In the United States most of us have at best an uncomfortable relationship with death.
Which makes sense. We are not exposed to death.
Hell we don't even want to see bananas with bruises in the supermarket.
Our sterilized environment separates us from the realities of life and in turn insulates us from the stunning vibrancy of death and the cycles of impermanence that define this very human life.
Our insulation from death is not harmless nor is it without intent.
Our culture's denial of the impermanence of all things, particularly the impermanence of life stirs up a host of avoidance strategies ranging from the benign to the destructive. Strategies anchored in the pursuit of pleasure and "happiness" at the cost of our healing, growth, and deepest contentment.
We are quick to disregard anything painful (including the reality of death) as pathological in an endless pursuit of happiness and pleasure.
Feeling sad? You shouldn't, it's not that bad. Angry? Anger is definitely not ok, you clearly have issues you need to attend to. Still grieving? It's time to just move on...
And the list goes on. We have pathologized the human condition and the range of human emotions that create the fullness of our experience.
This endless pursuit of pleasure has deep roots in our fear of death and the "end" of it all.
Death for most of us represents ending, pain, grief, and discontent; and in a culture that teaches us that "happy" is the standard by which to measure our lives death is problematic.
We are taught that happiness is the ultimate goal and that if we aren't "happy" and measuring up to this marker of success than we are failing.
We are bombarded with images, sentimental quotes, internet memes, and illusionary lives on social media all pointing to this elusive goal of "happy."
Finding and staying "happy" becomes the end all be all goal of our lives and when we perceive ourselves as failing at "happy" we are told there's something fundamentally wrong.
And we believe it.
Depression is often sadness judged.
We spend countless hours doing the comparison dance, judging others lives based on this pursuit of happiness and constantly assessing how we measure up to our peers.
We engage in a range of behaviors to avoid anything that is uncomfortable and to follow our ego-self and its cries for short-sighted pleasure over the subtle whisper of our Spirit and Highest Self that is asking to be attended to.
We squirm in our meditation seat, avoid tough conversations, try to fix our friends that are grieving and tell them it will "all be all right in the end."
We hand them tissues and tell them to clean up their mess.
We drink too much, eat too much, exercise too much, pursue endless sexual partners, or head off to the next spiritual retreat, kale smoothie in hand.
All the less and more destructive ways we find to avoid pain and stay in pleasure.
When the elusive "happy" becomes the goal we start the dance away from genuine growth.
We start ignoring all of the many valid expressions of our heart, messages from our inner psyche and Highest Self that are calling us to deeper levels of inquiry and wholeness.
But what if happy isn't the goal? What if this happiness marker is drawing us further away from our a most lasting contentment and steadiness?
What if cozying up to fear and death, to our obstacles and pains is worthy of our attention, our cultivation, and is the pathway back to our deepest expressions and knowing of love?
I spent a great deal of my life feeling like I was failing. I had (have) unresolved emotional debris.
I cried sometimes. A lot of the time actually. I got angry. I was content but not always "happy."
People told me I was too serious and I should smile more.
I didn't want to smile. Not when I didn't feel like smiling.
I saw people around me not expressing much. Or only expressing the good things. The "happy" things.
The message I internalized was that no one wanted to hear about the sad parts, the grieving parts, the sorrowful parts. I started to believe that maybe everyone else was filled with fluffy feelings most of the time and that there was something really "off" about me.
I must feel too much. This can't be "normal."
I started to stuff it away. All the feelings I thought maybe I shouldn't be feeling. The bad days, the quiet moments when my heart ached. The pain of losses I could still taste.
I started to believe that if "happiness is an inside job" than I needed to reorient my insides so that I didn't feel anything that didn't align with "happy."
The stuffing worked. For a while.
But the thing about avoidance and stuffing is that if you can't or don't allow yourself to feel the painful things, the discontent, the anger, the grief, than you eventually you stop feeling the elevated emotions too.
Numb is numb. And all of that avoidance and stuffing is an emotional prison of our own making.
Aliveness is a far richer experience and more meaningful experience than "happy." Happy is like "nice," both are illusions of what we think we should be. Both are moves away from realness and authenticity.
I want real.
Part of my own path back to wholeness and embracing a new orientation towards my feelings that didn't align with happy was truly listening compassionately and with curiosity to those I am in relationship with.
I stopped asking "how are you" when I didn't mean it. And I stopped giving bullshit answers when people asked me this same question.
I don't mean to say that I dumped my emotional debris on unsuspecting humans, but I did start choosing authenticity over approval.
I stopped trying to "fix" my friends and instead just held space. I went so far as to stop letting my "empathy" dictate a response of crying with them, or getting overly emotional. That's not holding space. That's stealing.
Listening openly and allowing them to be in their experience fully without my interruption starting teaching me to open and hold myself with the same grace and compassion.
The more I listened the more I realized the kindest, most compassionate and honest thing I can do is to stay close to my suffering and to attend to it. I started to learn that the being with my emotions and expressing them responsibly opened me up to heightened joy and contentment.
