AUTUMN 1996 VOLUME TWO NUMBER ONE
NOUMENON - A NEWSLETTER FOR THE NONDUAL PERSPECTIVE
DEATH AND THE TRANSCENDENCE OF GRIEF
(Updated version of original article)
With the death of my wife Shamala from the autoimmune disease lupus, all speculation about death suddenly had no meaning. They were empty words in the face of the enormity of irremediable loss.
Survival after death in some form; reincarnation; consoling words about the merciful end of her very intense physical and perhaps emotional pain; the fact that one lived with the illness in progressive stages of severity and therefore one was better prepared to meet the final outcome – all these had no meaning. The body-mind entity known as Shamala was no longer present and would never be, ever again. And this brutal fact is an utter shock to the system.
To suggest that one can make contact with the entity through some form of spiritualist contact is simply postponing the recognition of this hard, cold fact, clouding the mind with a soporific which, I am aware, is the indulgence of many who have lost someone through death, gaining the illusion that they are still in contact with the person. Even if it could be proved that it is definitely the person who has died who is communicating with the living, it still does not remedy the situation that the body which once lived is utterly out of reach forever.
So how does one transcend the grief sanely, in a way that there is a deepening of insight rather than an escape into a mind-dulling fantasy?
The way that became clear to me in the midst of the mind so desperately wanting to re-establish its familiar world, was to examine if there was death at all. Certainly there was the death of the person known as Shamala, but was there really such a permanent person?
First of all, the person I came to know as Shamala was constantly changing physically as we all do – more so in her case because of the illness. But she was also a professional dancer whose photographs we now admire belie the fact that without the make-up and the other attractive additions of costume and jewellery she was not quite the same in appearance – no less beautiful – but not quite the same; in the same way that one’s physical appearance, while still recognisable as being that of so and so, can alter radically in the course of ageing.
Then of course, there was Shamala’s personality. Again this varied, it was never constant, changing due to circumstances as is the case with all of us. But, some may argue, there was a certain Shamalaness that defined that particular person, but the question is, was this really constant throughout her life? And what defined this?
If we look carefully we would have to admit that there were psychophysical traits – of voice, the way she walked, the way she laughed, etc.– complemented by traits of the personality. But the truth is that every individual who had contact with her developed their own sense of who Shamala was. This has to be so, because socially we play so many different roles. So what I regarded as being essentially Shamala would be somewhat different for her parents or her teachers or our child. The blatant truth is that we construct the person in our minds from the raw material of the impressions given by the person’s body-mind, which are always changing; when the body-mind is no longer we are really mourning the loss of our own self-creation – now without the physical stimulus – as well as mourning the loss of a shared life, the particular ordering of our world in a certain way. But more importantly, and more deeply, we are mourning the loss of that being’s tangible Presence.
And this is the key word. Presence. Every body-mind can only but be different for every other who interacts with it; we all build up different pictures in our minds of who the person is, and when there is death we all mourn for slightly different versions of the person. But what we are truly mourning is the loss of a Presence. We cannot say a specific Presence because specific would imply someone unchanging in every respect and the same for all who knew that person. But as we have seen, this is an impossibility, but one of the mind’s primary delusions because we habitually relate to others in terms of our images of them. But if there is a falseness to our images, and if the person is always changing, almost always imperceptibly – including the nature of our relationship with the person – then what we are truly grieving over is the loss of Presence.
The big question is, what is this Presence?
It is not the ever-changing body-mind. In a sense death is taking place all the time; not just biologically in the countless destruction of our cells, etc., but in the fact that the three-month-old baby who looks smilingly at me from the photo in my office is now no longer a three-month-old baby – there is now an almost three-year-old little girl with psychophysical characteristics that will change again and again. But the mind never really pays attention to this because we tend to construct a permanent entity in the way we constantly make adjustments to the ever-changing reality. Our minds’ images of people, especially those close to us, rapidly adjust giving the sense of sameness, until a photograph or video image from the past, or some unfamiliar action by the other, suddenly jolts us into seeing the fact of change.
My own discovery is that Presence is what we all are, and to the extent that we continue to see Presence in another as separate from our own Presence, then there is suffering, then there is unending sorrow.
To see Presence as that which is before the body-mind, we have to die to the ideas engendered by the body-mind. In dealing with grief one has to be willing to go beyond the ideas that we hold onto which make the person a reality for us, and try to touch that person’s Presence. And this we can only do when we touch our own, when we see who we really are; when we see that we are always changing – that we are playing many roles all the time, some consciously, some not – but that beneath all the ideas we have about ourselves, there is just pure Presence which cannot be objectified, thought about, but yet is inescapably the essence of our existence.
