How he began his class left some of his students feeling “weirded out” as some of them said. As soon as he settled the issues of attendance and petitions for admission he rose up from his seat, saying, “This morning I talked to the Ocean. I asked what I should teach so that you could understand.”
“Talked to the Ocean?” Was this professor nuts? I smiled while others looked upon him while growing pale with apprehension. The Registrar had placed us in good hands. I immediately felt deep admiration for this old man who talked to the Ocean. His lecture made sense once you understood its context. He didn’t absurdly speak to the Ocean as littoral water. He spoke to the Ocean because he sensed Life had profoundly filled the sea and he wanted to convey its meaningfulness to his students.
He drew a line on the board. On the left he marked the place of birth. On the right he marked the place of death. “What do we consider to make this segment in-between worth experiencing?”
It’s long been much of the grist of Philosophy, at least for those who grasp the phileō1 of Philosophy. It demands examination after Plato’s spirit who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”2 But what drives that examination is the simple fact that everyone who lives must also come to terms with the end of life.
In other words, unless one faces death one can’t really live. To be disconnected to one is to be disconnected with the other. Face it. The end of life ever looms as a virtually inevitable and unavoidable phenomenon. Is living a duty imposed? Should life be embraced and enjoyed? Why even bother to go through all of this?
The answer’s different for everyone. We might have billions of perspectives and not one of us can point to the next and say with absolute certainty and without dogma that it’s wrong. But you’d think that transpeople, a demographic who for centuries has been appointed to ostracism, extermination, and erasure should understand better than anyone this relationship between death and life.
A HUMAN DISSERVICE
When it comes to discussing death, we encounter no shortage of zealots who not only refuse to discuss it, but forbid anyone else to discuss it, denouncing everyone who does so as a “negative thinker.” This, of course is false because “negative thinking” is really an epistemological belief system that proposes: “We cannot know what is; but can only know what is not.” The vernacular of “negative thinking” we so often hear amounts to subversion to individual narcissists who hide from the inevitable while covering their tracks with psychobabble.
Some of these are even staunch religionists who refuse to engage in necessary activities such as preparation of a Will, or even a Living Will. Some also forbid their spouses to do so. Everyone should prepare such documents and update them periodically. It’s a matter of good stewardship of resources and protection of the living. Unless you have a complicated estate or beneficiaries inclined to bicker over the dispensation thereof you might not even need an attorney. There’s no shortage of print and online resources to guide anyone capable of thinking through the process for themselves to make both documents and to guide survivors who address estate matters in propria persona.3
Nobody should have to kowtow to the imposition of permanent denial, disallowing even a remote mention of the end of life. It’s a shameful disservice. The same people often live in fear themselves and demand that others live in fear the same way.
Why should this so often happen in churches, the very congregations that brag about being “ready” for Jesus to come and that death shouldn’t be feared because it’s been conquered in His resurrection? The answer appears to lurk in the societal dynamic of many churches, where parishioners have only been offered temporary assurances of divine acceptance while leaving them to never ending cycles of psychological dependency upon human leaders. Those who choose another approach may find themselves being redefined as “unbelievers” to be “converted” all over again to the satisfaction of manipulative cultists whose demands for acceptance increase with each cycle.
If that’s not enough, we find much the same with many medical practitioners when it comes to issues like cancer. Not a few patients aren’t permitted to speak about the end of life till the practitioner is ready for them to discuss it, usually when it’s already inevitable that death is only months away and patients have been driven into bankruptcy by paying for “morally obligated” cancer treatment. They might be counseled in this after insurance companies have abandoned constituents through rejection of coverage despite prior approval… something that happens far more often than insurers admit while hiding behind a shell game of provider territories and arbitration agreements that they had required in order to offer coverage in the first place.
