Dennis Maust | Essays | Death and Becoming
Death and Becoming:
Becoming who one is or who one is meant to be, becoming more conscious and ever mindful, understanding one’s purpose, and seeking to know the ultimate why evolves in concert with changing attitudes, changing lifestyles, and changing awareness. Poets, philosophers, and religious figures, artists, scholars, and critical thinkers, almost without exception, attend to this evolutionary process at some point in their oeuvre. A select few occupy their lifework solely with the mission of becoming. They illustrate its process, paint its profile, follow – and teach – its path, and most frequently attribute its attainment to one singular event, to the one concrete yet abstract milestone most cogitated, oft feared, and least comprehended: death. Sages and saints through centuries of spreading their wisdom seldom speak of death, either, without conjuring images and thoughts of becoming. Humankind, then, must recognize, internalize, and get comfortable with the fusion of death and becoming, for these two nearly-inevitable life occurrences intertwine and link inextricably on a path of personal growth.
Death arrives in many flavors and forms. Individuals face death differently. Generations witness its consequences and experience its effects. Acquaintance with death may forever change children; increasingly frequent encounters with it eventually challenge adults not merely to accept its inevitability but to reflect actively on their own mortality – and their life. Personal death, of course, carries its own, quite certain finality – or does it? A loved one’s death or impending demise results in at least a momentary amount of reflection and looking inward, at times providing the impetus for life-altering growth.
Does death necessarily facilitate becoming? Does becoming always include some aspect of death? Are the two terms so inextricably linked that speaking of one implicitly, if not explicitly, invokes images or petitions the presence of the other? Examination of such an opinion requires common ground, a set of definitions with which to work. Only then can students and teachers of literature, philosophy, and life begin to explore together the wide range of material covering death and becoming. Only then can they begin to map the interactions between death and becoming. Only then can they begin to postulate the closeness of the relationship between death and becoming.
Death, in its most insipid interpretation, implies simply loss, absence, or the end of life (“Death,” defs. 1a, 2). The certainty of death, once realized, lurks forever in the mind’s recesses. Death’s importance and influence during life, however, waxes and wanes depending on several factors. A few of these factors include age, health, connectedness to family and friends, and personal attitude – nurtured, natural, or otherwise.
When pondering death, though, most people sooner or later encounter thoughts and teachings aside from its physical aspects. Thus, they enter the realm of metaphysics – something beyond the physical. Notions may form around philosophical ideas, religious theologies, spiritual teachings, or a convergence of such knowledge. Some, having once entertained thoughts about death, may altogether dismiss any further ideas or any further personal work on those ideas, relegating those thoughts to the unknowable or to the too-difficult-to-comprehend-to-be-worth-the-time-required bin. Depending on personal circumstances, such thinkers may eventually visit the metaphysical aspects of death again – or they may not. Death itself, however, will most likely force the issue.
Becoming, on the other hand, is a term with very little, if any, physical aspect. Different people define it in different ways, making it an abstract term seemingly comprehendible and unknowable simultaneously. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines becoming – an inflected form of the verb become, derived from the Middle English becomen, meaning “to become” – as “to come into existence,” “to come to be,” and “to undergo change or development” (“Become,” defs. 1a, b, 2). Becoming, then, implies growth, a process, or as some would call it, a path, a method, or a way.
“A way to what?” then, becomes the question. Various authors interpret the final destination as consciousness, existence, being, or to be. They maintain becoming involves a sense of change, but more specifically, it indicates personal development. Development, again according to Webster, implies a process of growth, of making clear, and of making visible (“Develop,” defs. 1a, b, 3a(2)). Writers, spiritual teachers, psychologists, and philosophers express their own ideas about the ultimate goal or highest level of becoming. Freud cautions, though, that “it is often merely a matter of opinion when we declare that one stage of development is higher than another, and . . . biology teaches us that higher development in one respect is very frequently balanced or outweighed by involution in another” (75-76).
Without discarding Freud’s precaution, discoursers still require more common ground for a discussion about being or becoming. Erich Fromm, a twentieth-century psychologist, at least provides a minimal starting definition of being, one of his two encompassing modes of existence. Recalling Buddha, Jesus, Meister Eckhart, and Karl Marx, Fromm synthesizes and extrapolates their teachings into a fundamental characteristic of being he calls “inner activity” (88). Supported additionally by Aristotle and Aquinas, Fromm further describes being as the “contemplative life, devoted to the search for truth” (92). Contrasting being with having, his opposing mode of existence, Fromm indicates that being’s inner activity “is rooted in and expresses the ultimate ethical and spiritual demands” (93), while having is merely passive activity characterized by busyness, possessiveness, greed, ambition, and by separation from the spiritual (93-95).