When we allow ourselves to simply be, rather than be somebody, then Presence is who we truly are, and this Presence has no division because it is before the body-mind. And living from this Presence there is then no idea of the other, therefore no sense of loss. In Presence, Shamala does not become one with me, but rather it is the Ground in which Shamala and you and I arose. One need not wait for death to return to it because one is already it however unrecognised this is. It is only our illusions of things that make us believe that we come and go. Presence, Awareness, is, and it is the play of body-minds that arise and dissolve. When this is experientially seen, then the idea of death is laughable; like laughing at the notion that the actors on the stage really died, however much we are moved by the sad story of their deaths.
Then grief has no resting-place, because grief can only thrive on the idea of separation. Certainly, the body-mind will grieve for a while, because there is separation at the physical level, but the extent to which we identify with this separate existence is the extent to which we will endure grief.
When we see ourselves in true perspective – that we are Presence first then a somebody – then grief is part of the passing show, quickly dissolving when the curtains come down on our illusions.
The above piece requires some fleshing out by way of a brief account of an insight that occurred some four years before the above experience, which, I believe, determined the way grief was transcended. But more importantly, it holds some clues to the on-going unease that nevertheless continued to plague me until I did the ‘turn-around’ course with teacher Byron Katie in Holland in August 1999. In April 1993 I wrote the following for the newsletter Share It, which dealt with the ‘seeing’ practice of English seer Douglas Harding. This is what appeared in Share It, Issue 9, Spring 1995:
Of the two responses to Douglas' The Little Book of Life and Death (Share It, No.8), the second (John Wren-Lewis) is in accord with the insights of the book, while the first (Kim Taylor) takes issue with the author's insistence that one can uncover a personal immortality, not simply some clear, no-state, ‘a mere impersonal gazing into impersonal depths’.
At first I was inclined to agree (from the area of intellectual comprehension rather than seeing), that the first response was dealing with facts, that:
The concept: I/self, in whatever form (or non-form e.g. the Void), however expansively interpreted as Universal-I or `spiritually' as Self, all too easily makes sense to the I/self, comforts and swells it; even seems to confirm it. (Kim Taylor, Share It, No.8).
I was in total agreement with the above, but nevertheless decided to re-read The Little Book of Life and Death, only to find that Douglas, subtly, was pointing to a Truth that was, for me, beginning to take on a tangible reality, not because it appealed to the I/self (which is something that one must always be alert to), but because it was so. In a moment of uncluttered SEEING, I AM revealed itself to I AM, and it could not have been more Personal. It was Personal, yet not in any way egocentric, yet existed only for ME, which included me.
Something that Krishnamurti said in his early years, but then refrained from talking about later on (with good reason, I feel), now became truly apparent - that enlightenment is not the loss of Personal Identity (how could it be when it is always there!), provided we SEE that Identity is not derived from memories, experiences, etc, but is the I AM that gives rise to all.
But the truth is, words create confusion about WHAT REALLY IS, and this is the only fault of the SEERS who try to communicate the obviousness of SEEING.
If the above gave the impression that I had ‘arrived’ it was probably due to the intensity of the insight that stood me in good stead for the next few years when my wife became progressively ill and the burden of looking after her and a young child occasionally threatened to snap me like a tightly-wound coil. But there is, in this story, also the fact that the insight did not free me from my day-to-day insecurities, fears, addictions, and generally reactive behaviour. I now see that bringing Douglas Harding to South Africa in 1994 for a short visit, and my expanding contacts with nondual spiritual teachers from around the world through their books, letters and e-mail communications, was a deep-seated search to find a way to bring total ease into my being.
The distinction between genuine transformative insight and intellectual understanding had become blurred, and certainly I was not in possession of that on-going freedom that Krishnamurti spoke about that comes from total insight. I admitted to myself that the insights were, at best, partial. I continued with a voracious reading appetite of anything ‘nondual’, convincing myself that I was no longer searching but simply confirming what I had discovered. But I was living a subtle lie, and I also resorted to using, unconsciously, the logic of nondualism, where anything can be argued away on the basis of asking ‘who is doing the questioning?’. Through partial insight, or maybe just pure postmodernist logic, one can comprehend that there is not a fixed, separate self, however contrary this appears to the senses. So one can argue away all sorts of personality problems on the basis that they do not pertain to a real person, etc. But the truth is one still behaves as though one were a real, separate individual, with all the ugliness of self-centred behaviour. Certainly a powerful tool in the hands of truly realised teachers, in my case nondualism was a cover for the general body-mind unease that was ever-present like a shadow.
