Death Knocked At My Door
– My Commitment to Meet Death for One Year –
How does one meet Death? They sit with and acknowledge Her. They respect and hold reverence for Her. They listen to Her. They heed Her counsel about how to live. How to love. and How to be.
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I’ve decided to meet death formally every day for a year, not in a morbid sense but as a part of my spiritual practice. Death, if we witness it, if we get close to it, if we listen to it, allows us to live more fully. It can bring clarity to our aims and intentions, clarity to our experience, clarity to the majesty and mystery of our being. I’ve decided to meet death, to get closer to life.
ASK & RECEIVE | SITTING WITH DEATH
Well, it seems the universe agreed with my intention. On the second day of my new commitment, January 2, 2023, Death quite literally knocked on my front door. My partner and kids were going skiing for a couple days, so we had the kids get in the car as my partner and I finished up a few things in the house. Suddenly, we looked out the window and saw a young deer next to the car where the kids were.
I went out to say goodbye to the kids and also to see if they noticed the deer, which was on the other side of the car from where I was standing. They hadn’t. So, I opened up the sliding side door on the opposite side of me with the keys, and there it was.
Something seemed off about it. It appeared a little tired and weathered. I spoke softly and gently to it, and it moved toward the house. I said goodbye to the kids and then went inside. For the next little bit, the deer stayed by the side of the house, where I could now see it from the window. I took a couple pictures and then went to work at my desk upstairs.
A few hours later, I heard a knock at the door. So, I went downstairs and opened the door, where I once again found the young deer. (You can see the video by clicking here, or by clicking the YouTube link below.)
I didn’t want to disturb it since it seemed to feel very safe, so I let it be and went back to my work. Over the next few hours, I occasionally checked in on it and soon enough, it became clear that it had decided this would be its final resting place. I brought it water and did what I could to make it feel safe and comfortable.
Finally, several hours later, when I came to check on the poor thing, it had laid down on its side and extended its neck. I could see it breathing, and it turned its head a bit to look at me. But other than that, there was not much movement. I went ahead and sat down next to it and rubbed my hand across its body. It looked me softly in the eyes. You can see the video here.
For the next twenty to thirty minutes, I gave myself fully to the deer, as our eyes remained locked. I stayed present, non-distracted, with a heart and mind full of love and compassion. A real sense of peace and reverence filled the space around us.
Finally, animal control sent a Ranger from the Sheriff’s office, who respectfully ended the deer’s pain and suffering. I went inside and took time to reflect on the day and on death in general. I acknowledged that this would one day be me. The life force and vitality that brings a light to my eyes would one day dissipate and leave behind a cold, heavy corpse, which would decay and return to the earth.
MY BRIEF HISTORY WITH DEATH
Death has been on my mind a lot this past year. Well, actually, it’s been on my mind for a long time. Through my early teens to mid-twenties, I struggled a lot with suicide, with a growing intensity over the years. And as a young adult, in a rather short period, I also had several people close to me die.
At 19, I spent the final six months of my father-in-law’s life in the VA hospital. Five years earlier, he had received a double lung transplant because he had contracted Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis after being exposed to hazardous materials as a Marine in Desert Storm. And double lung transplants at the time typically only lasted about five years. For the last few months of his life, then, he was connected to life support, with no prospects of surviving without it. We stayed with him for as long as he needed to find the strength to say goodbye. And when the time finally came, we — his wife, kids, and parents — watched him, consumed by fear, take his last breaths.
About six months later, my sister-in-law left her baby with a babysitter for the first time, and came home to find her baby in the crib, purple and not breathing. We all rushed to the hostpital, where I saw my 6-month-old niece lie lifeless on the emergency room table. There were drugs, needles, machines, and the sign of every attempt to bring that child back to life. Her mom. Her poor mom. The grief. The pain. The confusion. The anger. The weight of that room, I will never forget.
