Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Life Before Death

Blossoms in the Wilderness

In early November,  many people in our neighboring desert communities throw some really great parties to celebrate "Dia de Los Mueurtos" - "The Day of the Dead." Interestingly enough, the parties are held in cemeteries.  

Just a few days ago, I passed by a local cemetery. It was quite a sight to see the usually tranquil atmosphere transformed into festival grounds. There were hordes of people gathered around the tombstones of departed family members and friends - food, music, dancing. The folks were there to remember their deceased loved ones, but the emphasis was not on death, it was on life- a feast of life celebrated on the graves of the dead. 

I was very taken by the sight of that "Day of the Dead" celebration, and I've been thinking about it ever since.  

Lots of people ask themselves, "What will happen to me when I die?" This question often carries a sense of underlying fear and usually means, "Will there be anything left of "me" after I die?"  

Oftentimes people turn to religion to find answers and solace - an assurance that there is a "life after death." In fact, many people see the practice of their religion in this life as a way of assuring happiness and eternal peace in the life to come. 

Personally, I know many people who hold onto their religion as an "insurance policy" to be cashed in when they die.  They go to church even though they don't necessarily enjoy it. They say that are religious even though they have little or no clue as to what they really believe, all to assure a good spot in heaven - so, when they die they will be able to "pass though the pearly gates and enter into paradise."

The thing is that religions (all the major world religions) place little, if any, emphasis on "life after death."  Religious belief is essentially all about how to live "life before death." At their core, all religious teachings provide a moral compass to help believers live a life of compassion "here and now." 

Maybe that's why I so liked that image of dancing in the cemetery.  The focus of living a life of faith is not on what will happen when it's all over; the emphasis is on living fully and joyfully in the present. It's all about living a full life before you die.

Jesus often talked about the the coming of the "Kingdom of God" (The  Kingdom of Heaven). Upon hearing this, it sounds like the focus of Jesus' teaching is on the eternal life to be lived when this life on earth is over. However, that's not at all what he meant.  Jesus taught:

The Kingdom of God doesn't come by counting the days on the calendar. The Kingdom of God is already among you." (the Gospel of Luke)

Jesus taught his disciples to live fully in the moment- to embrace everyone with the open arms of untamed compassion. He taught that when you lived with this kind of unbridled love, you enter into "The Kingdom of God" - here and now.  Life before death.

The Buddha also taught:

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

The Buddha taught that mindfulness of the present would enlighten people to the deeper reality that all being is a flow of interconnection.  Enlightened ones find deep peace by respecting all beings and they treat everyone with profound loving kindness.  It's all about life before death.

Yes, of course, we shall all die. A tombstone in a cemetery is waiting for me, and I believe that in some way, I will continue to live on in that flow of life after I die. However, that is not where I place my focus.

While I live in the here and now, I want to be a person who loves and laughs, cries and forgives - a person who focuses more upon how to live more nobly in this beautiful life than on worrying about or anticipating a life to come. 

Today, as I think about dancing in a cemetery, I hold onto something Eckhart Tolle once said:

Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to 'die before you die' -
and find there is no death.

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