My Advisor is Death
Well, let's say that I know all kinds of things because I don't have a personal history, and because I don't feel more important than anything else, and because death is sitting with me right here.
—Don Juan, Journey to Ixtlan
Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed.
—The Dalai Lama
My daily chores at the ranch are done, and, as I amble toward the tool shed, I catch myself immersed in nonsensical self-reflection. I stop the babble, put the tools in the shed and walk out. I cover our firewood with a tarp and sit on a tree stump, in the shade of a giant Sycamore. Sun rays slant downhill into the canyon promising a hot day. A mockingbird is singing. I inhale deeply the sweet smell of grass.
An ant is carrying something somewhere. She is going far but she knows exactly where she is going. I stand up and follow her until she reaches an anthill where she deposits her load. She moves around greeting other ants, and either she or another ant (Who knows?) picks the load again and enters its underground city.
I return to the stump and notice the grapevines beside my cottage, opposite the tool shed. Some of the grapes are ripe, and I figure that I better harvest some before the deers and the birds dispatch them. I do so, and take some to my landladies.
Then I pondered all I would have missed if I wouldn’t have stopped my useless self-reflection. What was I worrying about? Who knows? But it was either past, future or imaginary. The real meaning of the word freedom is liberation from compulsive thinking.
“If you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back and place it again in Our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”—St Francis de Sales
Self-reflection not only makes us absent, it also makes us prey for our death, for we forfeit the present moment, when death is always a possibility.
* * *
Using death as an advisor, as an usher to the present moment, is an old technique.
The sage Yudhisthira
“Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?”
“That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”
* * *
An accident that occurred while I was still living in Seattle, helped me to see that the smallest of our decisions are made in the presence of death; it made the fact perfectly clear. I was leaving my apartment on my way to work, and as I locked the door there was a moment of hesitation. Had I left the stove on? I decided that I hadn’t, and left.
It was one of those rainy, wintry days Seattle is famous for. My apartment was located on First Hill, on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Spring Street. All the parking spaces in that area were metered, so I always parked by the cathedral, some eight blocks away.
Buffeted by wind and a light rain, I turned left at the cathedral hastening along the lee of the building to where my car was parked. And just as I scurried into my car and was about to insert the key in the ignition, I heard a dreadful thud, a massive object had struck the sidewalk. I couldn’t see what it was due to the hedge growing along the outer half of the sidewalk, so spurred by great curiosity, I got off my car and ran over.
Lo and behold! A huge cornice had been apparently dislodged by the wind and rain, and it wrecked the sidewalk just where I had been standing a few seconds before. I stood aghast. The distance from the fallen cornice to my car was about the same as the distance from my door to the kitchen and back. The decision not to check my stove had probably saved my life. Death had missed me by a few seconds.
Death as an advisor. We can’t feel important when consorting with our death. No matter who we are, or what we have, death can, and will, destroy us all with a flick of her wrist. That is certain; only when it will happen is uncertain. We must make our plans for the future while ready to die today.
* * *
Have you noticed that I consider death a female? I guess that that was what don Juan meant when he told Castaneda that the way we see our death is personal. I see my death as a female figure in a black, hooded cloak. She is rather cold, pale and impersonal but shapely and somehow appealing. I guess seeing her this way dulls the edge of my fright, and if I always use her as an advisor I presume soon there will be no fear at all. Who knows, she may even guide me through the eye of the dragon.
To keep death as an advisor, as a witness to everything we do, also requires effort in a sustained manner. Not only we have our own ego to contend with (the ego is a liar and the father of them) but our collective ego (social contract) is an impressive obstacle. The socialization process has been efficient at making us feel safe and eternal. It is an ongoing challenge, isn't it? Everyday it starts anew.
* * *
I was in the park one afternoon, cleaning the interior of my car, while two birds cavorted in the sky in their daily rituals. Suddenly, I heard a bang right next to me; one of the birds had hit the car’s windowpane, apparently flying at full speed, and he was now lying on the ground. I picked him up tenderly, but it was useless; he lay on my hand writhing in convulsions, dying. His skull was broken and bleeding. I ended his misery.
Next morning, this was in the news: Two men were walking near a construction site downtown, and a falling iron beam swung down on its tether to kill one of them instantly. The other man was in shock but otherwise unhurt. Death is always at arm’s length, to our left. Isn’t it amazing that we are still alive?