Then, shortly after, my childhood friend and neighbor, who had diabetes like me, died suddenly in the night. The way his dad spoke with silence and tears at his funeral filled me with a reverence I had never known until that point. His son. His only son. Taken from him without notice. No parent should have to bury their child.
And in that same period, two of my grandparents and my childhood dog of 16 years died — my grandpa from a stroke in his early seventies and my grandma from brain cancer shortly thereafter. I remember my dad went out and buried our dog by himself in the backyard. It was only a couple weeks after he lost his dad. I think he needed the space to himself to mourn.
Anyway, throughout this time, I grew deeper into depression until, finally, I hit rock bottom in my first year of law school, at 22. Nearly every day, I would find myself on top of the law school building, seven stories up, waiting for the impulse that would send me plummeting to my death.
My thoughts became so intense and aggressive that I got to the point where I didn’t sleep for three days straight. Every time I came close to falling asleep, an electric shock would ripple through my head, sending my heart and mind racing. Something had to break.
It did. On the fourth night of no sleep, as I laid in bed, I fell into a wake-initiated lucid dream, or a WILD, something that was entirely unknown to me at the time. But there I was, suddenly in front of an old, leafless tree, with many thick branches stemming from its center. The sky was dark and cloudy. It felt extremely cold. I was shivering uncontrollably. And there, on a branch, hung a noose.
I turned away from the tree to look around and saw only darkness. But when I turned back to face the tree, there was my entire family, standing with their eyes closed. Suddenly, in unison, their eyes opened, which glowed pure white. And again, all at once, they pointed to the noose.
There it went — the electric shock moved violently through my head and dropped down into my heart. I jumped up immediately and began to puke all over my sheets. I spent the rest of the night in my bathroom, some 1,500 miles away from my family and friends, dry heaving.
In any case, I wasn’t unfamiliar with death. It consumed me. I knew it would come for me, whether I took matters into my own hands or let Nature take its course.
‘Valar Morghulis; All men must die’ — Game of Thrones
During that time, though, I met with a psychologist who introduced me to something that would change my life — vipassana, or insight meditation. And, over the next few years, after really committing to the practice, my relationship with death changed dramatically. I understood and related to death from an entirely new perspective, the perspective of Love. My suicidal thoughts faded slowly, along with their intensity. And behind that dark cloud of thoughts opened an immense appreciation, gratitude, and thirst for life!
For the next several years, as my practice deepened, my mind continued to reach profound levels of peace and joy. My heart remained open. My eyes wide and interested. Everything within and around me became brighter and more vivid. I felt lighter and more alive, like a young child again, filled with awe and wonder.
Death took a backseat to Life.
In the last few years, though, a lot has changed for me. And with change, there is always an element of loss. I’ve stepped into an entirely new life. I went from being single, with no responsibilities toward anyone but myself, to becoming a committed partner and full-time parent, caretaker, and homeschool teacher to our four remarkable children (and three dogs).
Before becoming a parent, I had made peace with death. But now I have before me the prospect of my own children’s death, along with the fear and anxiety that stem from the thought of my own death leaving them without my love and support. This, coupled with two painful recent losses, has had me once again examining my relationship with death, loss, and grief.
RECENT EXPERIENCES OF LOSS
In the first few years of my vipassana practice, there was a honeymoon period, where the developing concentration and mindfulness led to an incredible sense of rapture and joy in the heart and mind. As I described above, it’s like I got to experience the world as a child again, with the same kind of love and wonder, but with the wisdom of an adult.
I remember vividly, in the early years of my practice, when I would smile naturally, the mindfulness was so bright and vivid that it would create a ‘hall of mirrors’ effect — I would notice the smile, and the smile would grow bigger, which I noticed, and so it grew even bigger.
Once, after ten 18-hour days of vipassana and three days of metta, I felt a gratitude for my parents that became so intense I thought my body was going to explode. It felt like the gratitude was pushing outward on every wall of my being. It was so powerful, it choked me as it moved up my throat, trying to escape. I couldn’t breathe.
