If I Should Die Before I Wake . . .
I can’t remember when my mother taught me that little bedtime prayer. I never thought much about what it meant, other than a reminder in the language of children that life might end anytime, without warning. It was not, of course, a plea to God, in spite of the wording. It was an assurance to me that I would continue to be protected, to be cared for as my own mother had always cared for me.
As I think about it now, the words of the prayer take on a new meaning.
A few years ago, I was engaged in a struggle, a search for meaning beyond the mixture of emotional need and philosophical speculation that had satisfied me for most of my adult life. The struggle arose as I became more and more aware of the inevitable and increasingly impending end to my life. I felt that there was something out there, seemingly just beyond my grasp, and I despaired that it might elude me until it was too late—I might die without discovering what it all really meant.
Then, in the process of my digging through available evidence, both in my own mind and in the writings of others, I came upon Vipasanna meditation, a form of Buddhist practice that emphasizes "awakening" to what is. Becoming aware of the most fundamental activities of my mind through concentration and open acceptance, the teaching said that I could begin to see through the veils of illusion that usually prevent us from engaging directly with reality. Awakening is not something as easy as lowering one’s blood pressure or getting through pain without suffering, although these things might happen, too.
Part of the process is learning that what I think of as my "self" is really a figment of my imagination. In a very real sense, there is no "me" in here. It’s not just a metaphorical concept. We’ve all heard a lot in the last century that what we know as solid material—stone and metal and plastic and muscle—is really open space, atomic nuclei surrounded by electrically charged particles that have no solidity either, whirling around and almost never even bumping into each other. That’s a good analogy of this "self" concept. Most of what we call our self is a collection of impressions that we mentally integrate into a single phenomenon, just as we integrate the display of light refracted from water droplets in the air into something we call a rainbow.
Our self-concept is the source of our sense of being separate from everything else. I am me and you are you. We’re individuals, differentiated from each other and from all those other people and things in our known world. Individually, we can "own" cars and dogs and houses and cell phones. We can sort of own children and spouses. As distinct individuals we can owe taxes and utility payments. Whatever we can call "ours." We can be held accountable for our behavior, and we can rage against the impositions that others make on our personal little lives.
And we can plead with the Ultimate Power in the universe to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Somehow, we’re aware that this separate self that we’re so preoccupied with is at least not completely alone in our world. Sometimes we feel something, a kinship perhaps, for the suffering of others. Compassion is a virtue, not only because it’s practical, but also because we sense it deeply. The Golden Rule is relevant to us not only as a social expedient but as the "right" thing to do. In a deep but mysterious way, we’re connected to others.
In the last pages of his book The Evolving Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the problem of facing death. "Perhaps," he says, "in some future dimension of being, human individuality will indeed be preserved." Or, as my little bedtime prayer went, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Our sense of self is so imbedded in our consciousness that it’s hard to imagine it coming to an end. It’s even harder to imagine it not being real. The trouble is, most of what we learn about life in the real world seems to suggest that everything, at some point, comes to an end. And the self, whether it is real or illusionary, will end.
Regardless of what might eventually happen, he maintains, the important thing is how we feel about it. Different religions pose different scenarios for us—reincarnation, heaven, paradise, or nothingness. They’re all designed to help us rest easier in our lives as we anticipate our own end. Most of them rely on belief, on faith, on accepting what someone has figured out for us. A bridge across the chasm of uncertainty. Few of them, in their popular tracts, at least, mention the real source of the problem: the concept of self. If I can somehow learn to let go of that conviction that "I" exist as a separate entity, then death is nothing to fear. The rainbow knows nothing about death.
"There is one source of faith," Csikszentmihalyi writes, ". . . that needs no great leap and thus requires no compromise with reality as we know it. It simply involves accepting our role in the unfolding complexity of life. The fear of death is the result of being too closely identified with the individual self." Then he goes on, " . . . to the extent that we identify with evolution, with the process of increasing complexity, the threat of death retreats."
Other writers offer us explanations for how this can be, this no-self existence. Ken Wilber, for example, says that everything in the cosmos is but a manifestation of a single process, that he calls pure Spirit. The "arrow of evolution" points us in the direction of increasing complexity, increasing wisdom, an increasing identity with The Source. The further we go in our search, the more we realize how much we are connected—to each other, to all forms of life, to the entire cosmos. The "self" is but a way of thinking, like the direction of "up." It depends upon where you stand on earth; up might be toward the sun, or away from it.
And if it weren’t for death, all this might be simply academic, relevant only to those who study such things. As I approach the end of my time here, I’m more aware of my life as an infinitesimal speck in a truly grand process. It may be that I will not "awaken" before I die. At least I’ve had a glimmer of something more than, as they say, this vale of tears.
Donald Skiff, June 30, 2005