A HEALTHY APPROACH
It seems like a paradox how often “unbelievers” and “reprobates” approach the end of life in ways more healthy than many religionists. Consider Friedrich Nietzsche… yup… that Nietzsche… the one who said, “God is dead,” as an indictment against religious institutions who by pretense killed the idea of God for everyone.4 He said something amazing in 1888:
“To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death of one’s own free choice, death at the proper time, with a clear head and with joyfulness, consummated in the midst of children and witnesses: so that actual leave-taking is possible while he who is leaving is still there.”5
Most people, of course, don’t die that way. Religionists usually don’t do this any better than “unbelievers”. Clear-headedness and joyfulness rarely accompany the deaths of religionists. Having worked in hospitals I’ve known not a few of the dying, many of whom died with eyes filled with horror and foreboding. If a man approaches death as if it was only the realm of the violent and macabre, or something worthy only of horror movies, what else can he expect on his own death bed?
It brings to mind something the professor who talked to the Ocean articulated when it comes to knowing and modal realities. Of course multiple epistemological theories exist. But he didn’t address any of them directly. Instead he steered close to solipsism without going over the edge. He said:
“We know as a human knows. What is real is what we make known. If you don’t respect it, then you won’t see it. There’s also an attitude that makes what’s seen a distorted nightmare.”6
Death, in this context, has become the macabre, distorted nightmare, because people have commonly made it known to be such; stuck in individual solipsism from which none can deliver; an entrapment built upon a myth of the grim reaper, rodents, vermin, and worms looking upon each of us as if to say we taste like chicken. However, those who claim to have encountered the “Angel of Death” overwhelmingly testify that he’s really quite peaceful. Can such testimony prove the existence thereof to everyone else? Nope. It’s like trying to prove the existence of God and you can’t do that and have a faith system. But it does underscore how the difference a person’s attitude about death can make in how that person approaches the end of life.
This doesn’t diminish the validity of the grieving; far from it. One should not be stuck in a permanent state of denial and many who view death in terror get stuck in denial a lot. Ministry (religious or otherwise) demands that we help those who grieve to move through those stages past anger, bargaining, and depression so that they can achieve a final acceptance; and some of us who face issues pertaining to the end of life often have to pass through our own grief cycles as well.
It also calls for mindfulness. Buddhists usually talk about this more than those in other religions. But mindfulness, when practiced at the gates of dreaming, also assists at the gate of death. Consider the words of the poet Theodore Roethke in The Waking who described the process of dying this way:
“This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.”7
So how does one practice this kind of mindfulness? Techniques of meditation are very helpful. But one aspect sooner or later becomes clear: that state in which one recognizes that he’s falling asleep. These borders of consciousness are themselves significant. So are the dreams that happen then, if one dares to cultivate them.
In fact these kinds of dreams form a whole genus of dream phenomena: hypnagogia. These are various dream mechanisms that occur before Stage I sleep. They may begin with simple phosphenes that follow the buzzing of the mind and because of that they don’t mean much. But other species of hypnagogic phenomena offer varied rewards, even to the point of entering a dream directly from waking and in full lucidity, a practice described variously as “Set Up Dreaming” by Carlos Castaneda8 and “Waking Induction of Lucid Dreams (WILD)” by Stephen LeBerge, both versions in various publications.9
What hypnagogia offers as pertaining to the experience of dying is the capacity to watch the process with one’s full capacity of consciousness however long consciousness as we know it can be maintained. How effectively can such mindfulness develop? With practice one might catch the very moment a dream configures with the “snap” of a synapse. As pertaining to the end of life, what lies beyond is poorly defined for the living. But that state beyond, faced with clarity of mind and with good cheer, should provide the best answer and assurance for any prospect of what others might do to harm us in their cruel attempts to thwart our life purpose.
A DECISION IN REMEMBERANCE
One’s perspective concerning the end of life may also profoundly change if faced with the prospect of terminal illness and has come to early acceptance. Such a one eagerly seeks to offer the best he or she can for the living, knowing just how fleeting those moments really are. This writer is such a person. I’m reminded by my own health that I cannot expect to live many more years. But after being notified that my medical coverage is no longer being accepted, I made the decision not to choose a course of treatment that promises to drain household resources to the detriment of others. In which case, what can an assailant or assassin do to me that would be anything short of a favor?
In which case, how does that affect my view of those we memorialize at the International Transgender Day of Remembrance? The time to start preparations for that defiance against erasure is months in advance if not a year. But who knows if any of us will reach November 20? When it comes to this I know I cannot know, and that’s not negative thinking in this context. Instead it’s thinking that reminds me how needful it is for me to act with my strength while I can.
