Learning How to Die – Part 2

I wrote this out on a message board, and figured I'd save it here.  It's inspired by and has references to the song I posted yesterday, which you can find here.


Learning how to die.

Key word for me is learning. If we're
learning how to die, doesn't that mean that we practice it? If that's
the case, we're not *just* talking about physical death here.

what are we talking about? Are there ways in which we die
metaphorically in our day to day lives? One author I read described
death not as you being ripped from the world, but as your world being
ripped from you. If we take that as our definition, then many more
situations apply. When you lose a loved one, part of your world is
ripped from you forever. Or when you realize that the principles you'd
based your life on were lies you'd told yourself, and you can't live
with that world view anymore…it's like your world was ripped from

In short, we're talking about crisis. Existential
suffering. And learning how to suffer and die and be in crisis…this
is the most important lesson of all. Isn't that what the song seems to


Because we have a tendency to ignore
and deny it. We have a tendency to say, "Please, don't talk about the
end. Don't talk about how every living thing goes away."

makes sense doesn't it? That we would avoid pain? That we would seek
things like life and not crying, bending and not breaking?

crisis is like a lion. If you run, you better run fast, because he will
give chase and hunt you down like the weakest link in the herd. So we
set up our lives as a race with no finish line. Just keep running, keep
ahead of it.

But eventually you'll be caught. You really can't
avoid it altogether. You can put it off, but when it gets you it will
tear you to shreds. It's like Tetris game. You know the end is coming,
but how far can you put it off?

But none of this is learning
how to die…it's learning how to avoid dying. And "The irony of man's
condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of
death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so
we must shrink from being fully alive." (Ernest Becker)

So in learning how to avoid death, we learn how to avoid life as a side affect.

when we look most deeply at how to live, we actually have to look at
how to die. How not to run in the first place. How to actually get your
hands dirty and deal with death/crisis. It's much easier to deal with a
lion when it's sleeping and basking in the sun rather than when it's
hungry and hunting you down.

But it's counter-intuitive to
approach the lion rather than to run away. It goes against all common
sense and worldly wisdom.

For Christians, doesn't this sound
familiar? Not our way, but God's way? Not worldly wisdom, but the
wisdom of the Kingdom of Heaven? The two types of revenge… The
infinite and all powerful Lord of Heaven and Earth choosing to suffer
when he didn't have to? To show us to face death patiently and
willingly and to let your love shine through the entire time? Did Jesus
ever run away?

For Buddhists and Taoists, doesn't this sound
familiar? To move willingly like water through every crisis that comes
your way rather than to treat life like a bull and grab it by the
horns? To recognize that life is suffering and that the only way out is
to enter into that suffering?

It reminds me of a children's song that people sing at camp:

Goin' on a lion hunt.
Goin to catch a big one.
I'm not afraid.
Look, what's up ahead?

Can't go over it.
Can't go under it.
Can't go around it.
Gotta go through it.

What it's like to go through it, and how to navigate…that's a whole other topic. That's why we all have to learn how to die.

What do you think?

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  1. Funny, I was just musing on something similar today (which I'll probably post tomorrow). I was thinking about the Buddhist practice of imagining yourself as a rotting corpse and noticing the worms eating your flesh. It seems so horrible but so much of suffering is based on a fear of death that it's a very effective exercise. One day we will be dead – that's inevitable. If we are afraid of it and spend our lives avoiding it, then we can never truly live. But I think you are right. Death isn't just about physical death (or identification with a body). It's about whatever we identify with that comes to and end – which, of course, is everything worldly.

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  3. Exactly. I know I've said it again and again…but the original place where I learned this stuff is from Jerome Miller's The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Brilliant stuff!

  4. Great point about Fight Club, btw. It's been a while since I've seen that!I should probably restate the chasing lions bit. We shouldn't go chasing lions, but as we're walking along, should we happen to spot one in our path, we should just keep walking straight towards it. ;)It's one of those things you can't *make* happen. It has to happen to you…otherwise there you go trying to control things again.Also, quick question, how is Taoism a withdrawal from reality?

  5. I've been a hospice volunteer for about 4 years now — a pretty irregular volunteer, but nonetheless, I find the whole hospice community to be a great way to learn how to die. Sitting with individuals who are dying brings the whole topic down to earth and lets you understand a bit about this so essentially human, mysterious passage.

  6. > Also, quick question, how is Taoism a withdrawal from reality?
    Well, I guess it depends on the translation and interpretation, but I seem to recall a few lines about avoiding anything which may "trouble your heart"… and that covers a lot of ground. That may just be my reading of it though. I guess I read the water thing to mean that a sage should flow past Bad Things without letting them touch or effect him/her… as if they "bend with the wind", but then return to their previous shape and forget the wind ever happened.

  7. "So in learning how to avoid death, we learn how to avoid life as a side affect."
    I so understand that on many levels.

  8. I always thought Taoism was all about putting yourself *into* the world. You don't flow past bad things, but through them. Being fully invested in the moment, whatever moment that might be. But then, maybe I've had it wrong. 😉

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  10. Engage Backpedal mode:
    As with any philosophy or religion, there is some vagueness and obscurity and contradiction in many of the books which form the origin of Taoism, which were most likely written by several different people rather than the credited authors… and we also have to rely on the translators to interpret it all for us… er… so there probably isn't a "wrong" way to understand the philosophy… just different ways… I'll get my coat. 🙂

  11. I like this.Reminds me of the end of Waking Life (hopefully you've seen it). The idea that there is only one moment, and it's eternity, and our lives here on earth are basically us facing the question from God, "Do you want to be one with eternity?" or essentially, "Do you want to be in heaven?" and the whole time we're saying, "Mmmm….. no not yet." When we finally let go of this life, when we "learn to die", we then find out how to truly live.I don't know if it's true, but it's an interesting idea.And about Taoism, in my studies I read, "The Tao that is understood is not truly the Tao." Kinda makes discussing it a little difficult, haha.

  12. Exactly! Often suffering is the thing that knocks down all the walls we've built up around our hearts, allowing us to really connect with the people and the world around us, and to participate in the eternal moment.

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