The first time I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, probably about twenty-five years ago, death was a metaphor, but when I picked it up again last week I did so seeking direct solace. I opened it to the chapter titled The Process of Dying and came across this description; “Our body begins to lose all its strength. We are drained of any energy. We cannot get up, stay upright, or hold anything. We can no longer support our head. We feel as though we are falling, sinking underground, or being crushed by a huge weight. Some traditional texts say that it is as if a huge mountain were begin pressed down upon us, and we were being squashed by it.”
A few years ago I read a blog post by a woman I didn’t know, about attending a friend’s death; a young man, not ready to go. She described how she told him he could scream if he wanted to and how he did. I remembered this as my sister shared a similar story about our mother but when she opened her mouth to scream she produced only a whispered “ahhhh.” Well, Mom was never the screaming sort.
It was a terrifying thing to watch my mother suffer beneath that mountain. I really don’t want to linger with the memory, and yet I have thought often of how grateful I was to this stranger’s post, all those years ago, which prepared me for my mother’s death in ways that the platitudes didn’t.
Solace is mutable. What provides comfort for me might be distressing for others. I was so upset to read that description of death as a crushing mountain, and yet found solace in a truth I had experienced. Later, I read in the same book that someone who has lived a good life will have an easier death and wanted to throw the book across the room.
This was not a gentle leaving. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. Then she said that she was trying to let go. “Don’t try,” I said. “Just be.” And at least for a while that seemed to help.
The thing is, I never believed the platitudes. I quite knowingly understood that death would be difficult and unpleasant. Yet, I knew nothing at all. Though I believed I understood death’s nature, I came so unprepared for the terror. And I thought, why didn’t someone tell me about this? Why didn’t someone warn me? Then I picked up a book I had read, and loved, years ago and realized I had been told over and over again but had not understood.
I came, quite unprepared, to my mother’s dying and leaned on the composition of my life for support. I read Rilke and Dylan Thomas to her, hoping the rhythm would soothe her unsettled mind. Earlier, when she was still at home and I was guiding her body, I found myself using a certain lean my yoga teachers use when helping me. It just arrived so naturally, and it helped us both. Near the end, when her breathing became labored, I caught myself doing ujjayi breathing, slowing my own breath but also making it louder; I like to think this helped settle herself against her fears, but of course I don’t know. It did help me, though.
The gothic ideal is this reach between the basest human matter and its highest idealization, finding the sublime in the space between polarities. Yoga, too, is deeply sourced in the idea of union. Now, at this late stage in my life, I see how the way I write and the way I practice are not incongruous. Nor are either incompatible with death, and that’s become very important to me. After seeing what my poor mother went through I hope never to forget death again because the mountain is going to fall. It falls on everyone.