Even the experience of stubbing my toe was profound and uplifting. To have the mindfulness present at the moment I stubbed my toe, and to not react and become identified with the pain, felt so rewarding and encouraging. I couldn’t help but smile.
The thing is, though, if meditation teaches us anything, it is that nothing lasts forever. And life is full. There isn’t just the pleasant. There is the unpleasant too. And I was about to get a good dose of it.
When I met these recent losses with the polished attention I had gained over the years from my mindfulness practice, like the experience of a smile I described above, I experienced the unpleasant — the loss, the hurt, the anger, and the grief — too with a vividness I hadn’t known before.
Losing My Friend & Foundation
The first of my recent losses has been happening slowly over the last few years. I’ve been growing apart from my best friend — my Snow Leopard Guardian Angel, someone I considered to be my human for many years. And recently, our friendship came to an end.
We’ve hiked a thousand miles together along the Wasatch Range, as we talked about philosophy, challenging each other’s ideas and beliefs. We grew up together on the mountains, walking along the high ridges, atop the world, traversing through sun, rain, and snow, smelling the pines and wet dirt, listening to the wind murmur through the aspens, learning how to push through our pain, testing the limits of our body and mind.
With all my heart, I am thankful for sharing such a rich and expansive journey. I am filled with the utmost gratitude to have so much of my being wrought from his hammer.
And also, to be holistic and truthful, he hurt me. He really hurt me. He went down a path, which I tried to follow, out of the motivation to love and understand him. But in the end, it became clear that we were headed in two very different and incompatible directions. It was time to say goodbye.
The grief and all its attending emotions from this split has lasted for almost three years. It has been extremely challenging. I have been examining myself, my history, my beliefs. I’ve questioned my value and my worth, my intellect and my heart.
But it’s time now to put all this to rest. Though he will always be a part of me, it’s time to let go. It’s time to move on and rebuild myself from the ashes. It’s time to transform the grief back into love. Goodbye, my friend. I wish you all the happiness and love in the world.
Losing My Unborn Child
The second loss I’ve experienced has been among the most challenging and complex losses I’ve had to work through. Amidst the separation from my Snow Leopard and its attending grief, my partner and I had a miscarriage, which hurt me so badly I suppressed it and hid from it for a long time. It really wasn’t until a year or more later, when I sat a silent retreat at Spirit Rock, that I was able to face the full force of this grief. Even now, my tears are so heavy that I’m finding it difficult to write these words.
My whole life, I wanted to be a mama, a caretaker. Before meeting River, though, as I moved into my late-twenties, more and more, I thought this would never happen. I was just too particular (or do I mean controlling?), too solitary, and too queer (in every sense of the word) to find someone I could share a life with, let alone raise kids with.
I loved and still love to be alone. With my free time, I like to study, read, write, and meditate. I like the silence, the solitude. I like my own space, clean and organized, everything where it belongs. I like growth and development, and can come off as overly disciplined, which others in my space can feel (putting a kind of pressure on them — an unfair pressure, to be sure). And when I do socialize, I like to get deep. I like to talk about philosophy. I demand realness and honesty. I like to ask the hard questions, and be asked the hard questions in turn. I like the conversation to be an exploration of each other’s beliefs, an exploration of the mysteries of life, consciousness, and experience.
Add the fact that I’m an unusual breed of queer, bi- or pan-sexual, typically attracted to people who walk the line of both genders. And I myself express that same kind of non-conforming gender. You can see, then, why I thought relationships might have felt like a long-shot for me.
Anyway, in my mid- to late-twenties, I had finally made peace with the prospect of being alone. Really, thanks to my vipassana practice, I had made peace with whatever life had in store for me, even if that meant I would be a hermit with no kids or family.
