Walking the dog last night, I turned around when we got to the path that leads to Spring Lake. A full, or almost full, moon had risen above the tree tops.
Clear and cold. No sounds. Moonshine on the fir trees. Beautiful.
I spoke to whoever the heck it is I talk to on such occasions. "Thank you. For letting me be alive. To be aware of this moment, right here, right now."
But my gratitude had a flip side. And it made an appearance almost immediately.
Because I couldn't help going on to envision my death. No more dog walks. No more moon-jestic Oregon nights. No more anything.
Just nothing. Except there wouldn't even be "nothing," because consciousness is needed to be aware of nothing, and death will take away that.
It was a familiar feeling. Like standing on the edge of an abyss, teetering, knowing you're going to fall. Probably not now. But eventually. Guaranteed.
Dread mixed with the gratitude. Existential emptiness lay under the full moon.
In the next twenty minutes, as dog and man continued their walk around the lake and back through the forest, I ran through the basic philosophic and religious tricks that death-fearing people have used throughout history to keep the heebie-jeebies at bay.
Deny reality. I thought, "It'd be great if I kept on living after I died. That'd solve everything." Problem is, I'm no longer capable of believing in comforting beliefs like that. I know what I'm up to: seeking reassurance to life's biggest problem – not living – by denying it exists. Scratch that trick.
Embrace the angst. I shifted gears to facing the prospect of nothingness head on. I tried to talk myself into a positive answer to "How bad could not-existing be if I'm not around to know it?" Going to sleep is pleasant enough. Never waking up adds in a decided creepiness factor, though. Good try, but not good enough.
Lower expectations. "Okay," I told myself. "Look at it this way. You've been alive for 59 years. It could have been zero. Every year, every day, every hour, every second you're conscious is an inconceivably precious opportunity or gift. Appreciate it, you ingrate. Instead of feeling bad that you won't live forever, feel good that you've been alive at all."
That last inner dialogue had the most effect on me. It bounced me back to the present moment, to hearing my boots crunch on the gravel on top of the dam, the distant hooting of an owl.
Fear of death requires the thought of dying. If I'm only aware of being here and now, the prospect of not being there and then can't arise.
After I got home and fed the dog, who is an excellent example of living in the moment – food! good! yum! sleep! – I mulled over a more refined version of my philosophy of death.
I was struck by how religions almost invariably view death as a obstacle to be overcome. We need our souls to be saved, our bodies to be resurrected, our karmic bonds of birth and rebirth to be broken.
But this presumes there's a problem, that nature, God, Tao, whoever or whatever runs the cosmos, has seriously screwed things up.
And it takes a savior, a guru, a god-man, a revelation, a miracle, to get life and death back in order.
Funny. Nobody talks this way about other laws of nature. Gravity seems to work just fine. Ditto with electromagnetism.
Sure, some people fall off high places and go splat. Others get electrocuted. But we accept that the universe is set up, law-wise, just the way it should be. It's our job to adjust to the laws of nature, not for them to change to suit us.
With death though, it's the opposite. We want to cheat death, to block its game plan, to derail the Grim Reaper train that's transporting us hell-bent to god-knows-where.
In short, to get a very special favor: not die. (Along with an enjoyable afterlife, thank you very much.)
Well, as with almost every other philosophical notion, the ancient Greeks and Romans got there first. A fact I reminded myself of this morning when I browsed through some Marcus Aurelius.
(to be continued…I hope)