Why Mystics Love Dying

“Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  -John 12

April 13, 2012.  You hear it from all the mystical masters:  Die to the self.  Die to the past.  Die to the future.  Die, die, die.  Give up and die and be born again.  What are they talking about? Mass suicide?  No, this is not suicide, not the killing of the self, but a radical letting go.  It’s letting go of the smallest parts of you so the bigger parts can come out.  It’s not about suffering, living in squalor, practicing some form of self-torture.  As Catholic mystic Anthony DeMello points out, “you’re never so full of yourself when you’re suffering.”  You don’t think about your head until you have a headache–then it’s all  you think about.  He continues, “But you’re never more ready to forget yourself than when you are happy.  Happiness releases you from the self.  It’s suffering that ties you to the self.“  So yes, Give Up and Die is about happinessThe way to deny the self is not to cause it pain.  The Buddha made this discovery.  After years of living as an ascetic, sleeping out in the cold and subsisting on one grain of rice a day, he felt no closer to enlightenment than when he started.

To deny, to die, to lose the self, is to understand its true nature.

DeMello says we are all like the lunatic who walks into the therapists office thinking he is Napoleon Bonaparte.  The lunatic asks for help dealing with his anxiety, cause he’s ruling an empire and fighting several wars (he thinks).  The therapist doesn’t come right out and say, “You fool, you’re not Napolean.  You’re nuts,” but instead a good therapist slowly helps him handle his anxiety and then understand his delusion.

We are just like the lunatic, with our false sense of self and our anxiety over the empire of our lives which we think we can control.  We don’t see that we are not ourselves, but a collection of identities and anxieties.  Some days I’m a miserable, underpaid public school teacher; other days I’m an exhilarated humanitarian working with struggling learners.  Some days I’m a failed, overlooked novelist; other days I’m an up and coming writer on the edge of discovery.  Yesterday I was a grumpy old man with my kids; today I might be father of the year.  Most my anxiety comes from illusions I have about my own self-created empire, the false idea that I can control my children, my classroom, and the literary or blog world.

All these fading and shifting identities and feelings are temporary, and some are as neurotic as the man who thinks he’s Napoleon.

Give up and die means letting go of illusions.  We suffer so much over the small concerns of a created self that does not really exist.  We suffer over our fears about jobs and love and retirement and the guy in the cubicle next door, when the truth is–none of that stuff has to exist in essential reality.

On the best days of life, usually with the help of meditation, I step outside myself, detach just enough from the little ‘me’ that wants and needs so much and I bask in the words of the Tao te Ching:  “Be content with what you have.  Rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

In the end, we are all after happiness.  But we suffer.

“Suffering occurs when you clash with reality,” says Anthony DeMello.   “True happiness is uncaused.  Happiness is the natural state of children before they are poisoned and contaminated by society.  To acquire happiness, you don’t have to do anything.  You have it already.  Happiness is our natural state.  So why don’t we feel it?  Illusions.  You’ve got to drop an illusion.  You don’t have to add anything on to be happy.  You’ve got to drop something.  Life is easy.  Life is delightful.  It’s only rough on your illusion.”

What’s an illusion you can let go of?  Today, I’m working on the illusion of being esteemed or admired: people will honor or respect me more once my novel is published or my band gets played on the radio or I’m nominated for teacher of the year or my blog gets a thousand hits (instead of twelve).  The truth is, my friends admire and like me no matter what, and all that other stuff is illusion (but so hard to let go of).

That’s why I say…Give Up and Die, you’ll be glad you did.

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