I found that being honest with my feelings with my self and others gave them permission to do the same.
I started staring fear and death in the eye.
The layers are peeling back, the masks are falling away, and I am coming home to myself more and more each day. The fullest expression of me. It isn't always "pretty," "nice," or "happy." But it is real.
Four months ago I lay dying on the cold tile of my carport in Thailand. I was in the most pain I remember being in. I was falling in and out of consciousness and trying to call for help.
I was terrified.
"I don't want to die here alone."
That is what I remember thinking before the last time I passed out. I remember thinking "no one knows where I am and they won't know I've gone."
When I recovered and was home safe with my family a week or so later I recovered with new found fear.
It wasn't my first rodeo with abdominal surgery or near-death experiences but this time it was different. A new fear had gripped him throat, a deep sadness, all of my unresolved trauma bubbled to the surface asking to integrated.
And I have not turned away from it.
I asked to go deeper and I have been granted the opportunity to do so.
Two weeks ago I stared death down in the most literal way.
Twice in a week I attended cremation ceremonies along the river banks of Kathmandu.
I watched families openly grieving, washing the body's of their loved ones, preparing them for their final passage to the other side.
I did not look away.
In Nepal when a family member dies it is not long before the body is taken to the river to be cleansed and prepared for cremation, this is done quickly, within only a few short hours of one's final breath.
This practice is antyesti or final sacrifice. The last purification by agni, fire.
In Kathmandu the bodies are taken frequently to Pashupatinath Temple, a very large Shiva and Shakti temple complex, one of the most sacred sites in the Hinduism, a holy pilgrimage site for Hindus from around the world.
In front of the main temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, is a series of cremation platforms along the sacred river's edge.
Large cement slabs appearing as ramps are built in between the funeral pyres so that the bodies can washed in the river before being placed on the pyre.
Across the river from the temple, families purchase the bamboo cots used to transport the body to the river and then to the pyre as well as strands of marigolds for adorning the body, firewood and ghee for tending and keeping the fires burning well.
There is a hospice care center tucked just behind the pyres so that those facing death can see clearly their final passage. To enter the hospice center they must walk along the river's edge, beholding their future most starkly.
Death here is not hidden. There is no sterile supermarket hiding the bruised bananas in trash bins out of sight and mind.
Death here is at the forefront of life and it is embraced in its entirety as part of the cycles of this existence.
I watched as family members tended to the body. Uncovering only the face and feet from the funeral shroud and covering the body in strings of marigolds. The head funeral attendees opening the mouth of their loved one to pour in water from the sacred river.
It is believed that this holy water brings in sattva "beingness" and wards off negative forces from entering the mouth of the deceased.
The rituals are elaborate and enacted with great care. The fire is started and tended using only natural products, wood, bamboo, and ghee. Nothing impure or unnatural is used to tend the fire or to speed the process.
Both days that I attended cremations I sat very still. My colorful scarf covering my head, one end draped gently across my nose and mouth to protect me from the billowing smoke of the funeral pyre.
I softened my gaze and committed to not looking away.
I needed to see it. I needed to watch the mourning, listen to the cries and laughter of loved ones. I needed to see how little time it takes for us to be transmuted from this form of flesh and blood and bone.
What is most remarkable in this place is the vibrancy of death and life dancing together.
I watched as the body burned two boys playing gleefully in the water just across from the pyre. Swimming in the muddied waters, their young bodies sleek with water, their heads thrown back in laughter.
I watched the widow of the deceased cry out in mourning and have her marriage bangles broken as she wept and just a few feet away a boy selling sweet treats to the other mourners and tourists passing by.
I overheard the family discussing their plans for the rest of the day.
Life moves. It is dynamic and ever-changing. It can't be anything else but this recursive thing.
Rinse, wash, repeat. Procreation, birth, death. The three worlds. Body, mind, and spirit.
Grief, joy, sadness, loss, anger...
We too have to embrace the fullness of these experiences if we wish to grow. If we wish to experience love in its fullness and life in technicolor.
While we desire vibrancy, raw aliveness, and life in its fulness, the very things we seek to experience this, i.e. pleasure seeking and pain avoidance are the very things that cut us off from the things we so profoundly long for.
There is a greater call to stop disassociating and to start engaging with the full-range of our experiences. To cease our stuffing and pursue responsible emotional expression.
To remember what it is to be like a child, fully expressed, playful, sad when it is called for and righteously angry when it is needed.
It is time to give ourselves permission to stop pursuing "happiness" and judging ourselves when we are anything but happy and to start resting in present awareness of this moment with unfolding curiosity and intelligence.
When we embrace it all, the fullness of our pain and sorrows, the heights of our joys, we restore wholeness, we stop dividing ourselves and fighting ourselves. Splitting off our identity.
The stark reality is that we can be more than just one thing. We can be many things. And we can hold all the parts of ourselves together and with great care.
We are perfectly imperfect and there is nothing we need add to ourselves, and nothing we need do. Our "unhappiness" is not pathological. It is human. As is death. As is life. As is impermanence.