When I started this blog I set myself some rules: it will be about writing; it won’t mention the rest of my life; I will keep it light; I won’t talk about Buddhism or spirituality or personal exploration. The idea was that I would present myself as ‘a writer’ in an upbeat and professional way, with none of those adventitious bits trailing outside the template. The rules haven’t lasted very long; most of them have already been broken and I’m about to break the rest. And I don’t mind. This may not be the kind of blog an agent or a publisher would fall on with cries of joy, but it is a place where I can say what I want to say, to those people who are kind enough to read it. What I want to say can’t always be about writing; sometimes life breaks through in all its mystery and precariousness.
On 10th March I heard that someone I had known for some years had died of pancreatic cancer. It wasn’t diagnosed until 15th February, by which time it had already spread to the liver. She was about my age, maybe a year or two older, which these days isn’t all that old. In October, when I saw her at a conference, she still seemed fit and full of energy. She did say she had a pain that she hadn’t had before, but she attributed it to her IBS and didn’t seem unduly bothered by it. In the closing concert we performed a skit together that had people crying with laughter, thanks mainly to her wonderfully off-the-wall improvisation. The conference was on Focusing*, which despite its name isn’t about being focused on a goal or task; it’s about focusing in on inner experience in a way that’s both gentle and profound. It’s similar to some kinds of mindfulness meditation but is often done with a ‘companion’ who listens and reflects back. I’ve felt a special kind of closeness to people I’ve Focused with, like people I’ve shared writing with, and as a Focusing companion Divyam had a particular sensitivity that often touched me. At that conference we weren’t only fooling around together; we were sharing something intimate.
When Divyam died I found myself going through a whole gamut of responses. Some were about her: shock and disbelief; a gradual registering of the fact that she was longer there; a sense of my own loss and the loss to our little community; sadness that so much vitality should have been extinguished in so short a time. Others were what perhaps most of us feel when confronted by death: remembrance of past losses; fear that death may be imminently catching; the awareness that life is finite and we don’t know when it’s going to end; a wish for it not to happen to me, or at least not for a very long time. And in the midst of all of this the acknowledgement that yes, this really does mean me too.
For much of my life I’ve veered between a terror of death and a refusal to believe that I will ever be subject to any such thing. Perhaps the two are not so different: a Buddhist teacher said to me that a fear of something implies a belief that it can be prevented. (I would like to think more about that.) On a rational level I know, as we all do, that it can’t, but there is always the secret voice that whispers, No, not me, not yet, not ever…
The Buddha’s final utterance to his disciples begins, “All conditioned things are impermanent…” I used to find the statement incredibly cold but now I feel moved by the compassion in it, the hope that others too will realise this truth and the freedom it brings. The Buddha’s teaching is that this ‘me’ that we think so solid and permanent is in fact a process rather than an entity, and is interwoven with everything around us, not separate from it. The more I see the world in terms of ‘me in here’ versus ‘everything else out there’, the harder it will be to acknowledge death for what it is, a natural phenomenon that occurs in every moment as well as in the ending of this particular life. People who meditate deeply sometimes begin to see how impermanent the world is: nothing stays exactly the same even for an instant, and the ‘I’ who I think I am is continually in flux. Paradoxically this experience doesn’t lead to nihilism or the disintegration of personality, though it can be disorientating; it points instead to what the Buddha called the Deathless – a sense of the spaciousness and radiance and fundamental goodness of that which is beyond the personal. It seems to me that different religions all have their own ways of knowing this territory. Christians sometimes criticise Buddhism for being atheistic but the experience is similar whether it is defined as God or called by any other name. (And incidentally the Buddha didn’t say that there was no God, just that this was something that couldn’t be spoken about.)
Many people, of whatever religious persuasion or none, have had glimpses of this wider consciousness, in the light of which death is both more and less real. For most of us – and I definitely include myself – they are only glimpses: we soon fall back again into our ordinary concerns, our worry about what might happen to me. Without wishing them dead, I’ve always felt that the people whose deaths have touched me have given me a gift, helping me to understand more of the reality of death – and therefore the brevity and preciousness of life. Divyam’s death has spoken to me in that way, and I am grateful. She died peacefully at home, cared for by loving friends, gently letting go into the vast unknown. May she rest in peace.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering.
There is a beautiful Georgian song about the brevity of life, Bindisperia Sopeli. I don’t know what all the words mean but apparently ‘bindisperia’ is something like ‘the colour of cloud’ and ‘sopeli’ is ‘life’. The link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLk4C1E8_xE
*For more information about Focusing see the Focusing Institute, http://www.focusing.org, Focusing Resources, http://www.focusingresources.com, or the British Focusing Teachers’ Association, http://www.focusing.org.uk.