Death: The Cure in the Poison
edited: Monday, April 28, 2003
By Mark Allinson
Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003
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An essay on the wisdom of coming to terms with the necessity of death.
Death: the Cure in the Poison
by Dr Mark Allinson
Once, many years ago, I went to a movie. The curtains opened and the show began - but the house lights were still on! The images on the screen were vague, washed-out and fuzzy, because of the bright lights in the theatre. Strain and peer as hard as I might, I couldn’t follow the action because there was no contrast between the screen and the surroundings. Most of the audience hadn’t even noticed that the movie had started, so they were still finding their seats and talking among themselves. Then bang! the house-lights went off in a flash of darkness. And there it all was - the colours, the definition, the brightness of the images on the screen, so beautiful and clear - and the dialogue could now be heard because the audience, with a shock, had stopped talking. It was a lesson I never forgot: True brightness, clarity and definition, I realised, are only possible in a context of darkness, just as sound needs a background of silence.
In precisely the same way, I came to see that life itself only becomes clear, full and beautifully real, self-evidently meaningful, when lived in the conscious awareness of the ever-present darkness of death.
If awareness of death is analogous to the darkness in the movie theatre, it might also be compared to the deep bass sounds in music. If you turn the bass control on your amplifier right down - which is like removing awareness of the ever-present deep and dark reality of death - then the sound you get is very thin and unsatisfying. It is all janglely and tinny and shrill. Which sounds very much like our modern lifestyle - all superficial hiss and tinkle without any depth. Conscious awareness of the presence of death is like adding a sub-woofer to your sound system, deepening and enhancing the experience of the music of life.
When you pause to think about it, this makes sense because of the universal law of polarity. The law of polarity says that you can only know something, consciously know something, by virtue of its opposite. We know light only because of darkness; we know the high only because of the deep. Many great thinkers from many cultures have recognised this polar nature of reality. As the great 19th century poet-psychologist, William Blake, once said: “Opposition is true Friendship” - that which opposes something, its opposite pole, is that which brings that thing into being.
The same principle of polarity that applies to light and dark, high and low, also applies to sound and silence, up and down, left and right, object and space. The same also for abstract entities, such as right and wrong, good and evil, positive and negative. Name something, anything you can conceive, and you will see that its very being is the product of its opposite. As the great philosopher Alan Watts says, because these “opposites” need each other to exist, they are best thought of as “poles of a unity”, like the inseparable north and south poles of a bar magnet. You simply cannot have one without the other.
And this law of polarity applies to life and death. In fact, you might say that the ultimate polarity is that of being and non-being. Just imagine, if we had always been alive from the beginning of time, and always would be alive forever and ever, then the whole idea of “being alive” would be utterly meaningless. It would be like having an object that had no empty space around it to define its boundaries - you simply wouldn’t be able to see it because it would be so huge as to be everywhere, taking up the entire field of vision. Only an object which is surrounded by its counterpole of empty space can be an object. No emptiness, no object. The fact that we were once not alive, before birth, and one day will not be alive again, after death, is the essential prerequisite for allowing us know that we are alive now. In the very same way that we have days only because we have nights, we have lives only because we have deaths.
Now this may seem a banal and obvious thing to point out, but is it really? Many people I meet actively resist any direct discussion of personal death, saying things like: “Why bring up such a morbid topic? We all know that we are going to die; there’s nothing we can do about it; so why bother even mentioning it? Can’t we talk about something positive?” In other words, they are saying: “I refuse to think about the very thing that defines my life”. Which to me is another way of saying, “I refuse to acknowledge that I am alive, and quite frankly I prefer to exist in this dreamlike realm of partial being.” Such a reaction seems to me a lost opportunity to enter the true realm of living, preferring to watch the movie of the world with all the house lights on.
At first glance, this may seem a dubious point. How could we benefit from directly contemplating the very worst thing we could imagine - the end of living? Surely, the best idea would be to put it out of mind until the end. Who knows, perhaps science will find a cure for death before our turn comes. But sometimes the most beneficial things often seem the least attractive. Take the following examples.
