“Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that ‘I’ cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life. By holding his breath, he loses it. By letting go he finds it.” –Alan Watts
There is such a thing as a beautiful death. A larva goes to sleep and awakens as a ladybug. A grub spins a black carapace before becoming a honeybee. A caterpillar weaves a silken cocoon where it transforms into a butterfly. Similarly, we fall asleep, we die in our dreams, and we are reborn upon awakening. Life and death are not opposite forces. On the contrary, they are two distinct ways of perceiving the same force. Or, contrastingly, as Epicurus was believed to have said, “Death is nothing to us, since when we exist, death is not present to us, and when death is present, we have no existence.”
According to Sigmund Freud, humans have a life instinct, which he named “Eros.” But Freud thought that the sex drive was the primary repression issue regarding the human condition not the death drive. Ernest Becker corrected Freud’s dogmatic rigidness with sexuality by pointing out that, “Man’s body was a curse of fate, and culture was built upon repression –not because man was a seeker of sexuality, of pleasure, of life and expansiveness, as Freud thought, but because man was also primarily an avoider of death. Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality.” He thereby refined “the death drive,” which was coined as “Thanatos” by Herbert Marcuse years earlier. Thanatos But Thanatos can actually motivate and activate Eros. Death is like compost. Contemplating death is like compost for the soul. Just as compost helps cultivate a healthy garden, contemplation of death encourages a healthy vigorous soul. We are more likely to be proactive life-affirmers and life-achievers, rather than inactive victims of life, when we take death into consideration and meditate on it.
Those of us who meditate regularly are familiar with that translucent coalescence that occurs between life-affirming energy and death-defining vitality; especially while meditating on the crown and third-eye chakras, where time and space, life and death, finitude and the infinite, all combine to reveal the awesome interconnectedness of all things. If we practice meditation long enough we discover that the birth-death-rebirth cycle applies not only to a lifetime, but to each moment, from moment to moment. A new self constantly emerges. In fact, a new self emerges every second of everyday. Carpe puctum leads to carpe diem leads to carpe vita with each breath. With each inhalation we are born. With each exhalation we die. And within the next breath we are reborn again. When we let go of what we are, we become what we might be. When we let go of what we might be, we become what we are.
Like Alan Watts ingeniously opined, “The movement in which I am a pattern or convolution began incalculable ages before the (conventional isolated) event called birth, and will continue long after the event called death. Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.”
Indeed, learning that we die over and over again is learning how to truly live. But we cannot achieve authentic engagement with our lives by acting out the conditioned reflexes of hand-me-down traditions. No, we achieve it by undergoing a process of discovery that requires a different kind of death, a letting go, a psychosocial death of the comfortable and the familiar. And then a rebirth, a passionate delving into the Abyss of the Self: with its orgies of pain, its orneriness of angst, and the certain defeat of our expectations.
Like Simone De Beauvoir wrote, “Man lives within the transitory or not at all. He must regard his undertakings as finite and will them absolutely.” It is in the transitory, in the fleeting moments and ephemeral seconds, where we are most truly human. Eros & Thanatos Embracing The Life-death-rebirth metamorphosis only seems complicated because we are stuck in a way of thinking that we’ve inherited from our language, culture, and environment. But once we become more aware that change is inevitable, we realize that it isn’t as complicated as we imagined it would be. Life goes on. The process continues. The life-death-rebirth process cycles through every moment. Change is absolute, but its beauty is in vicissitude, in the ups and downs, within the immanent quality of being in awe of not knowing what will happen next in our lives. Like Laurence Gonzales wrote in Surviving Survival “The true transformation in the journey comes when you see the amazing beauty of the place in which you are trapped. This is the vision of the vision quest. You embrace the pain, discard your concerns about death, and then the world opens up to you.” We’re all “trapped.” None of us chose to be born. None of us chose the hands we were dealt. Or if we did, we have forgotten that we did. And that’s okay. That’s the beauty of it. When we embrace the pain of life, the pain is assuaged. When we contemplate the dread of death, the dread dissipates and death is cast-off. When the boundaries of the self are blurred, death becomes less of a full stop and more of an ellipsis. Then the entire cosmos opens up to us, merges with us, becomes us. And so Thanatos defines Eros, and through their embrace our own truly authentic engagement with life becomes a possibility.