Part of the problem was that I was conditioned to believing that simply ‘seeing’, being ‘choicelessly aware’, would bring one to freedom. It had its own logic, and I simply felt that I was somewhat tardy in the practice of seeing.
Then the search took me to the teachings of A.H. Almaas, who uses the processes of psychology for spiritual unfoldment. It made a lot of sense and dented the conditioning, but Almaas and his programmes are in America and I am in South Africa.
In September 1998, while in the garden by the poolside looking at the grass, I suddenly saw that everything about me was conceptual. Although another partial insight, it nevertheless made me want, more than anything else, a felt sense in the body-mind of what I intuited to be the real freedom. I was tired of the insights that did not translate fully into lived experience – of life lived always, no matter what the outer circumstances, with a sense of deep ease.
Then in November, by ‘accident’, I came across the biography of Byron Katie entitled A Cry in the Desert: The Awakening of Byron Katie. Her story spoke of a genuine transformative awakening, but moreover, her simply method of stopping the mind seemed to be my missing link.
Through e-mail contact with Byron Katie and her staff, I was unexpectedly given a scholarship to attend a five-day course in Holland devoted to the application of The Work of Byron Katie in business training – an area of deep interest as I was developing a course with a similar experiential basis that arose out of my doctoral research in nondualism and educational drama and theatre (the doctorate was awarded in February 1999).
However, the turn-around course was more than I had hoped for. Through the persistent application of The Work, I was suddenly released from the film of unease that had accompanied me all my life and which, no doubt, determined my patterns of behaviour. (To believe that what happened was self-fulfilling is not to understand the deep terror that accompanied me as I travelled to Holland; a shadowy fear that persisted even after I momentarily melted into the warm, accepting nothingness when Byron Katie first hugged me.)
The Work, which can be summarised as ‘judge your neighbour, write it down, ask four questions, turn it around’, uncoiled the mind through the mind, and there was a kind of re-entry into the body. This ‘re-entry’ is also spoken of in Katie’s biography, but I had no reference for understanding it until my experience on the fourth day of the course, when I had become, for the first time in my conscious life, fully embodied, and yet, paradoxically, found that there was no real ‘I’ that was being embodied, just total embodiment of a particular body-mind. But it only happened when the terror of imagined humiliation was seen to rest on fear, which itself rested on the idea of being somebody. Contrary to all my nondual understanding of being nobody, the core belief of being somebody still exerted its presence, until it reached, through this inquiry, the light of self-realisation. I actually saw the lie that I was living, and with that insight was release.
This release still feels, literally, that I am the breeze and it is the ‘me’ through which it is gently blowing. Late spiritual teacher Jean Klein spoke of his awakening as being a kind of physical click in the body where everything righted itself once and for all. In my case habitual upper neck pains and shoulder tensions disappeared and the body felt just loose and unself-conscious for the first time in its life. It is just present in the here and now, and in a paraphrase of the words of Byron Katie, not attempting to pretend itself beyond its evolution.
Am I awake, am I spiritually realised? I don’t know, and don’t know if I can ever know. Who is writing this? I don’t really know. Why am I writing this? Because I was asked to. But in the body-mind there is just this on-going sense of freedom. And if a blockage should arise, there is, as Byron Katie says, always the simple inquiry.
So Krishnamurti’s ‘choiceless awareness’ gave me the tools for seeing the movements of the mind, but it also had the effect of intensifying the duality within, of seeing and feeling more acutely the inner split; Douglas Harding’s ‘seeing’ exercises took me to the place of my no thingness – showing my self as pure awareness; and Byron Katie’s inquiry, by removing the stories of the mind, seems to have integrated it all, giving ‘me’ total embodiment in the here and now.
And as I complete this story, I am aware of a wonderful paradox, that actually nothing happened to anyone!
The first part of this article later appeared in Inner Directions Journal, Fall, 1997, and in translation into Dutch in Zien, Tweede kwartaal 1998, No. 11.
Wren-Lewis, J. 1988. The Darkness of God: A Personal Report on Consciousness Transformation Through an Encounter with Death. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 28 (2), 105 - 122.
It is reported that just before he died Ramana Maharshi was asked where he would be going to.
He replied, 'There is nowhere to go.'