The first example is based upon the ancient law of “reversed effort”, as beautifully presented again by Allan Watts. Imagine, for instance, telling a non-swimmer who has fallen into the sea that the best solution to his or her plight would be to give up all struggle to stay afloat. This advice to stop struggling to keep one’s head above the water is totally against every instinct to preserve life. But only when this struggle ceases does the body’s natural buoyancy come into play. Struggling to stay afloat is called drowning; absolutely accepting the fact of immersion in the water, resigning oneself to entirely to the water, is to float on the water.
Take another example of apparently crazy advice. This one involves another principle of ancient wisdom: that the cure may be found in the poison. Imagine telling someone (someone who didn’t know about modern medicine) that the best cure for a deadly snake bite was to be injected with a modified form of the same snake venom? The same with immunity from a disease, to be given an injection made from the same virus that causes the disease. It sounds ridiculous, but it happens to be true - the cure very often lies in the poison.
Both of these principles of ancient wisdom apply to the deep meditation on the inevitable fact of our death. Resisting awareness of the fact of death is like resisting the immersion in water - in the desperate struggle to stay afloat we actually lose our life. Totally accepting our immersion in the sea of death, we float and live. And it turns out that taking the medicine of the meditation on death, rather than adding to our modern malady of depression, is the inoculation of poison that cures the illness.
No wonder today, in a culture where our reluctance to contemplate death predominates, we complain so much about depression, stress and burn-out. No wonder we get such headaches of jangled confusion. And it is no wonder we complain of a sense of “lack of meaning” in our lives, a lack which leads to all sorts of troubles. We gamble to spice up our existence, believing that meaning in life is purely a function of money; we spend a fortune on self-help books and therapies, looking for “the answer”; and we consume alcohol and other drugs to forget the dull, ever-present pain of a meaningless life.
Our denial of death also amounts to the loss of an opportunity to live what the philosopher Martin Heidegger calls an “authentic” life, the life lived in the conscious presence of death. And the authentic life, I believe, is the truly moral, truly religious life. For instance, how many people after experiencing a close encounter with death radically change their lives and their jobs and their values? The acceptance of life’s inseparable counter-pole brings life into full clarity, and those things which seemed important when death was denied now seem shallow and irrelevant. But surely, we don’t need to wait for the wake-up call of a close escape from death through accident or illness. Surely the truth speaks for itself, if we will listen.
And the truth is, deny the fact as long as we can, we die at last anyway. We all know this is a fact, and it is never far from our consciousness simply because we choose not to look at it. Indeed, I believe this resisted knowledge drives us even more than we care to admit. It drives our frantic search for security through money and power and prestige, and it poisons our enjoyment of life at its very source.
But what is this source of life’s enjoyment? It is nothing other, I would suggest, than the fully-lived experience of this very present moment. Dr Johnson, the famous eighteenth century writer, once said: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”. And when we consciously acknowledge the presence of death in the midst of life, we concentrate our minds on the here and now. In this knowledge we slow down, we pay attention to the small but important things of life - the things that enrich our lives with meaning. The word “happiness” derives from an earlier form which is “happen-ness.” Which suggests that you can only know happiness, the enjoyment of life, from the happen-ness of present experience: that which happens here and now. And nothing gives us this moment more clearly, more brightly, than the meditation on death.
I mentioned earlier the frantic modern search for meaning in our lives. But what is the meaning of life? First of all, do we really believe that the meaning of life could be stated as a formula. In other words, is the meaning of life an idea, a concept, a notion? If someone were to tell you the meaning of life, in a formula or a principle, would it satisfy you? Many of us seem to believe it would. And so we pursue our search for a formula for the meaning of life through religion or politics or philosophy, looking for “the answer”.
But what if the true meaning of life lies in an entirely different direction? What if life itself is the meaning of life, and we don’t know this because we don’t know how to live. And what if we don’t know how to live because we don’t know what it is that brings life to its clearest, brightest, deepest expression? What if we don’t know life because we refuse to contemplate the very thing that defines life?