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MYTH AND MORTALITY
TESTING THE STORIES

[from Chapter VIII: Stories from Practical Observation]

                      C.  REST FOR THE WEARY
     Tombstones used to display the initials R.I.P., which in
either Latin or English mean, "Rest in Peace," expressing the
wish of the survivors for the dearly departed.
     The neighbors' dog kept me awake at night for three years. 
Sleep, undisturbed sleep, came to feel very good on the rare
occasions when it was allowed.  If a good night's sleep feels so
delicious, can being dead really be so very bad?  The thought
crossed my mind.
     Dysentery has made being alive for me so utterly miserable,
at times, that I have described the feeling, only slightly
exaggerated, "I was afraid I might not die!"  The reason we get
sick, one could say, is to teach us to accept being dead.  It'll
be a relief to be excused from all this misery, one thinks.  Why
would anyone want to fight Death?  What kind of myth would it
take, strong enough to override the logic and the desire for
relief that Death will bring!
     Sleep is the cure for illness.  When the sick person falls
asleep, the watchers know he is on the mend.  But if that's so,
then it's no wonder it has occurred to people to ask whether
Death may not be the real, final cure.
     Suicide is a way out of an unbearable situation.  In an old
TV western prisoners who had been made into mining slaves
attempted to escape.  One was shot and the attempt was abandoned.
One of the prisoners muttered over his companion's dead body,
"Found a way out."
     Martin Luther King, just before he was murdered, quoted the
old spiritual, "Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty,
we're free at last!"  He meant that Death sets oppressed people
free.
     Sigmund Freud woke up from a fainting spell, after a verbal
conflict with Karl Jung, and murmured, "How sweet it must be to
die."  He believed Death meant oblivion, yet he could say that
laying down the burden of responsibility and conflict and
authority could be sweet, that the yielding and relief could be
"worth it." 
     Death is seen as an escape, and sleep is the symbol of it,
which we experience every night of our lives.  When we are
deprived of sleep, we long for death.
     What is the difference between going to sleep, and dying? 
When I go to sleep, I let go of consciousness.  It is an act of
trust.  I let the Cosmos, or that symbol of the Cosmos, "God,"
look after me, while my attention is absent.  Without that kind
of trust, sleep is difficult, and dying is more difficult than it
would need to be, if I can tell by observation.
     "Not being able to sleep easily is a disease.  Not being
able to die easily is also a disease.  Dying is no disease; only
not being able to die is the disease.  Hanging on there, not
wanting to go, clutching the external awareness, not wanting to
sleep, a hidden part of the person keeping him awake when he
should be asleep, keeping him here when he should be gone -- we
must recognize this disease of not being able to die happily."
           MEDITATION AND THE ART OF DYING, Pandit Usharbudh Arya
 Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy
                                    Honesdale, PA, 1979, pp 29-30
     Children don't like being put to bed too early, and often
resist sleep, even though they're exhausted.  Every parent has
observed this.  My memory of being the child "who had to go to
bed by day" was that I wasn't finished with the day yet.  I
wanted to do more, see more, listen to more stories, learn more,
play more.  How dare they go on doing things when I'm not here?
     Some adults, including a fair number of inept world leaders,
seem to be conducting their affairs, and ours, on this basis. 
They do not seem to be much concerned about whether the
institutions they're supposed to be leading survive their insane
policies and their own inevitably pending personal deaths.  "How
dare humanity go on living and doing things without me?"  Ego is
running their entire operation.  A personal reluctance to die may
contain some of this feeling.
     Conversely, loss of interest in the world, in current
events, in little kids, in newness generally, may be a signal of
the approach of Death.  "Life's not that interesting any more."
     When I go to sleep, I let go of consciousness, but I do
expect to wake up again.  Yet, as I get older, I find it more and
more of a surprise, when I awaken in the morning.  "Oh!  You're
back.  Back here!  And I'm me again."  Often I am aware of having
been someone else and somewhere else, in dreams.
     My father was afraid to fall asleep in his last days.  It
was, perhaps, too much like dying.  He told me he was afraid of
