Toni Packer: Dying

Most of us are afraid of dying. One can try to combat the fear of death by concentrating on death as a practice. Recently I heard of a monastery where the monks were not supposed to talk at all, except for when they met each other they said, “Remember, brother, that you are going to die.”

What goes on in these people’s minds? What are they doing in this exercise? Essentially the resistance to being here now is the fear of dying and losing all that we know about ourselves our whole history. So can one work with this fear directly, listening openly, vulnerably, dying to ideas as they come up about myself and the world? No idea,
not being anything, no grasping to be somebody, not anything when that happens freely there is no fear of dying, because this is what we really are, what we were before we are born, and what we will be when we die.
It is our true state. Now. There is nothing fearful about it.
Q: Do you ever think about your own death?
Packer: Sometimes. I wonder how it will be. At the moment of dying I will not be the way I am right now, living. There will be a total letting go of the need to continue. I am sure of that. And that takes care of itself.
Q: How can you be so sure?
Packer: More and more the concern about death and dying is totally absent. There is just the vastness of purely being here that knows no story about itself. And then there are times when I am thoroughly enjoying being with somebody, or sharing a wonderful meal, or smelling the new spring flowers. And, at such a moment, thoughts may arise, “Oh, someday I may not have this anymore. This marvelous view here of the
hills and the snow-covered trees.” Then there could be a twinge of either sadness or nostalgia. Seeing that fully is the dying. At the moment of dying you simply do not want things anymore, there is a totally different space.


Crossing the Bar: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.


One of my favourite poems; it captures so well the intersection between mortality and eternity, in a flash of words.

There is a musical rendering of this poem by the group Salamander Crossing which is stunning. Click here.

Richard Sylvester on death

To the separated searching individual, it seems that what we are was once born and so will one day die. But when non-separation is seen and it is known that what we are is awareness itself, pure being, Oneness, it is known that this was never
born and so can never die. Just as a night-time dream ends when we awake in the morning, so this day-time dream ends at death. But the dreamer, Being itself, exists outside time and so is without beginning or end.
Because personal annihilation can seem terrifying, the mind creates many stories about what happens after death. So we develop delusions and elaborate constructs about it. One
glance at the many bookshelves of volumes on religious and spiritual philosophies shows how much energy we put into creating stories about a personal life after death, and what we need to do to ensure that our personal continuation will be a happy one. That so many of these stories deeply contradict one another simply fuels our search.
“Acknowledging the non-existence of the self” may be a useful watchdog over fears about death for a person, but it cannot be more than that. When the person is seen through, there is no need for a watchdog any longer.

Live long and prosper

A couple of days ago I read the following news item on the BBC:

Dr Patrick Hill, of the department of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, said the notion of living a life of purpose – setting large goals that direct your day-to-day activities – seemed to be protective on a number of fronts.

“In this study it is mortality, but other studies have shown people report better health,” he told BBC News.

“There is clearly a benefit from feeling a sense of direction or feeling you have these goals directing your day-to-day life.”

The full article can be found here.

The basic point of the news item is that people who live goal-oriented lives seem to be healthier and to live longer than people who don’t.

I was both perplexed and amused by this article.

One of the premises of meditation is that the psychological self, spread over time in the past and the future, is intrinsically insecure.
Contemplative traditions urge us to stay with the present moment in all its complexity and beauty as a way of understanding peace of mind, security and happiness, rather than living a life determined by future-oriented goals. My assumption has therefore been that staying in the present is a “healthier” way to live than being directed by time frames, particularly by looking to the future.

Of course, I may be misunderstanding some broader point in the study. Often reports of medical studies in the popular media tend to be misleading. But this report did give me a useful jolt with regard to examining my own assumptions!

The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

the bell murdoch

They came quite suddenly out of the wood onto the wide expanse of grass near the drive. The great scene, the familiar scene, was there again before them, lit by a very yellow and almost vanished sun, the sky fading to a greenish blue. From here they looked a little down upon the lake and could see, intensely tinted and very still, the reflection in it of the farther slope and the house, clear and pearly grey in the revealing light, its detail sharply defined, starting into nearness. Beyond it on the pastureland, against a pallid line at the horizon, the trees took the declining sun, and one oak tree, its leaves already turning yellow, seemed to be on fire…

This gorgeous novel does not treat meditation explicitly. But it does address many spiritual questions: what constitutes goodness and virtue and beauty, how is one to live and love in the world without causing harm, what are compassionate states of mind. As such, it ranks as one of the most thoughtful and deep novels I have ever read, written with crystal clarity.

The novel concerns a lay religious Anglican community in England. It treats the private lives of several individuals there: en erring wife, afraid of her bullying husband; the head of the community, who grapples with his past and his homosexuality; a young boy who comes there to find himself before joining university. All are drawn together through a series of bizarre events on the estate.

The richness of the themes, the sense of mystery and, almost, sacredness that pervades everyday life, the portrayal of the depth of human minds: these are hallmarks of Murdoch’s novels. I envy those who are yet to read this work.

Optimism and pessimism

When I talk to people or when they read what I write, they often tell me that I am a pessimist. I should focus on the positives in life, they say, instead on focussing on negative factors such as insecurity, death and fear.

However, I tell them that I am merely being realistic. The meditative mind faces facts and does not run after ideals.

Fact: our bodies and minds face impermanence and death every day.

Fact: the world is burning with violence and war, both at micro and macro levels.

Fact: personal sorrow and societal sorrow have tremendous weight.

I don’t deny that people can be generous and compassionate. But these human qualities don’t seem to be our default mode of operation, in personal life or at a wider scale. If they were our default mode, society would function very differently.

I feel it is important to recognise these issues at a very very deep level. If we don’t recognise them, if we paper over them in order to feel better about ourselves, then we will never give our human problems the serious attention and energy they deserve.

Our houses are burning. We need to wake up to this fact.

When Death Comes, by Mary Oliver

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.