Fromm’s definitions, supported by other authors – among them, Ouspensky (43, 314-315) and Thoreau (Life 92) – imply, then, that habits and daily routines, for example, do not constitute becoming. Characteristics of habits and daily routines include passive outward activity and busyness, with no inward activity, consciousness, or awareness. Someone performing a task out of habit oftentimes pauses to wonder about the progress of the task, about its completion, or about his or her own current state. This confusion occurs when he or she performs the task in a mechanical, unthinking way.
One illustration of how to transcend habitual thinking, thus increasing inner activity, involves behaving like someone with a broken arm or, more dramatically, someone with only one arm – especially like someone having recently lost the use of the arm with the dominant hand. Aside from early psychological implications, perhaps pondering “Why me?” or dealing with episodes of depression, this impairment would force the subject to slow down and become more aware of each daily, repetitive task.
Imagine now the task of pouring a glass of cold orange juice in the morning. This task would entail going to the kitchen cupboard and opening the door with the one good hand, taking down a single glass and setting it on the countertop, going to the refrigerator door and opening it with the same good hand, taking out the orange juice container and then setting it on the countertop by the glass, probably nudging closed the refrigerator door with a knee. Would such a physically impaired person have thought ahead at the supermarket to buy orange juice in a cardboard container with a push-open spout, or would this person now have to do battle with an often-stuck, metal lid on a glass jug? What about fresh-squeezed orange juice?
Imagine the habitual task of oral hygiene. Think about placing toothpaste on the toothbrush. Would such a person place the toothbrush on the countertop and ever so carefully flip open – or unscrew – the toothpaste dispenser top and gently squeeze the toothpaste onto the toothbrush? Alternatively, would this person place the toothbrush in his or her mouth and dispense the toothpaste while biting the toothbrush handle between the teeth? What about flossing?
Imagine the habitual task of shampooing. Does this person now dispense an appropriate amount of shampoo directly onto the top of the head? Since no opposing hand exists to hold the contents of the shampoo container, would a mirror, obviously not necessary before, help spot the amount and placement of the shampoo? Careful, conscious thought must go into each of these now extraordinary tasks – at least until they become ordinary and habitual again.
An unimpaired person practicing similar rituals daily, turning habits into exercises at every waking moment, with constant awareness and an inwardly active thought process, might ultimately and effectively heighten his or her consciousness. These daily exercises illustrate but one method and one aspect of becoming. Alternative or additional methods include meditation, yoga, the martial arts, painting, sculpting, writing, and even engaging in more extreme lifestyles like asceticism or joining a monastic order, to name a few.
Thoreau recommends another helpful method – simply taking a walk in the woods – if one adheres to his maxim: “Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit” (Walking 411). Thoreau emphasizes the point that walking, be it in the woods or elsewhere, does a person no good if the mind remains on chores at home or deadlines at the office. Another example of adhering to Thoreau’s maxim might consist of attending a lecture and completely focusing on the lecturer’s message, without daydreaming, without clock-watching, without thinking about lunch or dinner. In this light, one aspect of becoming manifests itself as being more awake, attentive, and in the moment.
Throughout his book, Fromm, too, makes use of descriptive terms and phrases like awake, attentive, in the moment, and oned with the world, to help define the concept of becoming. Philosophers, theologians, and spiritual teachers often use these terms, also. Additional terms they use include constant awareness, self-remembering, expanded or full consciousness, enlightenment, wholeness, oneness, atman, and transcendence. The list seems almost endless, but the reason seems abundantly clear: humanity is so diverse culturally, religiously, philosophically, and spiritually that people’s desire to know, combined with teachers’ desire to show, necessitates the use of many words, the practice of many methods, and the pursuit of many paths. Thoreau looks favorably upon the variety of terms and paths, prescribing “that there be as many different persons in the world as possible” (Walden 53), but insisting that “each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead” (Walden 53).
Thoreau, just one among a handful of nineteenth-century transcendentalist writers that focused their work on aspects of becoming, additionally proclaims, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake” (Walden 65). No less a scientist than Einstein echoes Fromm and Thoreau, observing that “the desire for truth must take precedence of (sic) all other desires” (31), and “It is the duty of every man of good will to strive steadfastly in his own little world to make this teaching of pure humanity a living force, so far as he can” (111-112). Reawakening, keeping awake, desiring truth, and striving steadfastly all contribute to a better understanding of becoming.