* * *
Late last evening, I took a stroll to the grove of sycamores, and again I caught myself thinking rubbish, worrying about future events—my future at the ranch is uncertain. I stopped my inner babble. I brought death into the picture, and death brought the present to my notice.
It is cloudy. Birds are chirping aloft. I can hear the cooing of turtledoves in the distance. A light rain starts to fall through the shafts of light cast by the setting sun, but the trees protect me. I am amongst friends.
Within the sacred grove, it starts to get dark, but around, in the surrounding terrain, there is still light. I can smell the rain.
As darkness descends, the birds stop chirping. The forest to my left starts filling with the noises germane to the encroaching night. Insects start buzzing. Something is crawling through the thick undergrowth. Owls are hooting atop their high perches, chatting with each other. I hoot and they hoot back.
The place is magical indeed, and it agrees with my death, the future doesn’t exist. All we have is the present moment, a fleeting instant, so fleeting that nothing really exists.
The Buddhist sage Nagarjuna said that things are so impermanent that there is no way to point at something and call it impermanent. The minute you single it out, it has become something else. All is energy in motion; there aren’t things in a flow; there is only flow. Birth and Death are always here, now. As you read these lines there are hundreds of people dying and hundreds of people being born. All of them, are us.
Birth and death thus, do not exist; they are only part of a flow, of an interpretation, of an agreement. They are just items in a bubble of perception, in the illusion of consciousness, in the dream of life. Magic! What we perceive as the world is magic; we are magicians.
Nagarjuna also said that there is no difference at all between nirvana and samsara. They are not mutually exclusive. The world of form is a projection of Mind, and part of It. In Castaneda’s lingo, the dreamed dreams the dreamer. Thus, I dare say, the Tonal
is a projection of the Nagual, of the Unborn, the Uncreated; they are not a true pair. And this is a dream that we can change, an agreement that we can modify.
I strolled back to my cottage with the certainty that I have to stalk myself continually, especially in the mornings. The moment before totally waking is a vulnerable time for me. I am easy prey for self-reflection then, for to regain its hold on me the ego will unleash many a vengeful ghost from the past. That means that as soon as I am conscious, I must bring my attention to my breathing and my surroundings, to the moment, to who I am.
* * *
One night I went to the sacred grove taking a ladder and a rope with me; I meant to visit with my friends. For safety, I threw one end of the rope over the largest tree, and tethered the ladder to a branch on the opposite side. It was a long ladder that barely took me to the first branches of the tree.
As I came near the branches, I found a sizable protuberance close to the main branch, a chair, so to speak, where I could sit. About a foot higher, the main branch forked out to stretch parallel to the ground; it forked again before meeting the neighboring tree, and one branch shoot up straight through our neighbor’s branches, while the other headed down and south toward the road and the hills.
Some of these branches (to give you an idea of the size of these trees) are as big as grown trees themselves; sitting astride one of them, you feel as if you are riding a horse. On the main branch, I placed a blanket; the chair felt slippery with the blanket, and it was too high to take chances.
While sitting astride the branch, the trunk of the tree was my backrest; sitting on the chair, the branch was my backrest. I spent about four hours gazing into the moonlit night, altering my awareness, communing with the trees.
To relieve aching muscles, I alternated between the chair and the branch. I would have stayed all night, enjoying the August full moon, but the threat of rain was in the air; thick, black clouds were rolling in, and there was thunder and lightning in them.
But I returned.
* * *
Of all the trees, that one was the closest to me; it presented me once with a quartz crystal rock. It happened that one afternoon, when I was sitting by its roots, I had the urge to get some crystals to help me in dreaming, and I voiced my wish. A couple of days later, I found the quartz crystal rock within the hollow of the main root, right next to where I had been sitting. It could have been there all along, I know, but I sure hadn’t seen it before, and I gazed there frequently.
Donna told me once that the tree growing amid the vegetable garden had appeared to her out of nowhere. It was just lying there, in front of the house, roots and all, soon after she wished for it.
* * *
During autumn the sycamores shed their leaves, and their foliage turns orange and yellowish-red, with a touch of gold and a hint of fire in the glowing colors. From the benches in the sacred grove, I can see the canopy above as a blend of greens and reddish-yellows. To the west, a few clouds are tinged orange underneath, and to the east, our neighbor’s sycamores are gleaming yellow against the fading blue of the darkening sky; it is the twilight during a warm November evening.