the dreams that came in sleep.  The dreams reminded him, warned
him, perhaps, and foreshadowed for him that Great Encounter which
he feared after Death.
     My mother, in contrast, was not permitted to sleep, in her
last days.  It must have turned into torture.  The lights were
kept on day and night, at my father's insistence.  No sleep.  No
rest.  She was disturbed, in order to wait on him, every two
minutes, literally, all the day and all the night.  When she sat
on that stool after breakfast that last day, she must have been
asking for rest.  A break in the action.  Time out. 
Annihilation, even, if that's what's pending, would come as
sweetly as sleep to the weary, the utterly weary.  And when you
are tired enough, dreams do not disturb your rest.  There was not
enough violence in her departure to knock her off that stool.
     Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote in her remarkable book, THE
MEASURE OF MY DAYS:  "I do not know what I believe about life
after death; if it exists, then I burn with interest; if not --
well, I am weary."
     Older people report to me that at times they are wakeful in
the night, sometimes awakened by an unpleasant dream, and feel
filled with a strange unaccountable Dread.  What is this?  Dread
of what?  Worry isn't quite the right word for it.
     Sometimes the worries which I refuse to indulge in during
the day disturb me at night, but this Dread seems to be something
else.  I have felt it.  In some dreams, fear awakens the sleeper,
but there is little to be afraid of, not even very much to worry
about.  After breakfast and T'ai Ch'ih exercises they fly
forgotten.  But I have sensed that Dread, nevertheless.
     Persons whose lives are filled with psychic pain, for
themselves and their loved ones, have told me that they hope
there is no survival after death.  They want "peace," by which
they seem to mean undisturbed annihilation -- blotto.  They fear
having to go through all this agony and misery again.  They have
had enough.  It almost sounds Hindu -- the goal is to escape the
endless round of rebirths into this life of toil and tears, to
find Nirvana, absorption into the void.  They're not sure that
sleep is a good metaphor for Death, because sleep does include
both dreams and waking up again.
     I must say it makes me sad that life has been so miserable
for some people that they end up with that evaluation of it.  I
have been spared the worst kinds of suffering, and I seem to have
a high threshold for physical pain -- so my personal evaluation
of life is different.  I want more of it, and my hope concerning
Death is that it will be as good as life was.
     Some people die of a broken heart.  Some disappointment,
some failure, some disaster, some separation, some shame -- it
can cause the body to shut down.  Death, then, better than sleep,
offers escape and rest.  The body, when injured, goes into shock,
and as Death nears, pain is overcome.  It can happen.  It can
definitely account for the fact of dying in some cases, but it
does not seem to be something to depend on.  It is despair.  It
is rejection of the fact that one is alive.  Is there any way we
can protect the heart from breaking?  We make progress in the
physical aspects of that question, but the figurative meaning is
so far out, the question strikes us as strange.
     To fall asleep, one must let go of consciousness.  Dying
includes letting go, of consciousness, ego, possessions,
position, reputation -- all that.  Some philosophies of life
recommend practice in advance in such giving up, or getting rid. 
You really can't take it with you.  Many different things are
implied.  But if possessions and ego are stuck in your heart, in
your Heart's Desire, they may foul up the process of getting you
on your way.
     Some old people practice "getting rid," and some do not. 
There was an order of monks which spent years carving their own
coffins.  That used to seem morbid to me, a way of not fully
living.  But clinging to those things which can't be taken along
is likewise pretty clearly not a good idea.  
     A scene from early childhood comes to mind.  The child must
leave most of his toys there on the floor and go to bed.  Maybe
he can take one favorite stuffed animal.  In our case,
confronting Death, one can't take anything, except one's Self. 
That Self is what requires attention, before that last stage is
reached.  Raymond Moody has defined more specifically that Self
which can be taken, according to reports of near-death
experiences:  "wisdom" and "skill in loving."  Possessions and
"achievements" don't seem to count.
                                *   *   *
Previous excerpt: The Machine Stops
from Myth And Mortality
© 2006, Harry Willson

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