All that is of man and of his own industry, however noble and elevated it may be, must die. – Madame Guyon
The man who stands in love should be dead to himself and to all created things, so that he may care as little for himself as for one who is a thousand miles away. That man is in equality and abides in unity. — Meister Eckhart (Blakney, “The Defense” p. 182)
Enlightenment is the awakening to the realization that one is not other than God. For this awakening to occur, identification with the ego-soul must cease. This process necessarily includes losing the fear of death, because the belief that there is a self which was born, exists, and will die is precisely what keeps one in bondage to birth and death. Adam was sentenced to death for acquiring the “knowledge” that he was a mortal, and the “knowledge” of things as benign and malignant.
Most people deal with their fear of death by repressing it. According to the great translator, Maurice O’Connell Walshe (1978),
Repression may be briefly defined as “the active process of keeping out and ejecting, banishing from consciousness, the ideas and impulses that are unacceptable to it.” We can call it successful self-deception. Its deleterious effects on the psyche are well-known, thanks above all to the work of Sigmund Freud and his followers. In this case it means that we deceive ourselves into believing that we are not afraid of death—and in fact very many people do this. Buddhism is actually an even better and more radical method of dealing with one’s repressions than psycho-analysis, and it is often a hard task to convince people that they have in fact not “transcended,” but merely repressed their fear of death!
When we are in ignorance we are two: an ego, which is an accumulation of thoughts, feelings and memories (skandha), and the Self. The “I” which says, “I am” is real, but it suffers from the belief that “I am a mind and body.” But there is always a part of “I” which has an intuition of what it really is, and this works in opposition to the ego, which although it is an illusion, knows how to fight for its life. When we come close to death, however, the ego loses ground, since its only argument in favor of one continuing to believe in it–the hope of satisfaction of desire–loses force.
Given the connection between death and enlightenment, it is natural that many people have awakenings as a result of either a near-death experience or a decision to commit suicide. And in truth, death is always an act of suicide. Whether we are hit by a bullet or contract a terminal illness, we have unwittingly willed ourselves to be shot or willed the illness upon ourselves.
Eckhart Tolle took his first name from Meister Eckhart, whose teachings he had studied before he experienced enlightenment. Here is Tolle’s story (from the Introduction to The Power of Now):
One night not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train – everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.
“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”
I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.
Tolle’s suicidal thoughts made him realize that the ego which made him so unhappy wasn’t what he really was–wasn’t, in fact, real at all.
Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher, had an enlightenment experience as a result of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 37, which would have killed her but for her decision to “come back” to show others the way. Since the bleeding was in the left hemisphere, her thinking mind (manas in Sanskrit) shut down before her intuitive mind (citta), and so she was able for a few hours to experience pure, unfiltered creation: (“The citta dances like a dancer, the manas is like a jester”). Then her spirit left her physical body as well:
And a little while later, I am riding in an ambulance from one hospital across Boston to Massachusetts General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last bit of air, just right out of the balloon, I just felt my energy lift and I felt my spirit surrender.* And in that moment, I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life, or this was perhaps my moment of transition.
When I woke later that afternoon, I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I had said goodbye to my life. And my mind was now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire, and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise, and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expansive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free, like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria. Nirvana. I found Nirvana. And I remember thinking, there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.
“All things are too small to hold me, I am so vast.” – Hadewijch
But then I realized, “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive, and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.
*The meaning of Nirvana is “blown out”: vana, (blown) is the past participle of the root va (blow); nis means out. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
D. T. Suzuki: (1965)
A monk came from Okinawa to study Zen under Suio, one of Hakuin’s great disciples and a rough and strong-minded fellow. The monk stayed with Suio for three years working on the koan of the sound of one hand. Eventually, when the time for him to go back to Okinawa was fast approaching and he had still not solved his koan, he got very distressed and came to Suio in tears. The Master consoled him, saying, “Don’t worry. Postpone your departure for another week and go on sitting with all your might.” Seven days passed, but still the koan remained unsolved. Again the monk came to Suio, who counseled him to postpone his departure for yet another week. When that week was up and he still had not solved the koan, the Master said, “There are many ancient examples of people who have attained satori after three weeks, so try a third week.” But the third week passed and still the koan was not solved, so the Master said, “Now try five more days.” But the five days passed, and the monk was no nearer solving the koan, so finally the Master said, “This time try three more days and if after three days you have still not solved the koan, then you must die.” Then, for the first time, the monk decided to devote the whole of whatever life was left to him to solving the koan. And after three days he solved it. (Early Memories, pp. xix-xxi)
I was at the end of my rope. I was told not to take a step unless I absolutely had to because there was a possibility that I could drop dead at any moment. This was a terrible, shocking thing to suddenly be told that I couldn’t be active anymore, having been so active all my life. It was a horrible thing.
An intense fear of dying overwhelmed me, the fear that I might drop dead any minute. This stayed with me for days. I went through a real, horrible, low, spinning period there, in the grip of intense fear of dying or of being a cripple for the rest of my life in that I wouldn’t be able to be active. How could I take care of all that, and take care of myself!? I felt that life would not be worthwhile anymore.
This caused me to conclude with determination, ‘Either I get the answers, or I’ll take me off this Earth. No heart attack will do it!’ I had a nice, easy way to do it, too: I had morphine the doctors gave me for my kidney stone attacks.
After several days of this intense fear of dying, I suddenly realized, ‘Well, I’m still alive. As long as I’m alive, there’s hope. As long as I’m alive, maybe I can get out of this. What do I do?’ (Lester Levenson (1909-1994) )
Blakney, Raymond B. (1941). Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation. New York: Harper & Row. (Internet Archive)
Levenson, Lester (1993). Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Phoenix, Arizona: Sedona Institute. (http://www.freespiritualebooks.com/keys-to-the-ultimate-freedom.html) (download)
Lester Levenson — The True Story. http://www.presentlove.com/lester-levenson/
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1932). The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text (Translated from the original Sanskrit). London.
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1965). The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. New York: University Books.
Suzuki, D. T. (2014). (Richard M. Jaffee, editor). Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume I. Oakland: University of California Press.
Walshe, Maurice O’Connell (1978). “Buddhism and Death.” The Wheel, No. 261, Buddhist Publication Society. (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/walshe/wheel261.pdf)
“Maurice O’Connell Walshe”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/walshe/index.html .