“What must die within you now, so that you can grow?”
In Elizabeth Lesser’s beautiful summation of life’s big questions, The Seeker’s Guide, we are given the opportunity to follow her rollercoaster of realizations, lessons, and insights as she herself seeks guidance from an array of spiritual teachers. Particularly in the chapter entitled “The Landscape of Death,” Lesser invites us to examine our tired notion of death— one that is often embodied by fear and evasion. Her nuanced approach provides the tools we need to embrace the unknown and learn from it. “In the Landscape of Death,” she says, “we feel more like foreigners. We don’t know what to expect; we don’t speak the language; we can’t read the thoughts of God. And yet all roads on the spiritual journey lead here, to death, the soul, and God” (284). Nothing more strange and true could be said. Death feels foreign to us, and yet it is the great leveler that ultimately joins people together. We feel death’s presence not only through a traumatic illness or the loss of a loved one, but through moments saturated by life and rebirth. Like a thread, death runs through everything we do, which is why we can better approach it as part of our spiritual journey than as something to be avoided. This is the foundation for our journey.
Likewise, adventure acts as a main theme in Lesser’s life work. The Omega Institute, which she and Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen founded in 1977, fulfills her initial inspiration to create a haven for study and practice of personal growth (http://eomega.org/). Through reading her books, visiting the institute, and participating in workshops, we have ample resources to approach life’s mysteries with the gusto of a swashbuckler in search of new land. As explained in The Seeker’s Guide, life provides us with nothing but endless opportunities to learn. Death, then, becomes one of the greatest platforms by which we can learn about life and our true selves. “The purpose of focusing on death,” she explains, “is not to become a sad sack… But we can’t joyfully participate in life without studying death” (286). In order to completely surrender to the joys of life, it makes sense that we would have to accept the finality of death first.
Shirking one’s responsibility to study death often has surprising consequences, whether we are fully aware of it or not. When we don’t embrace life’s only certainty, “our hearts tighten, afraid of what we cannot know or control,” says Lesser, “Opening up, loosening the sense of control, letting go—this is what I mean by studying death” (286). Opening up her own heart, Lesser shares her experiences with loss—varying from her eldest son’s high school graduation to the death of her father. Reading her personal accounts, it becomes immediately obvious that even for someone so acquainted with the subject of death, the process of grieving does not come easily. In fact, grieving serves as one of the most elemental human practices that we (ironically) try to ignore.
Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, submitting oneself entirely to feelings of grief opens up new possibilities for growth. As Lesser puts it, “full-bodied grieving acts like a tonic. It purifies and revivifies… Let your grief be as full of joy as it is of sorrow. Let it be proof of how much you’ve loved” (296). In our society, it is far from uncommon to have the goal of loving deeply in life. Understandably, loving deeply has the price of experiencing profound loss. So why struggle so fiercely against the urge to grieve and, more importantly, to grieve well? As much as we humans love change in the form of new beginnings, we fear what presents itself as an end. Perhaps if we perceived death as more of a beginning than an end, as an adventure instead of a conclusion, we could approach it with the same enthusiasm we reserve for love and learn from it unconditionally. How do we even begin to alter this hardwired perception of death? Reading The Seeker’s Guide might be a good start.