Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.
“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.
In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.
Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.
That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.
…never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.
This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.
Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.
Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.
Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.
Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.
The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.
We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.
A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?
Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.
The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.
“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.
Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.
Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.
If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.
“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.
Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.
But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.
The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.