I knew I was going to meet the angel of death prior to his visit.
At first I felt trepidation and angst. I didn’t know what to expect from such a powerful spirit, but I knew that he might be coming to collect me, even if I wasn’t ready to go.
I had been diagnosed with Stage IVB of a rare blood cancer, and although my oncologist couldn’t state if I was going to live or die, he made clear that I had a 15 percent chance of survival. In other words, 85 percent of the people diagnosed at the same time as me with this rare blood cancer are now dead.
I am not. Death saved my life.
Recently, after one of my Zen meditations, a fellow Buddhist practitioner approached me and asked: “You’re a survivor! You fought, death lost; how’d you do it?”
I didn’t fight, I said. I learned. I chose to be a student.
Cancer was my teacher and death my guru.
Opening myself to the teachings of both cancer and death led me to the realization that disease and death are not to be feared, and both provide eternal wisdom.
When we close ourselves off to the teachings of disease or death, we cannot learn their lessons.
When I was diagnosed, I made a couple of important choices.
Wisdom for anyone who is suffering or dying.
I chose not to be a victim.
I decided to keep my agency by remaining positive and learning from the experience. The paradox of nearly dying: it taught me how to live.
Rather than deny the angel of death’s arrival or hide in hope of eluding death, I decided to set the table and invite death into my life. And, like any good student, I prepared before the guru’s arrival.
As loved ones prepared a warm bone marrow broth, a plate of fruit, and some hot peppermint tea, my teacher—cancer, dressed me as nicely as she could in 160 pounds of flesh over my 6’3” boney frame. She was sorry that she had to strip me down to the bald, raw nature of my being before the guru arrived, and she cried with me as she quietly whispered, “To live, sometimes you must die.”
Death came to my house. Although weak, I lifted myself from the confines of the couch and did my best to crawl to the door. I was too frail to walk, but I could crawl. I opened the door, graciously inviting him in, “Come,” I said. Upon entering, he reached toward me, touched my shoulder, and spoke, “Whether or not you leave with me is up to you.”
I did my best to pull myself to my feet. I turned toward the mirror and looked. I saw a man who I could no longer recognize standing before me. I accepted it, but it was dark. I didn’t know if I would leave with the angel of death that night. But, I knew then that he was deeply compassionate and had an immense respect for life, despite his eternal commitment to death.
Teach me, I said.
In that moment, I lost everything, including my body, my heart and my mind, but not my spirit of respect for death or his wisdom. As we sat down at the table, his wisdom began to nourish my soul.
We spoke for hours, days and then months. As chemotherapy ensued, the teacher began to leave the room and the guru’s wisdom filled the empty spaces more and more each day. The lessons came continuously and death’s wisdom slowly taught me how to lose my mind, to begin living in my heart, while restoring my body so that I might also live in the spirit of truth.
The angel of death was committed, and so was I. He taught me that for most people, the wisdom that comes with death happens far too late in life, and sadly, often leads people to regret the life they never lived.
At the end of each day he would ask, “Are you living?”
“Not yet,” I would reply as my cheeks washed in tears.
The lessons ensued. Death told me:
The temporal nature of life and the existential anxiety that accompanies it remain when people do not open the door to my teachings. I am liberation. I am freedom. And, I will always be your friend and teacher, but you cannot live in fear of that which you do not know.
As I opened up, death showed me the limits of Western medicine and took me on a journey east. The portal led me to deepen my meditation and yoga practices, while introducing me to Reiki, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and a range of alternative health practices. I began to realize that I did not need to choose between east or west, but that I needed to integrate the value of both.
Death asked again; “Are you living?”
“More than before,” I replied.
And Death responded:
Those who deny me, fight or resist me, succumb to me. Those who open themselves up to me, and then sit with me, will allow the unknown to become known, the invisible to become visible, and for the materially irrelevant to vanish so that one can live more fully. Live or die, it’s up to you.
The final night of my guru’s lessons, he put on his cloak, picked up his scythe and then reached out his hand.
“Shall we,” he asked?
I responded, “no, but thank you.”
He departed by giving me the gift of life.
His final words: “This gift can be taken away at anytime; to keep it; you must live fully each day.” I accepted the gift as tears streamed down my cheeks. My heart infinitely expanded in love for what he had taught.
After all of my years in school and struggling through life’s experiences, it was death that taught me how to live. Death is the most liberating and freeing force in life, if we take the time to learn its lessons.
I no longer live to meet the world’s incessant neediness, or the ego’s relentless desire to attach to ideas or realities that only offer the illusion of certainty or control.
I now know, deeply, that the only thing that is certain is the unknown. Life, like death remains unknown.
“No man can step into the same river twice.” ~ Heraclitus
I no longer view death as taboo, and instead honor it in life. One does not exist without the other.
Since death’s visit, I have let of go relationships that do not serve my life. If friends, acquaintances, colleagues or clients do not see me or accept me for who I am, I let go. I do not try and convince them of who I am nor do I try to make them see me. I simply let go. Space opens for others who do see me, so that the empty spaces in my life are filled with the light of unconditional love.
Yet, I still struggle.
I continue to let go of old career goals and ideas, acquaintances, outdated friendships and the antiquated constructs that prevent me from being the best version of myself. I make choices from a more open and honest place that originates in the heart and soul.
I’ve learned to quiet the ego-mind, and open more space for spirit. I have no desire to waste a moment or to allow others to waste my time. I make an effort to show up as the best version of myself in each moment, and always give life my fullest by standing in gratitude with the most insignificant moments so that they might be imbued with new significance. We create our meaning.
I maintain a deep and undying respect for both cancer and death. And, I will always remember to embrace the temporal nature of existence and the impermanence of life as a core truth, while always leaving a seat at the table for death and its teachings.
The next time you’re with a family member or friend who is suffering the pains of disease or death, suggest that they invite these things into their life as a teacher and guru. Death and disease are not enemies; both can be great friends on our journey through life. We should embrace them.
Some people may resist the idea or suggestion at first, but once they open themselves to learning from death and disease—wise elders who come with life—people can begin to heal and live transcendently in heart, spirit and truth—even when it may be their last moment.
So, here’s to death, and to a vivid and unimaginable life well lived.
Author: Dr. Matthew Wilburn King
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock