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The Art of Denial
IN THE WESTERN countries, we're especially good at denial. We even have whole industries -- cosmetics, health food, exercise and many others -- helping us preserve our delusion that death doesn't exist.
Along with death is, of course, old age. We try to hide that, too, because old age represents the onset of death. People, when they turn forty years old, or sometimes older, look in the mirror each morning. When they see their first gray hair they say, "Oh, I'm getting old," and they want to hide it from themselves and others.
So what do they do? They run to the pharmacy to buy a bottle of Clairol. Or, when they get wrinkles, they do all kinds of things to cover them up or get rid of them. Cosmetic surgery is very popular among those who can afford it. People try to remove bags under the eyes, bags under the chin and other signs of old age, to prolong the illusion of youth.
Old people are often put into nursing homes, out of the way where we can't see them. Most advertisements feature young, beautiful male and female models. We don't see many gray hairs and wrinkles in advertisements. Depictions of youth make money. Many businesses even replace employees when they reach a certain age. Everywhere we look we see the effects of our efforts to sustain youth in our youth-worshipping culture.
WE DENY DEATH to maintain the illusion that we can live forever. But there comes a certain point when we can no longer deny our aging. Then, if we haven't thought about old age and death, we are surprised when they come. When we are diagnosed with a terminal illness or some other sign of old age or infirmity shows its face, we struggle against it.
But eventually our illusion is shattered and we have to confront death face to face. The less we have dealt with death before, the more painful this confrontation will be. Ill will, resentment and anger arise along with the fear of death simply because we've been denying, avoiding or masking death for most of our lives.
When we see others sick and old and dying, we often avoid them, too. Morticians beautify the corpse for a funeral. They doll it up instead of displaying it just as it is. They take a person who has been in an accident and make his body look as if it is not dead, but sleeping.
People in our culture don't like to think about their own death, partly because of deep, culturally conditioned anxiety. We somehow never want to discuss it.
People who work in hospitals see death all the time. They get used to it and it becomes just an everyday event fro them. They save some lives, but they lose others. A person dies and he is sent down to the morgue so somebody else can move into his bed, perhaps, in his turn, to die.
A BUDDHIST SIMILE describes different kinds of people and their relationship to their own deaths. Only when it comes down to themselves do they start thinking seriously about death and what it means. The simile compares four kinds of persons to four thoroughbred horses. Four horses are in a stable. When the farmer comes out in the morning, he slams the door a couple of hundred yards away.
One of the horses hears that sound and says, "My master's coming," and starts preparing himself for the day's work. "What can I do now to get ready for my work today?" he says. The other three are still sleeping.
When the master gets to the barn door and opens it, the second horse gets up to prepare himself. The other two are still lying down. Only when the master gets to the stall and reaches for the goad does the third horse rise. The fourth waits until the master sticks him in the ribs with the goad and then he finally says, "Oh, the master's here."
People are the same. Many of us think about what we want in life and what to do to get it. We are preoccupied with the current everyday realities and demands of life. When we hear about people dying in Africa or a murder in New York City, it's just another death, without much meaning to s. We're like that last horse. Others might start to think about death a little more when a distant relative gets sick or dies. Still others will be touched only when a close family member dies.
But many of us will not, like the last horse, think seriously about death until we ourselves are threatened by a near-death experience or a fatal illness. The Buddha said that the superior person is like the first horse. Just hearing that somebody has died on the other side of the world would wake him up and start him thinking about the realities of life. This pertains not only to death itself, but to the nature of life in general.
Death is one of the five daily recollections which the Buddha recommended: 1) I am subject to sickness. I have not gone beyond sickness. 2) I am subject to disease or decay. I have not gone beyond decay. 3) I am subject to death. I have not gone beyond death. 4) Everything dear and delightful to me will change and vanish. And 5) I am heir to my kamma [or karma], kamma is the womb from which I sprang. Whatever I do by body, speech or mind, I will be the heir of these actions.
These five things were recommended by the Buddha for people to reflect on. The realization that I will die is the focus of these recollections.
PAGE 3: Looking Ahead Without Fear