What Death Taught Me About Living Fully
On a pristine Sunday evening in late spring, we memorialized the life of my old friend Greg.
It was a perfectly Aloha party, an anti-funeral on the rooftop deck of a restaurant under the Bay Bridge, complete with Hawaiian shirts and rollicking toasts and great seafood. The weather even behaved on behalf of the celebration: no fog in sight.
At the request of Greg’s friends and family, I’d agreed to officiate the memorial.
This left me anxious as hell.
The morning of the service, I woke up with an unnameable knot in my belly. The pressure to sum up a beloved friend’s life in a few brief words completely trumps the pressure of doing, well, pretty much anything else.
So I plugged in my iPod and dialed up my podcasts, figuring that Ram Dass would be a safe bet for some inspiration. The first episode listed was called "Swimming With Dolphins,” and while it ostensibly talked about Ram Dass's experience witnessing the deep consciousness of dolphins and their ability to understand human thoughts sans speech, naturally it ended up being quite a bit about death.
I plugged in my iPod and dialed up my podcasts, figuring that Ram Dass would be a safe bet for some inspiration.
Ram Dass is exactly the guy you wanna be turning to when you're due to eulogize your dear old buddy later that day.
And sure enough: my boy Ram came through.
He described Death as something so completely safe, so absolutely comfortable, so utterly spacious and expansive and vast, that the experience is like taking off a pair of too-tight shoes.
I thought of that feeling—no doubt, one that all of us have known at some point or another—and exhaled. Ahhhh, indeed. Like taking off a pair of too-tight shoes. Slipping into ease, relaxation, fullness. Unbounded.
I thought of Greg, happily shoeless and surfing the endless Hawaiian seas.
I slipped off my shoes and exhaled. And felt vast, spacious, and no longer afraid to do what I needed to do. No longer afraid of being the one standing up there needing to say something meaningful and profound, something worthy and reflective of Greg's life and joie de vivre.
A lot of yoga teachers and publications don't really talk about death. This kind of blows my mind, given that we play dead in savasana, or corpse pose, at the end of every single class.
But, nope. Pastels all around. Happy, shiny people. Nothing dirty or messy or complicated. Nothing gritty or sorrowful, or dark or shadowy. Spiritual Bypassing 101.
Everything is RAINBOWS ALL THE TIME.
And, ok—I see where they're trying to go: the power of positive thinking, your thoughts create your reality, yada yada. Though I might quibble with their philosophy, I know how life-changing working with the mind can be.
(But ETERNAL SCREAMING RAINBOWS are not real.)
What I'm saying is: we owe it to ourselves and to one another to talk about death. Big, bold-faced death.
Because death is as real and as sacred and as holy as life. Because suffering and sorrow are the necessary counterparts to contentment and joy. And because I'm willing to bet that some kind of suffering (what Buddhists call dukkha) brought most of us to yoga in the first place—whether it was pain in our knees, or aches in our hearts.
Suffering and sorrow are the necessary counterparts to contentment and joy.
And that suffering can be transformative. We keep death on our shoulders by sitting with the little deaths of our lives, the fleeting shadows and sorrows, which are as fundamental to our beings as the cameo moments, the weddings and holidays and babies. The daily losses we all know so well—the broken heart, the fractured tibia, the lost job—these, too, are essential to our being. We’re called to embrace these more melancholy moments of our lives, knowing they will very often become the source of our greatest strengths.
Buddhist yoga teacher and psychotherapist Michael Stone makes that point well. He also matter-of-factly comes out of the closet as having once been deeply depressed. Stone speaks about this dark period of his life with a certain tenderness, almost a fondness, such that one sees the ways in which his struggle led him exactly to where he is now: serving, sitting, teaching, a scholar and practitioner authentically grounded in the full human experience.
What a gift that a prominent teacher such as Stone is willing to speak honestly about the breadth and depth of emotions that come with being in a body.
As yoga teachers, we owe it to students to be real, to drop the masks; to cultivate an atmosphere that makes space for ease, wholeness, and authenticity. To say, "Yeah, I've trudged through the muck, tasted the complicated grief and grace of being human, and here's how to use the practice, these tools, to be ok, to hold that place of equanimity, to stay in your center even when chaos swirls all around you, when all shit hits the fan and you wonder how you’ll ever get through."
As yoga teachers, we owe it to students to be real, to drop the masks; to cultivate an atmosphere that makes space for ease, wholeness, and authenticity.
It’s our responsibility to empower and encourage students to trust everything they feel, reminding them that every sensation—pretty or not, blissful or not, socially sanctioned or not—is a potential teacher, a wise guide, a gentle friend. That every feeling is hallowed. And that every thought is potentially holy.
Even the shadowy ones. Especially, perhaps, the shadowy ones.
At its heart, a yoga practice is about learning how to stay, to sit, to be with everything that unfolds. Watching it arise, change, and fade away. We deliberately contort our bodies into awkward and uncomfortable poses so we can practice staying with the feelings that come up while we’re there—resisting the urge to numb them, to freak out, to run away. And using the breath to be ok, while watching the newborn inhales rise and the dying exhales fall.
It’s the living-dying world, heart-beatingly present right there in the course of one single vinyasa.
It’s the daily practice of death, empty, wrung-out, unraveled, lying there on your mat in savasana.
Ram Dass says that when you have death sitting on your left shoulder, you're so much more present in your life—more awake to the little graces, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face. You're better able to let the irrelevant nagging bits go, dropping the small stuff, until you realize that it's all small stuff.
So we carry that mo-fo on our shoulders, knowing that one day the person missing from the party will be us. We let it inform our being, our moving, our loving. And that sober and willing proximity to death allows us to dive more deeply into that which really matters, that which really lights our lives, and to softly, easily let go of the petty, the angry, the small.
Be in your life. Stand there under the twinkling Bay Bridge with your love on your arm and notice the sky, the sailboats below, the evening breeze on your neck. Guzzle another glass of secret-stash winning chardonnay, eat another plate of fries, and know you are alive.
Be in your life.
Happiness is fairly easy to achieve. Buy an ice cream, sit in the sun, eat some good pizza, get the job or the car or the date you were wanting. Joy, though, takes more. Joy requires depth. Joy calls for a dogged intimacy with the ache of sorrow, a lasting flirtation with the shadow side of life, the kind of melancholy solace that makes true contentment so bittersweet.
Joy is the real deal. No shortcuts. Death is always right there, hovering alongside it, casting a somber shadow over your shoulder.
It ain’t easy. The rainbows come and go. But give me joy. Give me heart-cracking, complicated, shoeless, sunshiny joy.
Rachel Meyer is a Portland-based writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal, The Washington Post, On Being, The Huffington Post, RecoveringYogi and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.