The desire for truth, the quest for becoming, is not a recent or even nineteenth-century phenomenon, however. The idea of becoming is practically, if not completely, universal and eternal. The lives of such culturally and chronologically disparate figures as Abraham, Aknaton, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Christ, Muhammad, Thomas Aquinas, and Gandhi all illustrate the universal concept of growth and the historical depth behind the quest for becoming and the teaching of a path. Whether these figures – and others – can claim enlightenment or being status themselves or have it bestowed upon them by their followers remains largely defined by culture and beliefs. Thoreau, once again, weighs in with a telling observation:
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? (Walden 65)
Freud provides additional support for Thoreau’s observation, claiming that the goal of perfection in human development is unattainable and that “only in rare cases [does] the economic situation [appear] to favor the production of the phenomenon” (77-78). Together, Freud’s analytical conclusion and Thoreau’s cautionary quip provide essential warnings to choose teachers, gurus, and religious leaders carefully. Only a very select, qualified few exist.
Becoming, or the path to being, does not necessarily require teachers, though, and its final determination rests with the self. However, it must get its start, its genesis, somehow, somewhere, and at sometime. Many people today often flippantly refer to a closely related concept and term it a mid-life crisis. Indeed, people at mid-life seem to round one of life’s corners and begin behaving differently, a lot of the time almost childishly. Jung sees the problem as one of older people still striving to be young instead of turning inward to the self (109-110). He also reasons that, because of societal values, people are forced to limit themselves to the attainable and work their way to the “middle of life” (104). Why is this middle-of-life point so often associated with changing attitudes, changing lifestyles, and changing awareness?
Of course, the actual age at which such observable or internal change takes place varies widely. However, claiming that the aura of death has a stimulating effect on becoming does not require a vivid imagination. Excluding the sometime acquaintance with death children may experience, most people begin their courtship with death at mid-life. Average life expectancies and generational time spans proffer that people at mid-life will begin witnessing the death of grandparents, then older aunts and uncles, followed eventually by their parents. Additionally, parents, hometown relatives, and friends often keep mid-lifers informed of grade-school or middle-school teachers’, church pastors’, neighbors’, and childhood friends’ deaths. Even the increasing number of relatives, friends, and loved ones experiencing poor health or possibly some debilitating or terminal disease bring much closer to mid-lifers the aura of death.
The encroachment of death, merely by experiencing it with or among others, cannot help but expel the carefree, sometimes immortal outlook on life maintained in youth. But why should such a change or questioning stimulate becoming? Fromm helps explain by relaying that the opposing mode of existence – having – consists of worrying about obtaining things and of fearing that the loss of possessions “is an unavoidable consequence of a sense of security based on what one has” (125). He takes his explanation a step further by suggesting that having also consists of “the fear of losing life itself” (125) and claiming that Buddha, Jesus, and others have “overcome the fear of dying” (126). When people begin experiencing an aura, or even a hint, of death around them, questions about the importance of possessions, of ownership, and of life’s meaning naturally arise when confronting their fear of death. They start to overcome their fear when they realize that, as Fromm again explains, the “way is by not hanging onto life, not experiencing life as a possession” (126). This realization signals for many the genesis of becoming.
The beginning of becoming, the “effort to reduce the mode of having and to increase the mode of being” (Fromm 127) resulting from death lessons, receives further support from Jung. He says that “it is hygienic . . . to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose” (112).
Why is the experience of death such a strong motivator? David Balk in a Death Studies article entitled “Bereavement and Spiritual Change” specifies three necessary conditions for a life crisis to motivate some type of internal transcendence: “The situation must create a psychological imbalance or disequilibrium that resists readily being stabilized; there must be time for reflection; and the person’s life must forever afterwards be colored by the crisis” (485). Certainly death, especially of a close friend or loved one, creates and encompasses these necessary conditions of a motivating life crisis.
Still, both Jung and Freud state reservations about a concept like becoming or expanded consciousness. Jung claims nature cares nothing for it; society values it not; and prizes reward achievement, not personality (102). Freud did not believe in “an instinct towards perfection at work in human beings” (76). Instead, he thought “it is the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is demanded and that which is actually achieved” (77) that drives human beings ever forward. These claims, however, only suggest that nature does not provide humankind with an innate clock to trigger becoming or an internal inkling of when to begin the search, nor does nature provide the motivation for pursuing becoming. Instead, human beings must initiate the process themselves and pursue becoming as they see fit.
