Carlos Castaneda talked of learning to live with death perched on one’s left shoulder, living fully with the knowledge that death is near and certain. This does not mean that we can or should avoid periods of feeling terrified or even immobilized. But the secret of life is learning to get back on our feet and to continue dancing, despite this grim knowledge.
Rabbi Kushner writes, “If I could guarantee there were no bears in the woods, it wouldn’t be called a wilderness, would it. You must go into the wilderness to experience reverence and revelation.” And there’s our clue. The horrible darkness, if we allow it, motivates us, forces us, to focus on what is important in life. I encourage my clients to go to funerals as often as the occasion arises. I learned this from my wife, who has taught me a lot about valuing darkness, mystery, and the inner life, especially in dreams and poetry. At funerals, we cry for our own and other’s losses and face the unknown and the unknowable, bringing us in touch with our souls and those of our loved ones. When we step into the unknown, we experience excitement and mystery by opening ourselves to the magic and, even, the fun of life. After my parents died, I went through a period of out-of-body experiences where I could fly around the world or even to heaven merely by willing it.
Up to my mid-30’s, I lived life with great fear and, often, terror. One night, an old recurring dream had me running from a shadowy figure. In the dream, I made a decision that I was tired of running away and waking up terrified. I stood still and let the shadowy figure catch up to me. He shot and killed me. I remember feeling that dying wasn’t half as frightening as I had feared. I awoke without the usual terror and felt enlightened. That dream and that paradoxical “action” hastened my climb out of my hell. I started becoming less afraid of life, more able to love, and more playful and joyous in my dance, albeit with some setbacks and moments of terror and immobilization.