are you awake?

The Inevitable Elephant


This week I joined those of you wondering about our situation here on this living, spinning sphere that hangs inexplicably in vast space. I have been wondering about humanity - about how we are the same as each other and how we are different. I confess I was slightly surprised by the terrain through which my curious heartbrain wandered as I wondered what I wondered. But if you would like to know something of where I went, then please be my guest and read on. I must warn you though - looking closely into things can be very dangerous indeed.

Whether you were born 100 years ago or yesterday; whether you were born a girl, a boy or somewhere in between, wherever in the world you call home and however rich or poor you may be, there is a startling and inescapable fact right at the centre of your life: at an unknown point in the future, you will die. The thread of this fact runs through the fabric of each of our lives. It is never far away, but sits like a quiet elephant waiting patiently and knowingly in the corner of the room.

Death is at once entirely mysterious and utterly commonplace. I'm not sure that there is another topic so confronting and yet so able to lead us to our vulnerability; so unsettling and yet so rich with potential to spur deep questioning. How do you respond to an inquisitive five year old when she asks you where Rusty the family goldfish is after he didn't survive the change of water last week? Or Grandpa after he didn't survive the trip to hospital? What stories do you put between yourself and the awesome uncertainty of what the Zen traditions call this Great Matter of birth and death?

Death unifies us because it is the ultimate boat that we are all in. Not one of us can avoid it. And we also end up polarised and in conflict over the topic. Some of our most deeply held beliefs are to do with what happens after we die. And these same beliefs motivate some of the most extraordinary acts of violence, like those committed by suicide bombers in order to reach the paradise of martyrdom. I have been surprised to hear people I consider wise and intelligent, speaking with such certainty about the truth of reincarnation. Personally I don't think we can know what will happen after death. But then I don't think we can even really know what will happen after breakfast.

I do think however, that our relationship to death is at the heart of our endeavour to live happily together on this planet. I think that if we can learn to make peace with our mortality then we can make peace with one another. To the extent that our religious beliefs are a defence against the terrifying certainty of our dying, we will cling to these beliefs and even be willing to kill for them. But if we can discover the humility, courage and gentleness to turn towards the mystery of death, then perhaps our hearts can relax enough to allow life in.

How is it for you to be reminded of your mortality? How do you craft your response to this Great Matter? I wonder if the humility we can discover by our honest reflection on death is the same humility that can allow us to live well together. I wonder if allowing ourselves to really not know opens our minds enough to allow those around us to be themselves, however different they may be from us.

Paul Burrows


Article also appears on Conscious 2