This past weekend I taught a graduate seminar on this topic. I borrowed the title from a quotation supposedly attributed to Rainer Maria Rilke, although I have never seen the actual quotation in print (If any of you can point me to the original, I’d be most appreciative) – “Love and death are the great gifts in life. Mostly, they are passed on unopened.”
I’ve taught this seminar many times. In recent years I’ve begun to think about death within a framework of social neuroscience (Paradoxically, five minutes a day spent thinking about death is reported to lead one to a very happy life). During such musings I explore all kinds of strange and wonderful possibilities. We know that neurons die (through apoptosis and necrosis). We know that people die (death). We know that neurons connect (synaptogenesis). We know that people connect (attuned emotional resonance) – we are in fact Hardwired to Connect. Might this being that I have come to call “Me,” simply be a really big, complex “neuron” in a much larger brain? If so, since brains work better when they are connected and well-integrated, wouldn’t I do likewise? If so, that suggests I need to connect to death as well as life and many of the people associated with both!
In the framework of death and social neuroscience, the end-of-life trajectory often takes on special properties for both the person dying and the circle of people around them. My friend Kathleen has sat with hundreds of people through this trajectory. In her remarkable book, The Grace in Dying, she reports on this significance:
(Accompanying a person at the end of life) is to be pierced by a power beyond our separate sense of self in a moment that sources both compassion and wisdom. We deepen our capacity to live more fully and freely, awed by the fact that we ARE alive. We become different beings through the transformative power of our insight into the dying process. We become larger, more integrated, and somehow more real with this expansion of our horizons and remapping of our boundaries. We enter levels that allow our now deeper being to open to WHAT IS – giving and taking, in living and in dying, with fewer gimmicks and simpler truth, with less frivolity and more joy, with less suffering and more gratitude.
Part of what often makes this time special, I think, is that it sometimes works to dissolve many of our long-held psychological defenses. When our psychological defenses go, my theory would be that for some of us traumatic incidents stored in implicit memory from conception (even before?), through childhood and beyond, begin to make their way to the surface of consciousness. Those experiences often then show up as symbolic entities that we may store as fearful, limbically-wired memories, experiences we have little ability to easily put words to – in other words, as waking nightmares or frightful, wounding images from our personal past. These too, I suspect, have an opportunity to evaporate with the dissolution. Might this be one reason Tibetan Buddhists consider the end-of-life trajectory to be a most propitious time?
When I visit a hospital ward filled with terminally ill patients, I see many of them curled up, asleep in the fetal position. They remind me of my daughter, Amanda as an infant. As I used to do with her, I often muse upon what might be going on in their brains, in their hearts.
It’s difficult not to actually think of them as developing fetuses, preparing much as Amanda did, to leave one known sensory-filled world on a surrendered journey into another. One question is often asked of me in these Love and Death Seminars, “What happens after we die?” My response to students is that this question is probably much like asking a baby, “What happens after you’re born?” I’ll further answer that question here the same way I do there – from Rilke again in one of his most familiar Letters to a Young Poet:
… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.