My Dream: A World That Honors Death as Much as Life
by Cat Saunders
The poet reminds us that a civilization that denies death ends by denying life.
I dream of a culture where the Wise Ones impart the sacred gift of predestined death timing to young adults at puberty, in a rite of passage everyone has heard about since birth. As the adolescent initiates become capable of creating life, they are required to receive and contemplate the awe-inspiring foreknowledge of their appointed date with death.
There are many ways to confront one's own mortality. However, as anyone facing a terminal illness knows, the "when" factor changes everything. Knowledge of one's probable exit date can blast holes in all but the most solid walls of denial.
Dream with me for a moment. Can you imagine how different our country would be if no one was afraid of death? Considering the fact that fear and avoidance rule American attitudes toward death, it might be difficult to imagine a completely different scenario. But I'm a dreamer...
The Senoi, Big Dreams, and Naked Tricksters
Two decades ago, I read a book called Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield. My favorite chapter was about the Senoi people of Malaysia. I was enthralled by descriptions of Senoi families sitting around the breakfast table each morning, talking about their dreams. For the Senoi, dreams form the centerpiece of life, guiding every aspect of their existence.
From the beginning, children learn how to transform dream monsters into allies, and how to increase their capacity for pleasure by pursuing it passionately and creatively in their dreams. In addition, everyone learns how to identify big dreams, which hold information that must be shared with the entire community.
I have a big dream. It comes to me at night, and it dances before me every day, dazzling me with its luminous beauty. In my dream, no one is afraid of death, and everyone knows about their death timing in advance.
In my dream, there are threads of wisdom that bear testament to my love for the Senoi. I can see families sitting around the breakfast table, speaking not only of their dreams, but also of death. Since all adults have been informed of their predestined death timing, everyone celebrates their own deathday each year, as joyously as they celebrate birthdays.
Children grow up knowing how long their parents will accompany them in physical form, and they know who will care for them if both parents die before the children grow up. Even the littlest ones are included in conversations about the facts of death, just as they are included in discussions about the facts of life. Parents use words the children understand, but no one uses euphemisms when talking about death. Every question and concern is addressed with honesty and respect.
In addition to practical and esoteric instruction in matters relating to death, there is also a lot of joking about it. Black humor permeates every form of media, and it shows up in all but the most sacred death rituals. Even memorial services, which are actually big celebrations called awakes, are not immune to practical jokes and displays of debauchery. No one takes death seriously, because everyone takes it very seriously. This paradox is itself humorous to the inhabitants of my dream.
There is always at least one trickster in every family. During the occasional "awake," such a person might be found naked, her face painted black, walking across the middle of the food table. This jokester is regarded as the holiest of holies, because she makes fun even in the face of death. Little children often dance behind her, learning by example that there is nothing to fear.
Time and the Mystery of Death
In my dream, there is an appreciation for time-as-ocean, with all things past, present and future existing simultaneously. Information from any time/space is readily available, not only to the Wise Ones, but to anyone who is facile in traversing time through dreams or shamanic journeying.
Time is not seen as a linear function, except where such convention helps people meet at a particular moment not discernible by sun or moon activity. Also, since everyone knows the future already exists, people speak of it with as much comfort as they talk about the past. No one harbors any delusions about manipulating or controlling the unfolding of life.
On the other hand, people retain their childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for life-to-come, in the same way you might get excited about an upcoming event you've been planning with friends. Even though you know in advance when it will happen, where it will happen, what will be on the agenda, and who's invited, your experience of the event will be much different from your imagination of it.
Instead of making the time of death a mystery, people in my dream focus on the mystery of death itself.
People in my dream appreciate this difference, yet they also realize that good planning can enhance an experience by anticipating people's needs, while providing enough structure to support personal expression and creative interaction.
This respect for good planning also applies to death. In my dream, foreknowledge of death timing is valued not only because it enhances the experience of dying, but also because it enhances the experience of living. Since people already know their death dates, they don't waste time obsessing about how to "prolong longevity," as twentieth-century Americans would say. Instead of making the time of death a mystery, people in my dream focus on the mystery of death itself.
