“…within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”
—Shakespeare, Richard II, 3:2
I was sitting with a client recently who is experiencing a lot of health anxiety. “What if my symptoms get worse,” this individual sobbed to me. “What if I die?”
How to respond?
Most of us, if pressed, would be willing to say out loud that we know how our stories end. I was a serious student of Shakespeare at some point in my life, and there was an old chestnut we used to throw around about the plays: comedies end in marriage, romances end badly, and tragedies end in death. By that measure, all of our stories will turn out to be tragedies, since we all know that we will die. And before we die, everything we have ever loved will be taken from us. Our lives, with props to Thomas Hobbs, was set out to be “nasty, brutish, and short.”
This client of mine sees things pretty typically: Birth is a joyful beginning to life, while death is its wretched end. But this is not the only way to understand our Great Matter, this problem of birth and death. What if birth and death were not other than milestones in a great continuum that we call “life?” If life is a sublime and infinitely complex dance that includes all beings, all phenomena, then “birth” and “death” are not inherently more significant than “Wednesday” or “sunset.” That we are born and die makes the events in our lives seem unique, and this is partly true. With props to Heraclitus, in some sense it is true that we never step in the same river twice. But as we go tromping through rivers, we are still part of the same comic unfolding that includes all things, in all places, in all times. The water in the river bed is not different from the blood in our veins, the sap in the trees, and the mist that rolls in from the ocean over night.
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki was meant to have said “We sit [in meditation] so that we can enjoy our old age. We we sit quietly, watching and listening, we gradually learn that all that is changes. Nothing has a fixed place or a fixed nature. We can see this when we are still and quiet. Learning that things change, that they arise and cease, we can make peace with the fragility and transience of our natures. We can laugh at birds sitting on a fence, delight in the warm body in bed next to us on a cold night—and see that death is the fitting and appropriate conclusion to this game of hide-and-seek the cosmos plays, where the cosmos pretend, just for al little while, that it is a particular person, you or me.
And then we let go and, once again, we are everything, in all places, at all times. Just this. Unfortunately, there is no combination of magic words I can say in a therapy session that will make this so. But this is nevertheless the job, if you choose to take it up. Make peace with birth and death, however you choose to do that. It is nothing less than the reason that we—that vast and all pervasive “we”—took these mortal forms in the first place. To see if we could, just this once, forget our true natures on purpose and then, also on purpose, rediscover that nature anew.