Stay Awake to Death
Death is the great black wall against which all of our lives shatter. It is the end toward which each of us is racing with our achievements, our hopes and disappointments, our loves and hates, our cherished identities. And when we hit that unyielding wall of impenetrable silence we break apart, we dissipate; we, as we have known ourselves, cease to be.
All of us live under a death sentence. How we deal with it is the most defining thing about us. Death is the great stumbling block, and the beginning and end of all our myths and religions.
In death we must leave all our earthly possessions in the world of the living, and face the Black Transformer alone, naked before the darkness. If any part of us survives this terrible denuding, if we take anything with us into the Void, surely it can only be the spiritual qualities we’ve developed, the characteristics of soul we’ve internalized through our earthly experiences.
As the wisdom teachings of all religions proclaim, far more serious than physical death is the death of the soul that all too often destroys human lives long before our bodies fail. The Maya shamans believed that soul-death is so seductive and diabolically clever that, without our knowledge or conscious consent, it often gains our fullest cooperation. It uses our personal weaknesses to attack our own souls and those of the people around us. In the end, the most subtle of death’s strategies for killing the soul is to persuade us that death itself does not exist. If death can hide in the shadows while we are distracted by the daylight world of our earthly concerns, it can ambush us. But if we can learn to see death—its reality, its lies, the seriousness of its threat, as well as its potential life-generating boon—it becomes the great awakener of a more vital and whole earthly existence and ora blissful eternal life.
The Maya feared death—physical and spiritual. Like the ancient Egyptians with their elaborate mummification practices, their morbid Underworld fantasies, and their books of incantations and spells, the Maya were fascinated by the darkness. But their morbidity, like that of the ascetics, warriors, and sages of other religions, had a purpose. It helped them to stay awake to death. When it was no longer invisible, it could be faced; and if it could be faced, it could be overcome. Seeing in this way helped the Maya shamans unmask death’s crafty, tricksterish ways and expose its life-imitating pretensions. When they could see as the gods saw, false suns could be destroyed, the demons of Xibalba could be defeated, and severed heads could erupt in torrents of ch’ulel.