“Die before you die.” The great Islamic saint and mystic of the 8th century, Rabia of Basra, quotes the Prophet Muhammad in one of her exquisite poems. She ends her poem like this:
I was born when all I once feared–I could love.
Other great thinkers and sages have echoed this wisdom, from Rumi to Socrates to St. John the Baptist. In his book, A Year to Live, Stephen Levine offers a simple way to practice dying.
“Each time you get a cold or the flu use it as an opportunity to soften around the unpleasant and investigate how resistance turns pain into suffering, the unpleasant into the unbearable. Notice how discomfort attracts grief. Watch the shadows gather in the aching body. Hear them mutter in complaint and self-pity.” (Love this visual!)
Instead, he advises, spend time with each sensation. Instead of searching for instant distractions and relief, settle in for the chills, the nausea, the sweats, the other symptoms that are making your life living hell at the moment.
I am sick today with a wicked cold. In fact, it doesn’t feel quite so common. So, I crawl under my covers and I practice dying. I observe the pain when my fingers trace my goose bumps during a cold chill. I notice how uncomfortably bristly it feels when my clothes rub against my skin. I am aware that my head, hot with fever, hurts without anything touching it at all. Whatever has invaded my chest is heavy, and it feels like shards of glass when I cough.
I rest with my eyes closed and drink in the suffering. This is practicing awareness, and it ushers in an amazing change. Levine writes, “When we begin to respond to discomfort instead of reacting to it … we begin to experience it not as just ‘our’ pain but as ‘the’ pain. And it becomes accessible to a level of compassion perhaps previously unknown.” Putting the personal into the universal perspective allows us to take it less personally and gives more freedom to investigate.
Most important for me, this exercise is increasing my awareness that sensations are fleeting. Even fear (of pain, of death) is a sensation that will not last forever. Although I can’t know the intensity of feeling I may have as death approaches, no matter how prolonged or sudden, hopefully I can draw from this practice years from now (again, hopeful—I really would rather not use this stuff tomorrow) and experience death with complete awareness and compassion rather than fear and resistance.