How we die is just as important as how we live
In 1994 Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s book, “How We Die”, was published. It is a fascinating read on the exact nature of death. This essay is not informed by Dr. Nuland’s work. It is more in line with the recently published book by Buddhist nun and Dharma teacher Pema Chodron, “How We Live is How We Die.” Let me explain.
This past Sunday my wife’s family was visiting, and Catty’s mother asked me what I was doing as she observed me at work on my latest project. I told her that I was building a pyramid. She asked me why. My immediate response was simply that it was fun, but then it struck me to add that when I die, I will have my remains placed inside this pyramid. There was no response.
Someone posted recently on social media that it takes courage to be disliked. I responded that surely I must be very courageous, for surely I am popularly disliked. For me life, and especially the spiritual path, is not a popularity contest. To be authentic often means to be misunderstood, facing criticism and even condemnation. Most of the heroes I have admired in my life, Albert Schweitzer, Carl Jung, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mother Teresa, among them have been iconoclasts. Pema Chodron surely followed a path defined by the phrase “the road less traveled.” And her root teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was highly controversial, and also one of the truly great spiritual teachers in my experience.
My Conscious Living philosophy embraces Conscious Dying as a fundamental process. In order to birth something new we must be willing to allow old forms that no longer serve us to die. It has been nearly 50 years since a Voice came to me in the night, leading me on my “road less traveled.” I have stayed loyal to this Voice, however perilous the journey. I have lost family and friends, country and culture, any chance for fortune or fame, simply because I said “yes” to this divine guidance.
So here I am, turning 71 this year, living in my private oasis, my personal paradise, in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. And how am I inspired as I face my mortality? Build a pyramid. My guidance gave me this inspiration some time ago, me never realizing that the structure itself would serve a “higher purpose.” Whether understood or appreciated by others, I have lived a very sacred life. I have been fully devoted to the divine, a god by many names. I have served and perhaps even fulfilled a destiny not for the timid. And so this life deserves a sacred death. I always knew that this personal oasis would be my final resting place, but little did I know that guidance would want a special memorial for my life’s devotion. With my own hands I am building a mausoleum for my ashes. What could be more sacred than this?
A favorite quote comes to mind, from another personal hero, Thomas Wolfe. I spent many hours sitting by his grave in Asheville, North Carolina, reflecting on our common journey. His posthumous masterpiece, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” contains this gem:
“Something has spoken to me in the night…and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “[Death is] to lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth. Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, towards which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
As lovely is the cemetery in Asheville, I feel incredibly lucky to have my own private heaven alongside a majestic creek. The beauty of the sound of cascading water, the wind whispering through the pines overhead, comfort me today and every day, and will be my companions as I enter eternity.
Louis Bourgeois lives outside of Cuenca with his wife and young daughter at the Oasis Center. He teaches courses in Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org