Death at Any Moment vs. Death by Appointment
In some cultures, spiritual masters maintain that the most enlightened attitude toward death is to act as if each moment is your last. But if you really acted as if this is your last moment, would you buy groceries for tomorrow's dinner? Would you make plans for next weekend? Would you pay next month's rent or mortgage? Would you have children?
Such a tenet may stimulate a lot of good meditations, and it certainly offers a valuable edge for living in the present. I practice it myself, since predestined death can be overturned in an instant by a cosmic wild card (send SASE to The New Times for reprints of my January and February 1998 articles related to my predestined death timing). Although I use this death-at-any-moment perspective to stay on my toes, I don't honestly believe that this is my last moment, and my actions follow this belief.
In general, the human brain struggles mightily against the fact of its own mortality. The trick of acting as if I could die anytime is just that: a trick. What counts is how I feel, and how I act on what I feel. If I think I could die anytime, yet I'm busy making plans and restocking writing supplies and buying bags full of groceries, it's questionable which belief is actually running me.
Since finding out about my predestined year of death (2009, age 55), I've been reconsidering the idea that it's enlightened to act as if I could die anytime. Maybe it's not enlightened! Maybe it's as silly as signing up for a four-year college program, and then acting as if every class is your last. At some point, your schoolmates may begin to wonder if you aren't a bit daft if you show up every day in your cap and gown, ready to graduate at any moment.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that people should deny the fact that death can strike at any minute. I definitely encourage people to remember their mortality, even if their only option is to deny it. However, I believe that there is another alternative, one that acknowledges death's ability to preempt my life, while also acknowledging that it has a date with me in 2009.
Personally, I believe that if there weren't so much fear and mass hypnosis about death, foreknowledge of one's death timing would bubble up from the collective unconscious easily, upon request. It might come from dreams or body messages or spiritual helpers or worldly omens. One way or the other, though, I believe the information is available.
For example, there are many stories about people intuiting their death timing as it draws near. My own grandfather, during a holiday dinner more than twenty years ago, announced that he didn't think he would be present for the following year's gathering. Everyone discounted his words, except me. I knew he knew. I wrote him a little note of acknowledgment, saying I believed him and loved him. He died suddenly the following spring.
The Wise Ones Explain My Job
Because there aren't many people in my culture who love and honor death as a friend, I often speak with the people in my dream about their relationship with death. I'm not talking about creative visualization. In shamanism, if you experience something, it's real. It doesn't matter what level of reality is involved. It's all real. My time with the people in my dream is precious, whether we talk when I'm asleep or when I'm awake. They help me keep going when it feels hopeless to write about death in a culture that runs from it.
In my dream, I've been talking with the Wise Ones about what it would take for people in my culture to want to know about their death timing in advance. They said that people must first come to peace with death in general before they can receive information about their own death in specific.
The Wise Ones said that if people are scared of death, the foreknowledge of predestined death timing could wreak havoc in their lives. They said that exposing people to this information without first providing years of spiritual preparation would be as foolish as giving a knife to a two-year-old.
Because of this, they said it would be karmically inappropriate and personally exhausting for me to act as a middleman to connect people with those who are trained in death prediction. While some people might call me selfish or hypocritical for not supplying contact information, the Wise Ones told me not to worry. They said that anyone who judges me for this would not be a good candidate for death prediction, while those who are truly ready will be shown another way.
The Wise Ones said that in our culture, there is much work to do in changing attitudes toward death. They said that Americans are only now beginning to face death in ways that show respect for its beauty and intrinsic value.
As the Wise Ones signaled a close to our discussion, they reiterated that it's not my job to play networker between the public and the masters of death prediction. Instead, it's my job to help prepare the ground for new perspectives about death, and to sow a few seeds by writing about it. The Wise Ones said that although I will not live to see the harvest, the seeds will surely grow.