It's sometimes said that human beings are the only animals who are aware of their own death, but is this really true? Many of us live our lives almost as if there's no such thing as death, putting things off and never taking any chances or feeling any urgency, as if we have an infinite amount of time on our hands. We damage and pollute our bodies as if we're indestructible, and take life itself for granted just as we largely take our health, freedom and our friends and the people in our lives for granted.
Part of the reason for this is that many of us don't want to think about death. We live in a death-denying culture; if sex was the great taboo of the 19th century, then death is the great taboo of the late 20th and early 21st. Perhaps because of our materialistic, youth-worshipping culture, and because many of us don't believe in an afterlife, we try to repress our awareness of death.
But this is a great shame because becoming aware of our own mortality can be a liberating and awakening experience. In my new book Out of the Darkness, I tell the stories of several people who underwent profound transformational experiences as a result of coming close to death, and others who had experienced this while in the process of dying.
One of these was Deborah Hutton, an English health journalist. In November 2004, she found that she had an aggressive form of lung cancer which had already spread from her lungs to her bones and lymph nodes. It seemed incredibly unfair, since she'd given up smoking 23 years ago and had always made a big effort to keep fit and eat healthy food. But over the following weeks she found a new kind of serenity. Just two weeks before she died in July 2005, she remarked, 'I feel that each moment is exquisitely precious. I love the rain. I love the clouds, I love the sun. Each day feels like a gift, and of course it is.'
Treya Killam Wilber—wife of the American philosopher Ken—also became intensely aware of the awakening power of death, as she was dying of breast cancer. As her cancer reached its terminal stages, Treya found that her spirituality deepened and intensified. In her journals—quoted in Ken's moving account of their relationship and her death, Grace and Grit—she describes her closeness to death as generating a ‘deliciously keen knife-edge of awareness...this satisfyingly one-pointed focus.' She compared it to ‘carrying a meditation master around with me at all times' who could at any moment ‘unexpectedly give me a sound whack!'
Treya tried various courses of treatment, some of which seemed to offer hope. However, once she accepted that she was going to die, she developed a new serenity: ‘The growing acceptance of life as it is, with all the sorrow, the pain, the suffering, and the tragedy, has brought me a kind of peace...Because I can no longer ignore death, I pay more attention to life.
Why can death have this awakening effect? I think there are a number of important factors. Firstly, being aware of our own mortality makes us aware of the value of life. We realise that life is too precious to be wasted and so feel invigorated. We become free of what could be called the ‘illusion of permanence', the subconscious assumption that we're not going to die. Normally death isn't a reality to us, and so we don't live in terms of it. But a close encounter with it wakes us up to our real predicament, making us realise our time is limited, and therefore precious.
Becoming aware of the brevity and preciousness of life also frees us from what I call the ‘taking for granted syndrome'—our tendency not to appreciate things in our lives which we ought to be thankful for, such as our health, the people we love, our peace and freedom, the fact that we don't have to worry about our basic material needs (compared to other people in history or in the world), and the very fact that we're alive at all. We get used to these blessings, and don't see our lives in wide enough perspective, in relation to other people who aren't as lucky as us. But after encountering death we no longer take life—and all the things in it—for granted. We feel grateful just to be alive, to have been born into this world for a short time. We appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature, the people in our lives, and mundane everyday things, such as food, water and the weather.
Encounters with death also make us more present-centred. This is partly because we know we may not have a future, or at least only a short term one, and so we stop looking towards it, rushing into it or filling it with goals and ambitions. We realise that the future and past don't really exist, except as ideas in our heads, that life only consists of the present, and that what is precious about life is the flowing present we're living through.
Death is the thing we fear most. We associate it with misery, decay and bitterness—the end of all our ambitions, of all the success, status or wealth we've built up, of all the things we enjoy doing, the parting from the people we love...In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, ‘Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die.' This may sound absurd, particularly from the standpoint of our death-denying culture—but perhaps, if you're lucky, it may be possible to die happily.
Steve Taylor is the author of Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com