Dying Before Death: On Dying Consciously

She related that the old man, then 100-years-old, had just come in from outdoors after he’d finishing chopping and stacking the wood for the winter. His face flush with life, he turned to his wife and, with eyes loving and gently determined, told her that he’s ready to go.

“I’ll stop eating now,” he said.

When she heard this, her eyes were not mournful or pleading. She did not think of the crockpot of food that would need to be frozen or spoil. Of the dark winter evenings in this Gothic northern clime. Of the whispering floorboards beneath her antique feet.

She thought, if that is the word, only of love.

And so, over the course of 21 days, she saw her husband glow into the earth and transpare into the sky. He was radiant–not brave; ready–not hollow; presence and this alone.

He was not, in fact, dying but, as the Sufis say, “dying before death.” Dying consciously to whatever residue of self remained. Realizing the transparent luminosity of the One Heart right here in and with and through all things.

* * *

This story our friend first read some 20 years prior, and now her husband, 81 and diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, is looking at her while they’re at the ER some 18 days ago and saying, “I’m done. Take me home.”

And she did; and they drove home. And soon he turns, with eyes loving and gently determined, to her and says, “I’ll stop eating now.” And she knows in the way only a wife of 49 years could.

It’s been 16 days since he began his fast. He’s still strong, she tells us, still very clear and cognizant and excited. He’s dying before death so that death will be as nothing but a blessed homecoming.

She thinks, if that is the word, only of love, for love is all she knows. Is all she is.

* * *

John, in Hebrew, means: “Yahweh has been gracious.” Godspeed, John.

‘My Mind Is Constantly Racing. How Can I Be Thought-Free?’

Question: My mind is constantly racing. I know that having no thoughts is the goal of meditation, but for me it’s unattainable. How can I possibly come to a thought-free state?

The first step is to see that the mind is not constantly arising. Realize that what we call mind is nothing apart from, or other than, thought. Since this is true, you can ask, “Are thoughts constantly arising?”

To determine that the answer is no, try a fine meditation by Shinzen Young called “Just Note Gone”: see a thought arising, follow this thought along its course, watch as it subsides, and then gently note “Gone.”

Be curious about this space, interval, or gap that is evident after the thought is gone. Look closely at this “void” or “empty space.” Inspect without mentally asking: “What is this?”

Now that you know that mind–that is, thought–isn’t constantly arising, you can start investigating another thought: the thought that having no thoughts is the goal or aim of meditation. Is it?

Consider, in this second step, taking your stand as the witness. Investigate what it’s like to be the witness. Then test: does my stand as the witness in any way change in the presence or in the absence of a thought?

To see that you, the witness, do not change and therefore are not subject to the transience of all thoughts, artificially introduce a thought at random. The thought could be: “I am thinking.” Do you, the witness, in any way change when the thought, “I am thinking,” has been introduced? Or isn’t it actually true that you, the witness, haven’t moved (so to speak) even one inch while the thought has been present? Don’t you remain, essentially, yourself, regardless of the experience arising just now?

In all this, you realize three things. One is that thoughts are not–have never been–a problem. Allow this to be very clear. If it’s not clear, take some time with these investigations until it is clear to you. Another is that you can let go of the assumption that meditation is about being without thoughts (a subject we’ll discuss further at some later date). And a third is that the thought-free state–that is, the state of the witness–is itself free of thoughts insofar as it is “above” and “beyond” thoughts and not insofar as there are necessarily no thoughts present.

The World Is An Illusion: Can That Really Be True?

What Does “The World is an Illusion” Mean?

It does not mean that there isn’t any appearance here. When you see a mirage, it’s not that you’re seeing nothing; you are seeing an appearance; it’s just that you’re not actually seeing an oasis.

The question–“Is the world an illusion?”–really turns on the epistemic status of what’s actually here, of what’s really appearing.

The Setup

Advaita Vedanta commonly says three things about the illusory nature of the world:

  • First, the world is not an entity
  • Second, the world is not independent
  • Third, the world is not permanent.

I. The World Is Not An Entity

Advaita Vedanta begins with an axiom that you’ll need to ponder. It’s that one must investigate whatever is in question by using as one’s “primary datum” direct experience. Vedantins deny beginning with theories, beliefs, hearsay, conjectures, and so on. Whatever, prereflectively, is evident here is what’s “used” in the investigation.

Now, to say that the world is not an entity is to assert that there is no object out there called “the world”; there are only experiences. If you ask, “What is the world?,” you soon find that it’s not some thing but is instead touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing. In short, when you go looking for the world, what you find is not an object–a thing–but a percept.

II. The World Is Not Independent

And the second claim? Since the world is not an entity, we can, henceforth, reduce it to experience. So, is experience ontologically independent? It is not: all experience is dependent upon awareness.

Ask yourself the question, “Can there be seeing in the absence of awareness? Hearing in the absence of awareness?” And so on. You’ll discover that there can’t be any experience without awareness. Therefore, a necessary condition for an experience to arise is awareness. Hence, all experiences “rest on” something more ontologically basic, a topic we’ll turn to in a moment.

III. The World Is Impermanent

As for the world’s–that is to say, experience’s–impermanence, observe closely any experience and soon enough you’ll realize that it doesn’t last: it rises, it persists for a short while, and it sets. In this sense, it doesn’t qualify as sat, a Sanskrit term which means “reality,” “permanent existence,” or “being.” 

Why Does Any Of This Matter?

The fact that, so understood, the world is an illusion is a great pointer for those on a nondual path. It points to what we really want to know: what is awareness (cit) and what is being (sat)? In the early phase (through discrimination), it points us away from the world and toward the Self.

‘When I Meditate, I Keep Looking At The Clock’

Question: Often when I’m meditating, I feel like all I want is for it to be over and I find that I keep looking at the clock. It feels like those are the days I need it the most. Should I extend the time when that happens?

Do you see the mental affliction? Is the clock the problem or is restlessness the problem? Who is restless?

What seems unbearable here, so unbearable that the desire to look at the clock and to get up arises? What can’t you stand? What are you turning away from?

When the “itch” to look at the clock arises, in lieu of doing so keenly investigate what’s giving rise to this desire, to this compulsion. Keenly observe: find out what it is.

How long or how short you sit is really moot. Whether you’re seeing the mind as it arises, viewing it with clarity and equanimity is the matter at hand. Be the witness; see what this is like.