I am dying. Although I don’t think my death is imminent, it could happen before I ﬁnish writing this article. You’ll have to read on to ﬁnd out if I make it or not. The uncertainty should at least create a little dramatic tension.
You too are going to die. You might even expire while reading this article. Of course, I’m sure I’m not the ﬁrst to inform you of your inevitable fate (and therefore not responsible for scaring you to death). But even if you do survive this article, in ﬁfty years most of you will be dead of some cause or another, and in one hundred years it is unlikely that any of us will be around to contemplate our death, at least not in this mind and body.
But why bring it up? We’re doing okay for now. Quite alive, thank you. Why think about the ﬁnale? One good reason, according to the Buddhist sages, is that it will teach us how to live. The Buddha himself says, “Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.” A Tibetan saying proclaims that every day that goes by without a thought of your death is a wasted day. A Zen proverb says, “Die before you die.” I presume that then, when it is time to die, we can say to death, “No problem. Been there. Done that.”
Among all the animals, humans seem to be the only ones with foreknowledge of our own death. It is written in the small print at the bottom of our lease on life, but few of us read it over carefully. Although knowledge of death sometimes feels like a curse, it can also be seen as a gift. Unlike the other animals, Mother Nature is at least oﬀering us humans a little time to get comfortable with our death and maybe even learn something from it—before She kills us, one by one.
A few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors must have become extremely upset when they realized that all people eventually die. As they stood around grunting over this sad fact, someone must have said, “Wait a minute. Maybe there is some kind of life after death. And just in case there isn’t, let’s invent one, fast!” Everybody was thrilled with that idea, and soon people came up with diﬀerent stories—immortality, reincarnation, heavens, hells and limbos.
In the West, most of us believe that we get only one life, and how we live it determines whether we will spend eternity in heaven or hell. What a burden it is to carry that assumption around! Why not believe in reincarnation instead? Then we have many lifetimes to practice living and get it right. But the Hindus and Buddhists don’t view this idea of many lives as such a blessing, because we have to go through the painful process of birth and death over and over again. Furthermore, after we ﬁnally do learn how to live, we are liberated from the cycle of births and deaths. In other words, once we get it right, the game is over!
I have thought a lot about the inevitable end, done meditations and reﬂections on it, but I realize lately that the fact of my death had always remained abstract. It seemed almost too easy for my ego to say, “Yes, I’m going to die. No problem. Now let’s get on with the show.” I glibly repeated the Buddha’s lines about “old age, sickness and death,” but they had little resonance for me. I didn’t begin to feel the reality of my dying until my body started telling me about it.
First my eyes started grumbling: “Hey man, you’ve seen it all, or at least enough of it. We’re getting tired of staring at women, or trying to absorb beautiful sunsets, or looking for lost socks in dark closets. And we’re especially tired of reading, looking at those damn little squiggly black marks for hours at a time. At this point you aren’t going to learn anything new anyway, so we’ve decided to kick back here in your head, relax the old receptors, and go into semiretirement.”
About the same time, my bowels, which have been talking to me oﬀ and on my whole life, started singing a new tune. “We’re getting tired of your crap, Mr. Nisker, tired of pushing it around. We’re announcing a work slowdown. You used to take a newspaper into the toilet, but now you’d better start taking a novel.” My bowels had obviously not consulted with my eyes.
Next my testicles started on a rant. “Okay, MAN! We’ve done a lot of hard work down here over the years. Probably produced enough sperm to populate a few planets with your oﬀspring. And we know you’ve wasted a lot of it, too. Well, we’re just about out of juice, so you’d better take vows of celibacy or else start seriously practicing tantra.”
Moving on down, my knees gained courage from the other uprisings and began asking, “How many more steps, brother? How many more times do we have to ﬁght gravity to move your rear end from one place to another just so that you can keep having more experiences, just so that you can ﬁnd food to fuel up for still more moving around? We’ve been on a treadmill down here, and we’re giving notice now: unless you slow down, we’ll put you behind a walker before your time.”
It is now becoming real to me: old age, sickness and death. Once my body began to sink in, so did the truth. Not that I’m feeling near the end, but I sense that the condition of my body is not going to show great improvement anytime soon, no matter how much I take care of it. Of course, I can put on eyeglasses, drink prune juice, rub ointments on my joints, take herbs and vitamins that will help revitalize my organs or lengthen the life of my cells, but at best, these will only cause a slight delay in the inevitable conclusion to this life’s journey. The “stay-young” formulas are the equivalent of putting cotton in your ears to avoid hearing the doctor’s terminal diagnosis.
One of the great lessons of aging is to realize, as the Buddha says, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. . . . It has arisen due to causes and conditions. For now it should be felt.” If this were my body, I would be able to control it, to get the wrinkles ironed out, the plumbing in perfect working order, and the muscles in tone—forever. Instead, I am learning that this body has a life of its own and will have its way with me. I can feel it, Buddha. It’s in my face—and everywhere else.
Aging and death have also become more real to me as I observe my friends. Some who are younger than I am are dying of heart attacks and cancer, and old acquaintances I haven’t seen for a long time suddenly show up gray-haired and wrinkled. Others actually seem to be shrinking, moving slowly toward the ground as gravity begins to win its determined effort to pull us all back to Earth.
As for life after death, I am holding on to one belief, not based on religious conviction or mystical feeling, but rather on scientiﬁc speculation. I am considering the possibility of living my life over again—backwards.
I will explain. In the past few years, astrophysicists have been trying to ﬁgure out the fate of the entire universe. Even though it is still expanding outward in all directions due to the Big Bang, some evidence suggests that there is enough matter and therefore enough gravity to slow down the expansion, and that eventually the universe will begin contracting, a process called the “Big Crunch.” The scientists say that during this contraction, space-time will go backwards, and it is therefore possible that we will live our lives over again, only in reverse.
What a life it will be! They will come and dig us out of our grave, or our ashes will suddenly be reassembled into bones and ﬂesh. We will ﬁnd ourselves at the moment of death and then suddenly come alive, realizing that we have our whole life ahead of us and can look forward to becoming young. First, however, we will prepare by going to live in an old-age home or retirement community, where we can relax with friends as our senses become more acute and we gain vitality. As soon as we are young enough, we will leave “the home” and go to work for thirty or forty years. Then it will come time for us to go to college, mostly to prepare for high school and adolescence. Just imagine how much fun those school years will be, because, as the old saying goes, we will know then what we know now. After we leave school, we will become a child again, then a baby, and at last be sucked back into the womb. Remember, death is already out of the way, and in contrast to the grave, the womb seems like a most desirable destination, a sweet place to begin relinquishing our self-consciousness before heading off to God knows where.
Of course, there are minor drawbacks to living life backwards. For instance, the plot of movies and books will be ruined. On the other hand, we will always get to eat dessert ﬁrst.
But wait a minute! Maybe the life we are living now is backwards! After all, we really don’t know what is going on here. Maybe we are already on rewind from our real-time life. That would explain déjà vu, precognition, and even why this life often feels so strange. And if we are now in rewind mode, then we can take comfort in the idea that as part of the Big Crunch, our ultimate destiny will be to come together with each other and literally be one with all things. We can relax and let the universe do the work. We are all already headed home.