And as long as you don’t have this quality,
This: Die and become!
You will be but a dismal guest
On this murky earth. (81a)
Religious explanations, philosophical teachings, poets’, painters’, sculptors’, and writers’ lifework throughout history exhibit elements of the notion to “die and become.” Its personal meaning and its imagery, widely influenced by culture, vary significantly, but its central theme is one of transcendence and growth.
When religious followers talk of death and becoming, for example, Christians immediately recognize the parallel to Christ’s death and resurrection, whether taken literally or allegorically as a call to spiritual awakening and renewal, one of many proclaimed metaphysical or denominational interpretations. In another example, Buddhists see a meaning that parallels the great awakening experience of their master, Gautama Siddhartha, one night under a fig tree.
Religion, however, cannot claim exclusive ownership of the concept of death and becoming. Confucius, mired in obscure tradition and absent any directly attributable writings (Jaspers 43), “had no fundamental religious experience, no revelation; he achieved no inner rebirth” (Jaspers 57). Yet Confucius also candidly and serenely accepted death (Jaspers 55, 61) proclaiming, according to Jaspers, “There are cases in which men rise from desperate circumstances to the highest calling” (57). He was passionate about “the spirit of the whole . . . and the inner make-up of every individual man as a part of the whole” (Jaspers 57).
Another noteworthy example, Socrates, lived Goethe’s calling. Karl Jaspers notes that Socrates, as revealed in Plato’s dialogues about his trial, imprisonment, and death, was at peace and saw “nothing tragic about death” (14). Jaspers further interprets and clarifies Socrates’ supporting views about the interconnectedness of life, death, and becoming:
But in the end lamentation must cease, giving way to peace and acceptance of our lot. Socrates sets the great example: where consuming sorrow seems in place, there springs the great, loving peace which opens the soul. Death has lost its meaning. It is not veiled over, but the authentic life is not a life toward death; it is a life toward the good. . . . Keep yourself open for the one absolute. Until you achieve it, do not throw yourself away, for in it you can live and die at peace. (15)
Do not worry about or fear death, Jaspers seems to say. Work at life; strive for a lifetime; death is but part of the process and part of the reward.
Though Socrates was married, had three sons (“Socrates” 317), and his life and death are historically recorded, Plato still renders him a mysterious man (Jaspers 15). Indeed, mystery and mysticism, too, support the inextricable link between death and becoming. Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century German mystic of the Dominican order, writes that “he who wishes to find this light and insight into the whole truth must take care, and give attention to foster this birth in himself” (63). A mid-twentieth century Hindu teacher of self-realization, Jiddu Krishnamurti, in his discourses, similarly says, “We do not want to know life and death, we only want to know how to continue without ending. . . . But . . . only in ending can there be renewal, the creative, the unknown” (236). These aspects of mysticism teach that becoming is but a type of birth that arises out of death.
More recent mystics teach similar death-birth-becoming connections. One mystic, Osho, better known as the sometimes-controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, reflecting on the occasion of his enlightenment, claims that “That night the death was total. It was a date with death and god simultaneously” (Osho). Another recent spiritual teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, instructs that “The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death” (Trungpa). Such revelations illustrate the regard mystics have for and the value they place on helping others realize the relationship-dance between death and becoming.
From definitions to examples, from religious figures to scientists, from poets to playwrights, and from scholars to mystics, all contribute to the notion of an inextricable link between death and becoming. Some see cause and effect while others maintain the process circles around death and birth, birth and death, continually awakening and growing on a path to becoming. After developing common ground for discussion and moving forward by closely examining the oeuvre of historical figures from a variety of disciplines, people – no matter their cultural background or age – must acknowledge that interactions and relationships exist between death and becoming that make the two concepts inseparable. Perhaps Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, late twentieth-century psychiatrist and authority on death and dying, best expresses the link between death and becoming when she notes the following:
. . . if we look at death from a different perspective, then we can see that it is the promise of death and the experience of dying, more than any other force in life, that can move a human being to grow. All of us, even those who have chosen a life of non-growth – of playing out the roles prescribed by others – feel within our innermost selves that we are meant for something more in this life than simply eating, sleeping, watching television, and going to work 5 days a week. That something else, that many can’t define, is growth – becoming all that is truly you and at the same time, more fully human. (117)
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