Shock is the death knell of illusion. The initial impact wakes us out of a stupor, and as the reverberations die out the stupor returns, only to be dispelled again with every remembered toll.
I had been given my neighbours, a retired couple from England, Spanish lessons for several months. The last time I saw him was at our lesson; I was drilling him on the conditional tense. He seemed distracted, in love with his garden, almost floating, but still badgering me to create a strict lesson plan so they could keep learning. Less than a week later, his wife and daughter came by to tell me that he’d died.
It shouldn’t be a shock to us that people do that. Has anybody ever heard of someone who didn’t die? Apart from the ones who haven’t yet? People get ill, parts of their bodies recriminate them for their former lifestyles, their unintentional neglect, or merely their genetic code.
But death is the sharpest revealer of our imagined state of permanence. If it weren’t for the illusion that we’ll be hanging around forever – from which we all suffer much more than any physical disease – death wouldn’t come as a shock at all. Mundane reality would recognise its own constant loss; it would see itself trickling away from the solid shape of ice into the clear liquid it was carved from.
Is it possible to maintain that clarity of vision all the time, aware of the true nature of being in the world without feeling sad or lost or robbed? Would it be a burden to keep it up, or does it come naturally with a certain realisation, hearing that death knell and never returning to the happy dream of immortality? Must it take a death to bring us out of the neat-fronted shops in which we stack up our merchandise for the world to see, the reassuring to-do lists of work and entertainment, the day as it’s defined by a plastic ticking tyrant?
If we saw a train heading for us full pelt, we wouldn’t shut our eyes and pretend we were ice-skating. As someone told me before the birth of Shamsie, it’s only the anticipation of some unknown event that creates fear, just as the anticipation of pain creates pain.
Once you’re there, fear is ridiculous; it’s a corridorful of marbles when you’re trying to get out the door on time. And when that self-concocted hindrance is gone, you can see the liberation of death, just as you can see the mind-combusting beauty of birth, over and above the pain and the inelegance of either.
I remember thinking during my labour with Shamsie, ‘I don’t feel anything, no great psychedelic experience, no overwhelming presence of the Great Spirit or anything!’ At first I thought I’d been conned. But a moment later I thought, Perhaps this IS God. The idea came as a shock, of course. My expectations had been shattered; my ideas about how God would be were, as all ideas about God are, my own creative nonsense.
It is at the thresholds of earthly existence that the no-thing-ness of reality sinks in. The birds keep singing outside. The cars keep beeping their horns. But something essential has been transformed on the inside, and there is nothing to grab onto. Words cease to be useful coat hooks to hang concepts on: it is all just as it is.