In which case, what’s the real tragedy of the dead? Is it in the dying? No. It’s the life so constrained by fear and interference that it never exercised life beyond subsistence. Because life has an end it can retain a beauty borne out of its own desperation to offer the gifts it has gathered. And for those who dare to listen to the dying, the gifts are freely offered, and whether great or small their specialness is unexcelled.
For that reason, I also appeal to those eager to die through suicide. You who are eager miss my point. It isn’t supposed to be easy to die. The desire for suicide isn’t about resolution. It offers no gift to the living. It’s only an attempt to hide from persecution and failure when these troubles have arisen to refine you into the person you can become. Those who suffer patiently do no wrong. So if you find yourself at the brink today, please call the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860 in the United States. For those in Canada, please call (877) 330-6366.
But the gifts of the dying are something I learned about when my dearest friend one died years ago. Our love has been called “Aristotelian”. Some called it “Platonic”. But our affection breached the moment of her death in 2000 when she said goodbye to me in a dream which I understood, and I confirmed the time of her death the following day.10
When such phenomena that traverse long distances from consciousness to consciousness, how can I think of them as solipsism? I can’t. The meaning thereof is too profound. It’s the stuff of synchronicity and transcendence. It said so much more than the things restricted to my own mind, an abstract gift of which I wrote a year ago:
“These are things of the heart and from awakenings that most never experience but when they happen they blaze in stark and poignant reality. They lead you into the brightest experiences and the deepest sorrows. But in them you also find yourself. You awaken to a larger universe with immense grandeur in beauty even in tragedy. You come alive. It’s as it were, the difference between existing and Be-ing. For a transperson, that awakening of internal truths blossoms into living in a way in which one finally awakens and finds herself or himself. They often lead one to recognize a difference in gender, driving one to shed more and more of the lies imposed from childhood. The world often thinks of us as “freaks” not only because of our gender expression but also because we often have grasped those internal truths when most of the world has not”.11
Then when the Angel comes to loose the silver cord and we escape from a world that dies a little more each day because of greed and injustice, a world fading in the shadows from the Light that beckons in its beauty, the sorrow fades in a profound happiness of innocence finally grasped in its fullness. Have all the ostracism and violence that drove us to recognize who we are as transpeople been for nothing? The cynical who don’t know seem to think so. But they’re wrong. For us, grasping the truths of our own essence developed in our incarnation has always been essential to grasping what it means to Be; through an angst in our temporality that does not leave us there forever, but tutors us in the resolution to which it all leads.
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Featured image: Parts of Theodore Roethke’s The Waking strikingly parallel Kabbalah in the unfolding from the grossly material in a circuitous route up the ‘Etz Chayim or “Tree of Life” to a spiritual unity expressed in the “Light” often recalled from near death episodes. It’s represented in these public domain images from 2 perspectives, one in analogy of personal experience, the other mythologically depicted in the sculpture “The Angel of Death.” (Sources unknown but labeled for reuse)
- Phileō from the Greek φιλέω, meaning “I love” as in fondness.
- Plato Apology 38a
- In Propria Persona, abbreviated, “In Pro Per,” is Latin for “In (his or her) own person,” which in legal filings refers to one who files directly as either a petitioner or a respondent without an attorney.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding” The Gay Science (1882) Section 343.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” quoted by Grey, Eziikiill and Gold, Izenhaera. The Poet and The Painter: Vol 1: Miseries & Epiphanes (2014) Outskirts Press. ISBN-13: 9781478738718, p. 150.
- Neill L. Cooney (lecture at Cypress College April 12, 2012)
- Theodore Roethke. “The Waking,” lines 16-19.
- Waggoner, Robert. “Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self” (2008) Red Wheel/Weiser, ISBN 1609255399, p. 6.
- Rebecca Turner. “Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (The MILD Technique)” The World of Lucid Dreaming (n.d., accessed August 2, 2017) http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/mnemonic-induction-of-lucid-dreams.html.
- Lynnea Urania Stuart. “A Weeping Woman On a Windy Beach” Transpire (October 1, 2016, accessed August 2, 2017) https://lynneauraniastuart.wordpress.com/2016/10/01/the-weeping-woman-on-a-windy-beach/.