Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

Awareness of Death

On September 11, 2001 we saw images of an airliner flying into the World Trade Center, we saw the buildings collapse, we heard the silent scream of thousands of people dying in that moment, we saw the atrocities again and again and again. Like people of conscience everywhere, we were appalled. In the following days we were different than usual. We were traumatized and often in tears. But this was the lesser difference.

The greater difference was that we, temporarily, lived in a deeper part of ourselves, a part oriented toward the inner. We saw our outward-oriented part for what it is: mostly trivial and ephemeral. Indulging in our usual pleasures and pettiness seemed a sacrilege in the face of the death of so many of our brothers and sisters. We were sober, no longer drunk on self-centeredness. Appreciating our fundamental connection, even with complete strangers, came naturally. Kindness and concern ruled the days. We spoke with solicitude toward all, and drove our cars with courtesy.

Why? The proximity and awesomeness of death shook us into seeing truly: that our time on this earth is limited, that we all share an essential connection, and that what really matters is love.

Gradually, the shock subsided and our changed attitude toward each other eroded. We returned to viewing others as little more than cardboard cutouts of people or pieces of furniture. We returned to our ambitions for money or fame or whatever images fill our personal daydreams.

Standing in the face of death, whether of thousands or of one, can help us remember to live well, remember that our time is precious and limited. Death reminds us to open our hearts to others and to appreciate all of life. Indeed, we can intentionally remember that both the other person and we ourselves will inevitably die. This is not to be done in a morbid way, to make us sad or melancholy, but rather to awaken and warm our heart toward the other, toward ourselves, to bring us back to the values that we know to be true, that come from our inner depths, to bring us back to the simple joy of being alive.

Awareness of death helps us climb out of the grip of self-seeking egoism and deepens our commitment to spiritual practice. Remembering that our time is limited, that our energies and possibilities will eventually ebb away, imparts an urgency to our inner work, an overarching need to fulfill our highest destiny and not fall short. So in that inevitable moment, when we reach our last breath, we can survey the life we lived with the satisfaction of having given it our all.


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