When I first became interested in Buddhism, I went to a workshop with my nuncrush, Venerable Robina Courtin (swoon) on death and dying, cheerfully called How to Have a Happy Death and a Happy Life. It was fascinating, and like the title suggests, reflected the Buddhist belief that our human lives should be spent preparing for our death and next (higher) rebirth. That we should turn our focus to being the best we can karmically, while purifying old negative karmas to ensure we keep a human body as a minimum vehicle for our consciousness to get around in. This isn't the blog post to unpack or discuss some of the immense ideas contained in that sentence, lets save that for another eon of time together. What that workshop did was really viscerally remind me about death and impermanence, and how we take being alive so totally for granted.
When I say we, I mean nearly all of us (except when we are in the grips of a serious or terminal illness or perhaps close to someone who is) are not in the daily mindset of death being imminent. In reality it is more of a miracle that we are still alive than that we will die. Even Ven Rob, who has spent the last 4 decades as a Buddhist nun working with death, impermanence and many prisoners on death row, said at the workshop that it was editing a recent book on death and dying that FINALLY made her begin to, at a more emotional and spiritual level, connect with the understanding of death as real and imminent. And she meditates on death every day. It is easy to say we're going to die. It is an infallible truth, even in a post truth world. The only reliable thing from the moment of birth is that we will at some point die. It is a dead set certainty. So why is it so hard to incorporate in our mode of living, and in our behaviour?
A desire to hold on to what we have in our minds as a fixed identity and all that entails with regard to our relationships with people, animals, houses, cars and experiences is no doubt part of that disbelief. All the complexity of our belief systems feed into our immortality in a behavioural sense, and of course our ego, which is control and command for the 'i'm going to live forever,' Fame school of theme songs. There are Buddhist practices that suggest every morning as part of meditation practice celebrating that you made it through the night, and meditating on the many tens of thousands of people who did die. I find this a fascinating beginning to the day, and do it quite often, along with using the idea that I could literally die at any time, and so better get on with being kind and compassionate to all sentient beings so I have some hope of getting my act together when death does come a knocking.
With my thoughts of death, meditation on death and impermanence, and that chunk of time at Kopan Monastery really honing in on the fragile grip my little flesh and waste machine has on life, i've observed a recent spate of deaths and our reaction to them culturally with interest and compassion, especially the reaction of the community in Melbourne to the deaths caused by one man and a fast moving vehicle. Those deaths were shocking, violent and inconceivable, a sentiment expressed by bewildered people struggling to understand how that incident could have happened. Stages of grief have been on raw display, with the question asked so often of how it could be prevented from ever happening again. I have no doubt that on the same day in Melbourne that four people were killed by an allegedly mentally ill and drug affected man, four elderly people died from natural causes. These deaths aren't shocking to us as we have in our minds a natural order of lifespan - we are born, live for many decades, and die peacefully in our sleep or surrounded by loved ones having achieved everything we were destined to do. That is the accepted narrative of a human life in the Western world, clean clear, dignified and gentle.
The death of babies, young fathers, vibrant young women and happy go lucky tourists exploring a new country is not the subject of our death narratives, especially when those deaths seem completely random. The victims in Melbourne were four people just going about their day, not planning that their lives were about to end without warning. Just an ordinary day, as they say, like any other. This is the seed of our grief and terror, the brutal reminder that death could happen to any of us, at any time. There were many thousands of people in Melbourne at lunchtime that day, and many who were directly affected when that car was driven up Bourke St Mall. Many people had a firsthand or first responder experience of just how easy it is to be killed and to die. The stark truth of our lives is our stuff can't save us, our love can't save us, our jobs can't save us, our families can't save us, our intentions can't save us. Whether we are good or bad people by anyone's measure. All the things that we work toward and gauge our success by, none of them are a shield to death.
