Before The First Step
For over twenty years, I have been blessed to be in close contact with many people who were approaching death. Almost all of these people were reaching out for healing–healing in relationship to death, healing in relationship to illness, in relationship to a wounded heart, to separation from their own self. My consuming interest, both personally and professionally, has been the healing process. Why do some people as they approach death experience a profound sense of wholeness, while others travel toward denial, depression, distraction? Is there some powerful truth about life and about healing that you and I can receive from those few who, as they went through the process of dying, deeply realized their wholeness?
Why is it that the most alive and awake Americans I’ve known have been, almost without exception, people near death? My intuitive understanding is that the less I deny my relationship with death, the more healing will manifest in my life and the more alive I will become. To enter into that sacred ever-present spaciousness while I am with someone close to death or while quietly alone, and then, in the stuff and activity of my life, to forget so thoroughly that which I have just directly experienced to be Presence constantly radiating within all form and action, together generate an increasingly irresistible pull to embody wholeness.
During the past two years I have been on semi-retreat–abundant solitude, minimal social contact, being with just a few people at the end of their lives, and living with a lot of pain in my own body. Writing, teaching, being an “expert” on dying, and most administrative duties, have been put on hold as I’ve plunged into an investigation of what blocks or prevents my own healing and of the structure of the healing path itself.
There is a path to healing that I have briefly written about in the last two newsletters: invocation, compassion, and then empowerment, leading to healing. Many spiritual seekers and many dying people have followed traditional practices from the world’s great healing/spiritual traditions. Each in its own language explicates a path to profound healing, a path particularly yearned for and cherished by the dying. And yet now at the cusp of the twenty-first century, we are so distracted and driven that healing becomes a set of practices and attitudes added as an adjunct to life, rather than the core focus of life.
The healing path is the most demanding and rewarding route that one can pursue since by necessity it confronts all that has been hidden, feared, and avoided. During these past two quiet years, studying and practicing, being with the dying, I learned–initially to my surprise but eventually with gratitude–that I need to go back to “before the beginning” of the healing path. I need to go back to my motivation for the first step. Tibetan Buddhism speaks particularly clearly about this “before the beginning of healing” stage. Even before we take the first step on the path to wholeness, before we invoke the spirit of healing, before we dedicate our actions to the welfare of all beings, we are asked to contemplate four self-evident truths.
First, life is impermanent. We will all die. The time of death is uncertain. Some people facing the possibility of death have a remarkably clear connection with this truth. Many do not. To the extent I don’t know this truth deep in my gut, I will not be a healing force at the bedside of someone with a life-threatening disease. Whenever we get lost in the non-essential, we are lost in the illusion of immortality.
Second, life is precious. There is great potential inherent in this moment. Healing is possible. Wholeness is our nature. Once again, being told that you will probably die soon can bring this truth into vivid focus.
Third, our thoughts, speech and actions have an effect–the law of karma. What we do affects the healing process. Grace certainly can enter here.
Fourth, being lost in duality, automatically reacting to pleasure and pain, to attraction and aversion, ultimately is unsatisfying, incomplete, and antithetical to healing.
Taken as a whole, what are the implications of these truths? Even though intellectually obvious, we haven’t gotten them until we have contemplated their meaning to the point that our fundamental motivation is transformed. Certainly their import is not an attempt to figure things out, but rather to inspire the motivation to essentialize one’s life. Now is the time to move toward healing, to do and then become the practice that cultivates invocation, compassion, and empowerment.
These four preliminaries are instructions for living: Don’t cling to distractions and trivialities. Integrate wisdom into your actions rather than leaving it in your head. The motivation for practice is no longer only for one’s own healing, but for the well-being of all.
These truths also embody the shadow–the unconscious, largely unexamined root fear of modern society. Many while traveling their path have cultivated compassion and empowerment; yet these qualities are not generally stabilized and integrated into our lives because, collectively and individually, going back to before the first step is what we most want to avoid, what our ego structure was forged to prevent.
Approaching death can inspire one to essentialize life–living/dying on the edge, motivated to be fully alive in each moment, no longer able to put healing practice–prayer, meditation, visualization, surrender to the non-dual necessity of each moment, the Name–in a compartment at a comfortable distance from one’s exposed core. These preliminary truths, though revealed and amplified in the dying process, are inherent, though often more easily ignored, even without the presence of life-threatening illness. Few, however, open to the commitment and motivation inherent in these truths without first having an extreme life crisis.
To the depth that we plunge into these four mind-transforming truths, we will find our path and move in the direction of healing. Invocation, taking refuge in that which is, bears fruit since now we invoke with the passion that comes from acknowledging truth. Invoking the spirit of healing, the Beloved, the Mother, the Christ, taking refuge. If we truly invoke, healing will already have begun. We then will be attracted to compassionate and empowered action in a natural way. Healing is received, ever-present.
How much greater are the compassion and the wisdom that are often expressed during the crisis of approaching death than during the current election crisis. Disregarding the public good, ignoring the suffering of our neighbor, abusing mother earth, becomes increasingly painful and unacceptable as we embody the essence of the healing path.
– Dale Borglum