How Zen Masters Die

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Tell it to no one but the wise
For most will mock it right away
The truly living do I prize
Those who long in flame to die.
Distance cannot slow your flight
Spellbound through the air you’re borne
Til at last mad for the light
You are a butterfly, then… gone. 
And until you know of this:
How to grow through death
You’re just another troubled guest
On the gloomy earth. 

~ Goethe, “Holy Longing”

Towards the end of his long life, the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, who died at 98, had this to say about overcoming the fear of death:

The best way to overcome it … is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue (“How to Grow Old” in Portraits From Memory and Other Essays, Bertrand Russell, 1956. Full essay here).

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about Russell’s quote, and not just because I am now in my middle years, and thus aging more noticeably (and, it feels, more quickly). For several years I’ve been researching a book on the changes that happen to advanced meditators over a lifetime of practice. Again and again, the central dynamic described is the very one Russell articulates: greater openness and humility and equanimity, an expansion of identity, a paradoxical increase in both the impersonal and the personal, and a lived intimacy with an ever-larger world.

Russell was a strong critic of organized religion and the truth claims of mysticism, although he also admired the mystical attitude and claimed it was “the inspirer of whatever is best in Man.” No doubt the great philosopher would have said the changes he describes are in no way proprietary to spirituality. He would be right; we find the same ease and wisdom in maturing artists and athletes, in bankers and farmers and scientists. These qualities seem to be a natural part of aging, or – more accurately – of aging gracefully.

My contention in this short piece is contemplative techniques like meditation amplify and accelerate these changes. They allow practitioners to experience the best of old age’s wisdom and perspective in the prime of life, instead of at the end. You could say they accelerate the aging-gracefully gradient. Again and again, practitioners report more space and perspective in their lives, less egotistical clutching, and a more mature and laissez-faire relationship to life’s vagaries.

One central quality that arises in consciousness as a result of meditation is a kind of smoothness or non-grasping, often called equanimity in Buddhism. Practitioners learn to welcome experience, to allow all sensations to express themselves. This leads to moments of insight and catharsis, of old habits and fixations falling away. It carries over into life not as passivity, but as a smooth efficiency and dignity. Practitioners learn not to grip so hard on circumstances, not to push and pull and endlessly negotiate with reality. Doing so frees up energy that can be used towards what really matters: service, relationships, creativity, and so on.

Some describe a strong feeling of coming apart, of emptying out – even as they are held and supported by a deeper quality in their experience. The state is paradoxical: surrendering to the wisdom of insecurity, they find a new ground, even as their previous identifications and certainties and drivers wash away. It is a kind of death, but, as Goethe describes, a death that makes way for a richer living.

You can sometimes see this principle at work at the very end of life. I volunteered for a time as a palliative caregiver at Hospice Toronto. When people die, both their bodies and their minds come apart. Some terminally ill patients have a natural grace in these times; others, very understandably, are terrified. The Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young describes the process of dying with forensic precision:

When a person dies, all their ordinary ordering principles – the organizing of thought, even the organizing of sights and sounds – goes back to the blooming buzzing confusion of the neonate. It becomes completely disordered. If you are scrambling around in that confusion trying to get back to the ordinary organizing principle, trying to organize thoughts and perception, then that’s going to be very uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if you are able to accept the confusion, if, in Young’s words, “your awareness can alight and identify with the blooming and buzzing, can become that flow of nature – well, then you are home. You have everything you need.”

Living and practicing for years in Asia, Young saw a different kind of death in Buddhist and Taoism masters: “Does an enlightened person become senile? Sure. But it doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t feel the same. There is a palpable sense of grace and beauty in the dysfunction that is not present typically.” These senior teachers, he told me, had the same confusion, but none of the fear and the suffering. Their practice – and the habit of equanimity – was so entrenched they were able to ride on the experience.  Young calls it a “second infancy” – “but this time without tantrum, trauma, or freak-out.”

Of course, you don’t need to be a Zen Master to have equanimity with confusion at the end of life. My friend the journalist Patricia Pearson, who just published a book about the experience of dying, describes seeing this very thing in her eighty-six year old aunt:

She is fully surrendered to the neonate’s perspective, although oddly she continues to possess her great wit, and you can engage in really fun wordplay banter with her. She just happens to think it’s 1936, and has no idea who you are. When I took my son Geoffrey with me to visit her this summer, she was pondering some plastic grass on the barbecue table with happy awe. He said “It’s like she’s on Ecstasy.”

The lesson for me is clear: the aging process can either be your ally or your enemy. In Young’s words, “It can make you frail and freaked out, or it can make you fluid and thinned out.”

Meditation and other contemplative practices seem to improve the odds. They are ways of thinning out in the prime of life. You get there early, so you have time to get used to living from an unfixed address – indeed, to ride on the spontaneity and grace that such freedom affords. Then when death does come, as it comes for us all, there’s nothing to fear: the things we’ve learned to care for will continue.

This article was originally written for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine. First published here in January, 2105


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