Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Death Is Real

Steve Jobs is dead. On one hand, this comes as little surprise. Jobs has been in the news as much for his health as anything else these past years. At the same time, however, I did feel a moment of shock this morning when I saw the following listed on my favorite Bob Dylan website: “Steve Jobs dies at 56.”

Shock, I think, speaks to a strange relationship with death. “Fact of life,” I might shrug over coffee. When it actually comes, though, this rarely seems the tone with which death is received. More often than not, I am taken aback: “Steve Jobs? Really?”

Buddhism has a teaching called ‘The Four Reminders’ which addresses this all too human tendency. The reminders invite us to contemplate four thoughts - each what we might call a ‘fact of life’ - in order to realize a more accurate perception of our situation. Death, understandably, is one of these.

In the early 1970s, Chogyam Trungpa composed a series of short verses as a means of encouraging his students to engage these teachings. Each offers a pithy summary of a particular thought, a specific reminder. After reading of Jobs’ passing this morning, I found the verse pertaining to death and impermanence ringing through my mind.

Death is real

Steve Jobs is dead. I cannot think of single (recently) living figure whose existence has had a more apparent impact upon our lives. Apple Computers recently had a product launch and the event was news. CBC’s afternoon radio show gave the occasion a sizable slice of airtime: about ten minutes; longer than that allocated the latest in politics. iPhone, iPad, iPod - more than just products, these are emissaries of a new relationship with the digital, a relationship which has infiltrated near every corner of our lives. Each of these devices arose out of the vision of one man. Yet all this influence did not spare him; Steve Jobs is dead.

Think of the medical care Jobs had at his disposal, Money, obviously, was not an issue. So one has to assume he got the best of the best. The best treatments. The best practitioners. The latest research, technology, drugs. Yet still...

I remember reading of a conversation between a teacher and his seriously ill student. The first thing that teacher said? “Don’t imagine for even a moment that you are not going to die.” For a long time, I would consider these words and think, ‘What an asshole!’ Lately, though, I have connected with the generosity of the statement. Whether you get better or not, he seemed to be saying, you are still going to die. Talk about a big picture moment when most of us want something much, much smaller!

The reality of death is something we just don’t want to look at, most of us - not head on like this anyway. Like when the first person in my life was diagnosed with cancer. This was a shock on many levels, not the least of these being the sudden proliferation of numbers in my world. “Eighty-five percent of all patients at this stage of disease survive beyond five years,” I remember reading. “Oh my God,” I said to someone. “Fifteen percent of these people die!” “Don’t think of that,” I was told. Don’t think of that.

And comes without warning

I wonder if Jobs knew October 5, 2011 would be the last day of his life. Accounts I’ve read about Jack Layton’s final days paint a very ‘maybe’ picture. Maybe he’ll make it through the weekend, seemed the sense of things. Then again, maybe he won’t. Even when we sense death is near, then, the exact moment of its arrival remains an impenetrable mystery. This certainly was the case with my grandmother. “It won’t be tonight,” a nurse affirmed at nine. Relieved, I went home to bed. The phone woke me up just before dawn.

Something similar with Allen Ginsberg. Those gathered about his deathbed spent the poet’s final hours watching the rise and fall of his breath. Though they knew he was going to die, they watched without knowledge if any particular fall would be the last. There was no sign, I presume, when the final drop did eventually arrive. Just a long exhale and then...

This is something I consider every time I leave home for Colorado. I know many people have a pretty rosy picture of these excursions: weeks away in the high mountains meditating. In lots of ways, however, these retreats are very difficult for me. Saying goodbye to my wife and daughter, for instance, is always excrutiating. I wonder if I will ever see them again. There is no one standing nearby whispering, ‘Make the best of this, it is your last goodbye.’ Death, after all, comes without warning.

This body will be a corpse

But it does come. Of this there is no doubt. Death does come. Death will come. My death will come and this body - presently pleasantly warm at my desk - will become a corpse. Old. Lifeless. Inert.

I practiced in my daughter’s bedroom this morning. I could see her toys, last night’s pajamas crumpled on the floor, her Grade Three photo hanging on the wall as I contemplated this verse. At the final line I burst into tears. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be with her forever. To watch her grow and develop, hear her stories, share her triumphs and tears to the end of time. I knew, though - I knew with a deep in the bones kind of knowing - this could not be the case. There will come a moment when I look at her for the last time.

At some point in this process I reached out for a t-shirt that lay in a pile nearby and held it to my face, breathing deep for several long minutes. A father who lost his teenage son once told me of the hours he spent in the boy’s closet, smelling the child’s clothes in order to bring him back. This morning, I understood his ritual in a painfully new way. It didn’t bring my daughter before me, though, just her scent and a flow of memories. For all I knew, she would never stand in front of me again. I might die before seeing her again. She might die. We both will.

So what’s the point of all this? Traditionally it is said that working with the Four Reminders motivates our practice. Seeing the uniqueness of our situation (reminder one - precious human birth), connecting with its impermanence (reminder two - death), understanding how we act has consequences (karma) and that we just can’t ‘get it right’ (samsara), we realize the need to shift our priorities around in order that we might meditate more.

This is the claim, anyway, though it’s never quite worked out this way for me. The Four Reminders - alone or together - simply shake things up in my life. Working with them tenderizes my heart, making me more open and available to the world in which I live, letting this touch me in ways I cannot anticipate.

There’s a story about an interview someone conducted with Jobs. Wanting to record the proceedings, the reporter placed his iPod on the table. The device was sheathed in a protective case, a fact which upset the Apple CEO. Jobs talked about how much time and effort - how much care - had gone into the buffed silver finish of the device. Commenting on the beauty of this finish, he ripped off the cover and proceeded with the interview.

I walked by a coffee shop this afternoon. All the iPhones and iPods, iPads and Powerbooks in the place struck me as I moved to where my bike was locked up. It was as if, for an instant, I was able to see these through their creator’s eyes, able to perceive the beauty Jobs took such pride in. But this only lasted an instant. Then, just like in ‘real life’ Jobs was gone. In his absence my heart ached. For his wife, his kids, his friends, his family. For anyone who knows the loss of a loved one. My eyes welled up.

‘Death is real,’ I thought as I climbed on my bike. Autumn sun warmed my face as I rode. My daughter would be getting out of school soon. I was picking her up, looking forward to our journey home: walking side by side, hand in hand.


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