneath their veneer of intellectual pride, still feel the chilling air of uncertainty bubbling up from the darkness of their own impending death.

Death unites us all in a common mystery, though most of us mistake it for misery. If death is really the end of our personality, and by all biological accounts it seems to be, then what is it all for? Why live? What more could life be, in this case, but a hesitation, a rejection of the inevitable, a denial of our fate? To consider ourselves alive, we must deny ourselves death. But our denial cannot prevent its inevitable arrival. It’s coming to swallow us up into a timeless void for all eternity and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. In such a situation, there is only one reasonable option for those seeking freedom. In the teachings of the Buddha, we find a path toward the realization of this freedom. But the path, rather than leading away from death, leads directly into it. The Buddha suggests, in other words, that we learn to “die” while still alive, so that the eventual death of our bodies won’t be such a shock to us. This death while still alive is enlightenment, realization of the Dharma, and it consists in seeing deeply enough into the Soul in order to discover that which is neither dead nor alive but eternal.

If the struggle against death gives rise to the ego—in a sense, is the ego—then the dissolution of the ego should be one and the same as the acceptance of death. The Buddha’s doctrine of anatman here becomes relevant in that it reveals the selfless nature of reality, thereby giving one the sense that death need not be feared because there never was anyone to die to begin with. Similarly, the Buddha’s doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness, shows us that life has meaning only within the context of death, and vice versa. Life itself has no self-nature. Its appearance in the relative realm of maya depends on its contextual relationship with death. In such a realm, life means whatever death does not, just as death means whatever life does not. The Buddha saw the trap inherent to all discursive methods of thought that attempt to understand the life-death polarity intellectually. The coincidence of these opposites can be known only experientially, and even then, their reconciliation inevitably slips away and is forgotten.

Contemporary humanity finds itself in just such a strange epistemological paradox. We are convinced out of sheer habit of thought that the meaning of life is knowable and rational—that it obeys a reliable and symbolically describable order, and that it has some demonstrable purpose; but all the while, whenever we happen to stop and look into the mystery of our own being, we become aware of the terrifying fact that all of our supposed knowledge rests on blind assumptions about the completely unknowable experience of death that will one day befall us.

We, as civilized humans, are raised to act and think as though we are isolated individuals, as if our skin was an ultimate boundary completely cutting us off from the world around us. We are brought up in a way that distorts our initial childhood perception of reality, which is the simple truth of our growth out of this world, and therefore of our inseparable connection to it. This intuition is denied and repressed in favor of the more intellectually useful idea of having been thrown into this world.  From this outside, third-person perspective, scientific map-making becomes possible. Such maps are directly responsible for the great technological successes of our society. But the rewards of this perspective come at a cost. By pretending to be an outsider on our own planet, we have alienated ourselves from nature. This “outsider’s view” of the universe is a major source of our anxiety about death, as any human who was in touch with his nature would be as accepting of his death as he was of any other naturally occurring event. Were we to remain in touch with our childhood intuitions about reality, we would not fear death but instead spend our lives preparing for it with great excitement and expectation.

“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise,” says Socrates,

“for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

4 Comments Add yours

  1. simonemah says:

    These are very beautiful thoughts, Matt ! I taught a whole course on Philosophy of Death, and I quite like the application of the trickster-concept to it – as well as your honest and open reflections. Thanks, Simone
    (Mahrenholz)

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