“Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain.”
– Second reflection of Buddhist practice
“When did we become human? One second to midnight.”
– Joanna Macy
I am walking through a world of accelerating decay. I am walking through a world of exquisite beauty. I am living a life of sorrow and suffering. I am living a life of boundless joy. Somewhere, and at some time, I know my death is out there. We wander along life’s twisting roads, our paths occasionally coming breathlessly close. We almost know that we have met, but not quite. Sometimes I feel as though I am stalking my death, sometimes my death seems to almost deliberately be avoiding me. But then, one day, after walking around an inevitable bend, we encounter one another. Time halts.
I look deeply into my death’s eyes, seeing the beauty present in this moment, embodied in her. My death. And for her too I am death, the bringer of this life’s closing. We lock eyes. A smile plays across my lips, and a light giggle escapes on my breath. What is this? A sense of utmost relief. A release from the hold of incarnation. We reach up to touch each other’s hands and then, as if this was always meant to happen, we fall into a deep embrace, sinking into the comfort and warmth of each other’s presence.
Quietly we take each other’s hands and walk slowly together to a place where we can gaze out over the world, to take in all that we are leaving behind. I feel calm, at peace. Then, just as quietly, we sit down together, still hand in hand, our knees touching. She puts my hand on her heart and as we breathe together it feels as if every good deed, every kind gesture, each moment of grace in her life passes out through me and into the cosmos. As her life continues to flow through me our positions change, and her hand is upon my heart: now I too feel the release of letting all that I did and all that I was pour forth into the universe. And then there we sit, just two beings, outside of time.
As a culture, the West seems to have a disengaged relationship with death. We are often raised with little confrontation of the knowledge that this life someday will end. Somehow we see death as a possibility, rather than a certainty. Death is the greatest certainty we have in life, and yet it remains the greatest of mysteries as well. It is an ever-present reality to us, whether we acknowledge it or not. As Sean Kelly writes,
The natural and cultural dimensions of the human experience, however, cannot of themselves circumvent the fact that this Earth and all of its life forms, as indeed our sun and the entire physical cosmos within which they are embedded, are finite beings, with beginnings in time, and bound to inevitable death.
For much of human history, when we contemplated the inevitability of our individual deaths, we had the comfort of a sense of continuity, remembering our ancestors behind us and our descendents whose lives await in the future. Continuity, perhaps, was as much an inevitability as our own death. Yet now humanity has entered a new period in which that continuity is no longer certain. The devastation of the ecological crises endangering every region of our home planet has made that continuity questionable. As Joanna Macy writes, the deleterious effects of the industrial growth society—from species extinction, to mass deforestation, to ocean acidification and climate change—“are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us.” As Kelly remarked, all finite entities of our physical reality will have an eventual, inevitable end, but the time scale on which Macy is speaking is one that could be experienced in a single lifetime: a reality so terrifying it has the ability to either stop us in our tracks in fear and apathy—or to give rise to the greatest creativity humanity has ever expended in service not of preserving our own personal lives, but of offering some hope to the very existence of future generations.
When we allow the realization of our potential collective death—as individuals, as a species, and as a planet—“to become conscious,” as Macy explains, “it is painful, but it also jolts us awake to life’s vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object and each being.” Awareness of death not only awakens the possibility for our highest creative potential within life, but also brings up questions of what exists after the threshold of death: questions of personal and collective continuity not only on Earth but beyond this lifetime as well. It is in this context that Macy’s exercise, the Meditation on Death with which I opened this essay, was conducted.
The sense of peace, release, and well-being I experienced during the meditation with my death echoes many of the stories told by religions and spiritual traditions, and by individuals who have survived near death experiences. Contemplating one’s own personal death can lead to a beautiful acceptance of the inevitable, a realization that it may not be a doom but rather a gift. But shifting the contemplation of death to a collective level presents us with a great paradox: for while one’s own death may come to seem acceptable, or eventually even welcome, the idea of our entire human species, or the entirety of life on Earth, coming to an end is beyond the scope of tragedy. It feels impossible to transfer the sense of post-mortem peace to the loss of billions of individuals or whole species.
The severance of our continuity as a species, the “future canceled” as Macy writes, has only been realized as a global possibility since the atomic bomb was first exploded 1945. As Robert J. Lifton explains, the possibility of species annihilation seems to have sliced the currently living generations off from any sense of connection to future descendents, but also from our ancestors who likely lived with a collective sense of species survival. Lifton argues, “We are thus among the first to live with a recurrent sense of biological severance.” Interestingly, the remembrance of individual death under natural circumstances provides the opposite sense: not a severance, but a thread tying the generations together, as the elderly pass away and leave the world to their grandchildren, who will one day do the same for their own grandchildren.
Besides the biological continuity of familial generations, many cultural and religious traditions contain an understanding of spiritual continuity as well, in the form of the ideas of reincarnation and karma. From the perspective of reincarnation, as Christopher Bache puts it, “Death is but a pause that punctuates the seasons of our life, nothing more.” Being able to see that some part of us carries on through multiple lifetimes releases us from the constraint imposed by the limited time of a single life. It makes death less of something to fear and more of a milestone upon a long, evolutionary journey. Yet death is much more than mere punctuation because, from Bache’s perspective, “the concept of reincarnation actually challenges the notion of personal survival because it ruptures the category of personal identity itself.” Bache and Kelly both write of the need to understand reincarnation without retaining the image of an individual, atomistic soul being reborn in life after life. Bache continues, “We must eventually move beyond the atomistic vision of separate souls reincarnating for their individual evolution and begin to grasp the larger intentional fabric that our lives collectively express.” Such a perspective shifts the focus away from the individual human being and broadens the horizon to include the collective: at the community, species, and possibly even planetary levels.