Then, at 28, I went to Peru with my brother to meet the Shipibo and partake of their sacred plant medicine, Ayahuasca, as well as some other plant medicines like San Pedro. As it turns out, the peace I had made came into question that trip. During the Aya ceremonies, I couldn’t escape from my desire to be a mama. And on the final day, when we took San Pedro and spent the day by a river in the Sacred Valley, my heart burst open. I sat with my brother and cried on his shoulder, expressing my heart’s deepest wish to have a kid, and confronted the possibility that it may never happen.
Not more than a few months later, the love of my life and mother of my children showed up at my doorstep. Immediately, I was struck by her eyes. They demanded my full presence and attention. I felt naked, utterly exposed. Nobody, I felt, had seen me as deeply as she did in those very first moments. Nobody’s presence had I felt so profoundly. She was really there. A spark of hope lit up in me. I felt as if I wasn’t alone in this world, after all.
When River and I were first dating, we thought there was a possibility she had become pregnant. The excitement, the fear, the love — filled me. I hadn’t known a feeling like this. Turns out, though, we weren’t pregnant.
A few months later, I flew out to the East Coast, where my partner, her ex-husband, and kids had lived. It was the start of a new chapter for all of us. I drove her and the kids across the country to start a new life with me in Utah. And along that drive, we re-explored the idea of having a child together.
But after giving it much thought and discussing it in depth, in the end, as we passed the border into Colorado, we decided that we didn’t want that big of a gap between kids. And I also had four new kids to smother with my love. Plus, I had years of catch-up to do with them. So, I decided my focus should be there — on those precious little humans. I wanted them to feel and know deeply my unconditional love and acceptance, and for them to feel and know my commitment to them.
It was strange. Before that point, I didn’t realize how deeply I wanted to create a child, to be a part of the whole process — to find love, make love, witness the whole miracle of pregnancy and birth, hear the child’s first cries, and feel it wrap its hand around my finger for the first time. My whole life, I just imagined I would adopt. My parents adopted two of my younger siblings. And my family was also a shelter home while I was growing up, so I knew how many kids were in desperate need of loving adoptive parents. So, this really surprised me. Anyway, I ended up crying through the whole state of Colorado.
Over the next year, we weren’t doing anything to prevent pregnancy. I had my fertility tested, and found out it was very unlikely we could conceive. As it turns out, though, River did get pregnant, but ended up miscarrying.
I had known many people and couples who had miscarriages, but I never really understood the full complexity and pain behind them. I got that it was upsetting and could be uncomfortable. But I didn’t really understand the tremendous pain and complexity of emotion there. It really is hard to put into concepts.
Anyway, like I said above, I don’t think I’ve ever suppressed emotions like I did here. I was already experiencing so much grief in my life, which I had attributed to losing my Snow Leopard, since that’s where so many of my thoughts were. I had stories to sort through with my friend, conversations and a history to examine, a conflict and disagreement to consider. With the miscarriage, though, with our Gabriel, there were no real concepts or stories. There was essentially just hurt to feel. So, as I said, I didn’t really face it until I sat a silent retreat in September, 2022, where I got still enough to see, sort through, and feel everything clearly.
To throw salt in the wound, River recently had a hysterectomy because of a cancer scare. So, the prospect of bringing new life into this world has officially ended.
It is now January, almost two years after our miscarriage, and I am still trying to work through and feel all that pain, along with the debris and shrapnel it has sent into my relationship with River. Alongside the loss, I am also working through some feelings of shame for not being present or working through the grief with her at the time it happened, leaving her feeling abandoned and alone.
Thanks to my commitment to meet death, though, which led to her reading through a draft of this episode, we were able to express and release a lot of our emotions together, and to sink into one another’s hearts and arms. It has been incredibly healing.
River was also able to see and understand why she wasn’t able to connect fully with my grief, since much of it stemmed from the fact that I would never be a part of the whole process of birth—like I said, to find love, make love, witness the miracle of pregnancy and birth—which she got to experience with our precious little ones. This allowed us to tease apart the many layers of this grief and finally share and experience together the elements of the loss we shared, the parts of which I am feeling the shame for not being present.