As the country watched the Melbourne memorials and mirrored the sadness and anger across the country, a lone man also died in Brisbane. He was an actor on a film set for a music video, fatally shot in the chest when a prop backfired and killed him. News reports showed videos and images of a man at his physical peak, cut and buffed, a handsome man of action, who was about to get his big break in the film industry. He had gone to work that day like any other, in a profession that is fundamentally safe, an industry based on illusion and the magic of film. His death too brought the familiar responses of shock and disbelief - how could this have happened? It's a question we keep asking. We never simply say of course he or she died, we're all going to die and this was how their death happened, that death is itself unremarkable and the means extremely variable. An expectation, a time for acceptance and reflection and compassion.
We should see it coming, but we've all drunk the cool aid of the natural death, and the expectation and entitlement of every one of us to that full sentence of our own mortality, myself included. Our unique special oneness, that domain of the ego, endorses and reinforces this belief. Because we don't live in a society where there is wholesale death, rampant infant mortality, war, famine, unchecked disease or out of control lawlessness, our contexts support it too. Also because we tend to not talk about death, as if the mere mention of it will bring it swooping towards us wielding its scythe, there is an awkward gap in comfort and familiarity about death, so it never becomes normalised. We don't know how to be conversant about death, so we aren't, whenever and however it comes to us or others.
There are so many varied ways that the human body can become dead, we are quite the vulnerable animal. It's rather astonishing that so many of us live so long. Whether you subscribe to a Buddhist philosophy or not about the importance of mental and lived preparation for death, a good death can be had by anyone. And as the Buddhists recommend, this tends to be a result of living a good life, being up to date in your affairs and having a slate clean of regrets and unfinished emotional business. Things like resolving conflicts, telling people you love that you love them - often, being honest and open and authentic to what you want in life and how you want to be. Of course that works best when how you want to be is of and in service to others, a life that is not selfish or self oriented, as it has been proven over and over that having a generous outer life leads to a rich inner life.
For me, waking each day and acknowledging that it is a miracle i'm still here even if I don't truly get it on more than an intellectual level, forces me to think compassionately about all those who have died, and all those who are living with the grief. That action makes me start the day in a state of gratitude and loving empathy with many millions of strangers, and my little world dramas aren't so important. As I take each action like driving, eating, crossing the road, I try and remember that death is certain, only the time is uncertain - am I making the best use of my time, my mind, my body. Have I worked hard enough at the preparatory practices so if I am faced with death in an instant I remember what to do. Perhaps you're thinking this is a dark and maudlin mindset. This is only true when death is dark and maudlin, not a reality of life that can produce great joy when the rarity of having a functional human body and being born in a country of wealth and safety is taken into daily consideration. Our imminent death should be a cause for celebration and presence to our lives.
There is no legislation, or increased police presence, or any act that could prevent what happened in Melbourne happening again there or elsewhere. It is part of our very humanness that these events happen, and part of that humanness is that death will happen, the time and method of which remains unknown. I'd like to see us talk more about death, with our friends, partners, children, families, strangers. How we deal with it, plan for it, how we can be compassionate for those experiencing it or the grief of loss, what it means to die well and how we can be relaxed and prepared at anytime for the impermanence that we embody. Changing our stories about death and the illusion of permanence to a more open space where we could swap fear and blame for calm and conversation would be a start. Not looking for an explanation for the inevitable unexplainable would also help acceptance of the duality of our birth and thus our death. If you're reading this, you woke up alive today. Now that is something to celebrate.
Dr Polly McGee is one part writer, and many parts assorted thinker, do-er, talker, eater, chef, explorer, yogi, kirtaneer and dog wrangler. She has worked in kitchens, bars and restaurants from frantic to fancy, managed multi-million dollar innovation grants programs, advised hundreds of start-ups on how to refine their business ideas and source funding, and championed causes from a variety of soapboxes, lecterns and stages. She is currently the Strategic Marketing Lead for Global Edtech Startup Prosper Education. Her new book, The Good Hustle, is coming out in February 2018