Learning what it means to be a human being

I think anyone who has tried to stick with a practice or habit for a length of time knows that it is not always easy or comforting. When I was a teenager and would run long distances, there would be runs and races that felt incredibly difficult and uncomfortable, and others that were easy. There would be an easy mile and then a difficult mile and then an easy mile, etc. For me it’s also been that way with writing and meditating. It’s easy sometimes and it’s incredibly hard sometimes, and I don’t know why.

Sometimes the practices that I tell myself are important to me seem to bring me more discomfort than they do comfort. But I also know from experience that things always change; if I just keep doing them along with the discomfort, I end up gaining a kind of intangible strength that I would not have gained had I given up or tried to couch the experience in some way to make it easier.

It is going to be the same for Death School — it is not going to try to make human experience less disturbing or more palatable or easier or different than it is, because Death School is about learning what it means to be a human being.

Think of how varied your experience is during a single day — there are ups and downs, good news and bad news, all kinds of things happen that you didn’t prepare for or expect. I think it is like that with any practice, including the practice of learning how to learn about and understand our own deaths.  It’s all over the place, and it’s unclear what we really gain by trying to make it all easy, all the time.

With Death School I am interested in doing something completely different from our current approaches to death, which include art therapy, hospice, grief counseling. Those practices are included in Death School as areas of study. For instance, a Death School course would ask, Why have we chosen these practices as our most relevant / prevalent ones for understanding death? What is the history of these practices? How are they shaped by our culture? How do they help shape our culture? How does our economy interact with these practices? What current assumptions, fears, biases do these practices reflect or uphold?

By asking these questions, I think that anyone who considers theirself a student of Death School can better understand their own personal values in relation to those of their culture. This understanding can help someone to have a unique vision of how their own life fits within a larger culture. Having a unique vision of your own life includes having a unique vision of your own death. You don’t have to feel any particular way about death, despite what the dominant culture says is the “right” way. The end of your life doesn’t have to look like the end of other people’s’ lives. It can be something new.

I’m not interested in trying to make what might seem like a difficult topic easier, but I am also not interested in deliberately disturbing anybody. Rather, part of a Death School course includes noticing how honest, open discussions of death make us feel and react. If we notice that we react by feeling disturbed and wanting to run away, then we have learned something valuable about ourselves.

Of course, like with any other practice, there is a time for backing off, taking a break, resting, healing, giving up for now. Learning how to relate to death in a new way is not easy — it can mean feeling very vulnerable, and that means having a lot of gentleness and kindness for yourself and for other people.

But feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable does not necessarily mean that you are doing something wrong. In fact it can mean that you are doing the very best thing for yourself as a human being who wants to learn what it means to be a human being.

Times when I have met my limit and gently continued to explore it have been the best and also the most difficult times of my life. Right now, while I am telling people about Death School and trying to figure out what it is and how it will fit with all of the other things I want to do and value, and sometimes reacting strongly to how other people are reacting to Death School, I meet my limit often, sometimes daily. Doing this is teaching me a mode of gentleness with myself that is becoming my favorite refuge. When I think of how difficult the end of my life might be, and I remind myself that I have resources of gentleness to draw on when I am in pain, I feel a great relief.

But this is all just my experience. I would like to learn about other peoples’ experiences around death and discomfort.