I can’t express how grateful I am to have a human that can communicate so effectively and honestly, and with such a maturity. Yes, it’s hard to face the struggles in any relationship. But to not face them, like many couples do, only makes you feel more isolated in the relationship. It leads to anger, resentment, and frustration.
Again, I am so grateful for River being so willing and capable to work through such an emotionally complex three years. I have no doubt that because we made it through this difficult beginning, still able to experience so much joy, peace, and love in all the darkness, we will only grow closer and stronger in the years to come. I love that human so fully and completely.
More Reminders of Death
Anyway, this wasn’t Death’s last whispers to me. There were a few more recent incidents that pushed me to make the commitment to meet death formally for the year. During my silent retreat in September, as with most traditional vipasanna retreats, the teachers pointed us to the impermanent nature of all things. They pointed us to our nature to get sick, age, and die. They highlighted the fact that we will one day lose everyone and everything we cherish.
This got me thinking about everyone I love, with a profound clarity of mind. On my drive home from the retreat, from California to Utah, I really came face-to-face with my dad’s inevitable death, which struck me deep in the heart. I will never be able to express how much love I have for that human. There is honestly nobody like him. His love is the purest love this world knows. He is the most humble, hard-working, selfless, and generous servant of love. He has always been a tremendous example as a parent. Whenever I enter into stillness or silence, I find his love there.
Then, about a month after the silent retreat, last October, I returned to Peru to sit with Ayahuasca again with the Shipibo people. While there, two days before the first ceremony, I received a FaceTime from back home. It was my brother and mom. Immediately, I felt the reverence in their expressions and voices.
It was my grandma. She had been hospitalized. Her heart was nearing its end. Tears filled my eyes as I thought back to the many years of influence she had on my life. My mom was babysitting our kids while we were in Peru, and I thought of the many times my grandma had babysat me and my siblings when my parents left town.
Gratitude filled me as I witnessed this generational support, this interconnection, this inter-being. My heart grew vast, holding both the joy and the sorrow. And then the tears came upon realizing that I may not be able to hold her head to mine and say goodbye for the final time.
Two days later, when I walked into the first ceremony, I reflected on the fact that my grandma would have to surrender completely. We all must surrender completely. One day, each of us must let go of everything. Why not, I thought to myself, let go now. All the wisdom traditions have, after all, been pointing me to this — to selflessness, to Love. Do I have the courage to let go entirely?
‘We’ll do it together,’ said a soft voice in my heart and mind. And then my grandma, on her death bed, came into view. I was there with her, my forehead pressed against hers. And suddenly, I too was on my death bed, old and wrinkled, lying next to her, with her hand in mine. Our arms began to expand, forming a circle, extending further and further outward until we embraced all of existence.
Then, the imagery quickly began to take shape of the Icaros, sacred healing songs sung by the Shamans during ceremony, which commonly take shape as patterns representative of the harmonious energy field that pervades all life, being, and existence.
Life and Death are Whole, two sides of the same coin. We do not get one without the other.
We are all of the nature to get sick, age, and die. Have you really taken the time to face this truth?
Don’t avoid your own mortality until it’s too late. Imagine yourself on your deathbed, and examine your life from this perspective. What changes does this reflection suggest you should make to your life? Is there anything you’re putting off, thinking there will be time in the future? Are there any plans and dreams you aren’t making space for? What about conversations you might be avoiding? Relationships you have left unresolved? Are you holding onto any hatred or anger rather than reaching for forgiveness? How much time and energy are you wasting on things that, in the end, don’t really matter? Are you living out of fear? Did you hold your partner or your kids tenderly in your hands today and tell them how much you love and appreciate them?
Death is ever-present. We need only open our awareness to it. It is what holds life, it is what makes life so fragile and precious. Our time is only borrowed. So, please don’t waste it. Get close to death, so that you may live fully now.
May you embody lasting peace,
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