The energy vortex must have helped me that night, for I had the longest dream I have ever had. I awoke at about two o'clock in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. My time to leave the ranch was approaching; Donna and Jean couldn’t hire me any longer. I had decisions to make.
But I managed to relax. I grabbed one of my quartz crystals, pressed it between the index and middle fingers of my left hand, and, closing my eyes, I shut off my internal dialogue. I looked for the color orange. Different shapes appeared, shadows that moved and pulsed. I focused on them. I was facing the sacred grove, and I silently asked the distant trees to pull me toward them.
The next thing I knew, I was looking at a few stone buildings: a house and lesser constructions. I did not try to go through the vision but to hold it as long as I could.
I was not able to visit the trees that night, I have to admit, but after that vision, I found myself inside a strange enclosure from where I couldn’t leave or even look outside; it had no doors, windows or roof. It was dark, obviously the darkness of the night, but I could not see any stars.
I intended to fly out but somehow I couldn’t. That was unusual, but I was reluctant to waste my dreaming energy trying to fly; I decided to go through the wall instead, something I had never tried before. I moved forward and went through the brick structure. It was a strange sensation, like going through jelly. I felt myself inside the wall for a moment, and then, I intended myself through it.
Outside, I found myself in an unknown city of strange appearance. I have a vague memory of structures and buildings with dome roofs, ending in slim needles as dark as the sky itself; they were unfamiliar and unrecognizable.
There have been times when I had been unable to recollect a dream due to its outlandish contents. Only a fleeting memory remained, a memory of something that just didn’t make sense, for it was out of my normal range of perception.
I can’t remember how I changed the dream. But after I left I was able to fly, and I reached an altogether different region. It appeared to be a South American city in the mountains. I was moving close to the ground, trying to figure out my whereabouts. I started to look for signs that would perhaps give me a hint, but I couldn’t see any. I landed on a high narrow sidewalk and entered an unpretentious hotel with a cozy outdoor patio by the front desk.
There were no signs of any kind. It was probably a phantom city, but it didn’t cross my mind to intend seeing any of the few persons who were walking about oblivious to my presence.
After I came out of the hotel, however, the dream changed again, and a pigeon landed close to me, behind a board attached to a chain-link fence. I could only see its tail, and it couldn’t see me. But it started to slowly climb down, so I figured that upon clearing the board and seeing me, it would take off flying. The pigeon, however, kept climbing down after looking right into my eyes.
It occurred to me then that it wasn’t just a pigeon, whereupon I looked fixedly at the bird intending to see its energy. The pigeon turned then into a blob of energy; it became a circle with bright long filaments all around, and a blackish churning energy inside. It didn’t seem dangerous or threatening but it looked grotesque; I decided not to communicate or try to follow it to its realm.
If it would have been as endearing as the blue scout, maybe I would have followed it; then again, maybe not, Castaneda’s blue scout turned out to be a hoax. The being whom he had supposedly rescued from the inorganic being’s world turned out to be P___ D___ born in Pasadena, California.
Besides, following an inorganic being to a world you don’t understand, where your energy can be trapped indefinitely, did not seem to be an intelligent risk to take for any reason. Since trying to figure out what is fact and what is fiction in Castaneda’s work is quite a challenge, and considering that allies were of no help to him in vanquishing his self-importance, I guess I made the right decision.
* * *
A young woman was going through the front porch of the main house to knock at the door. As I glided toward her to greet her, I started to feel dizzy. She hadn’t seen me, and I didn’t want to yell and startle her, but the closer I got, the dizzier I got. I fought the fainting spell and woke up.
I then closed my eyes and saw a huge house cat. He was almost as big as a full-grown German shepherd. As the cat came near, I could see that he had unusually large weird ears, like a rabbit. Allies can take the most outlandish shapes.
* * *
I found a heading, on the cover of a science magazine, which I thought interesting. It seems that scientists are getting close to the truth at last.
“You are a hologram.”
And I just read, in a recent issue of Discover magazine, that scientists are having to formulate a new theory to explain gravity, because the last theory does not support the latest findings, for instance: non-location. My suggestion to them is to delve into the Heart Sutra.
“Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”
The Buddha saw all this.