A major component of Macy’s “Work That Reconnects” is engagement through practices and exercises with the future generations whose potential existence we strive to bring to reality. Including the concept of rebirth in the practice of visualizing our future descendents can draw us even more personally into working for their well-being; not only might we be paving a smoother way for our great great grandchildren to walk, we ourselves in some form may be walking that path. Drawing from his research on reincarnation and the bardo, Bache suggests that rebirth may not be affected by linear time in the way we perceive it while incarnated. The possibility may exist for one to be born into any historical period, or even perhaps to be living multiple lives simultaneously. “Each life,” as Kelly writes, “. . . however seemingly distant in our past or future—is always and already ensouled, is inalienably associated with its own soul, whose personal and singular drama is ever unfolding in the Eternal Now.” The future is already present within us: biologically—in our ovaries, gonads, and dna, as Macy points out,—but also possibly spiritually—in our souls. Our present personality, along with our past and future personalities may coexist or participate in soul, an entity greater than anything with which our present personality can identify.
The other side to the equation of rebirth, the yin to reincarnation’s yang, is the concept of karma. Kelly writes,
The series of lives is said to be bound together by the law of Karma or its analogue, which, whether or not one believes in a transmigrating soul, provides continuity both before and beyond an individual life, and therefore also gives a ground for its value and meaning.
The karma of our actions ripples forward into the future, affecting not only ourselves but all those who may come after. Nuclear waste and ecological devastation, Macy argues, may be the clearest physical example of how karma, in this case negative karma, ties together thousands of generations. Yet karma is not a fate engraved in stone, and how we choose to meet our karma will positively emanate into the future as well: as the Buddha said, if we cannot alter our karma, “all effort is fruitless.” The fruit born by our effort is a selfless gift given to those who will inhabit our future world; yet it is also a gift to ourselves for the future we will inhabit. Bache describes a vision he had of that future with the following words: “I could see that the future we were creating was a future that we ourselves would participate in through future incarnations. We were doing this for God, for others, and also for ourselves.”
“The Bestiary:” Macy’s poetic eulogy of those species leaving, or on the brink of departing, our planet forever—each name spoken, punctuated by the harsh beat of the drum. Boom. A species erased. Boom. Yet another lost. The punctuating drum marks their permanent death. The accelerating drumbeat of extinction does not feel like a simple pause punctuating the seasons of life. Extinction is an irreversible loss, a diminishment of the wholeness and the creativity of our living planet.
The only sane response seems to be despair. Yet somehow despair is not the collective human response, at least at a conscious level. Macy observes, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear warfare, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” Our cultural inability to confront death has extended to the numbness we feel in place of mourning, as the presence of thousands of our ecological companions is erased forever. Macy continues, “The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.” By turning our empathy into apathy we seal ourselves off from the collective suffering of our planet: we either become numb or experience the world’s pain as solely our own, expressed in our personal pathologies, depressions, and diseases. Releasing the experience of one’s isolated suffering, while simultaneously living into and owning the despair that is such a real presence upon the Earth, unleashes the energy suppressing one’s grief and also may help release some of the suffering of the collective. Bache writes on this latter point saying, “Instead of seeing ‘my’ pain as existing separately from the suffering of ‘others,’ it becomes more natural to see it as a distinct nodal point within a collective field of suffering that runs throughout the species”—and, I would argue, throughout planet Earth as a whole.
We are learning to confront grief and despair and to make it part of who we are. We are facing our mortality, learning to reinhabit death as a part of life and maturation. Macy writes, “We are confronting and integrating into our awareness our mortality as a species. We must do that so that we can wake up and assume the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood.” Much of Western civilization has lost the ritualized initiation rites that serve to guide young people into the responsibilities of adulthood. Such rites of passage usually involve immense pain, a real confrontation with one’s mortality that helps forge the adolescent into the adult they will become. As Macy, Bache, and many others have suggested, the human species as a whole may be confronting such an initiatory rite in the imminent potential of our collective demise. “The specter of global death,” Bache writes, “that hangs over the postmodern era may be fueling a profound psychic transformation of our species.” Bache goes on to describe what the container for that profound transformation seems to be:
The crisis of ecological sustainability is even more lethal than the nuclear crisis because it is not being generated by an overzealous military minority but by the very fabric of modern civilization. . . If there is a species ego-death in our immediate future, I think it will be triggered by the impending ecological crisis of sustainability.
The ecological crisis forces us to face not only the mortality of our species and our planet, but also the deep shame that comes with the realization that we have done this to ourselves, shame that is more difficult to accept and perhaps even more repressed than our grief and despair.
I would argue that the rite of passage presented by the ecological crisis is not only an initiation for the human species, but for every species on this planet and perhaps even for the Earth itself. There may be an ego death of industrial civilization, but much of the suffering and confrontation with mortality of this rite of passage is being borne by the thousands of species going extinct at far too rapid a pace. They have borne the pain of this initiation far longer than we humans. To fully understand the depth of this rite of passage I believe humanity has to recognize that it is an initiation for the planet as a whole.
In a meditation to “re-story our identity as Gaia” Macy offers the experience of imagining the entire existence of the Earth taking place within twenty-four hours, beginning at midnight. For much of the day the Earth is undergoing large-scale geologic processes, and not until five o’clock does organic life emerge. The evening is dedicated to the evolution of all living beings, and not until the last half hour of the day do mammals even evolve. “When did we become human?” Macy asks. “One second to midnight.” In that one second before the clock strikes midnight all that we know of human existence takes place: every tribe is formed and reformed, every civilization rises and falls, every religion flourishes, every human to ever be born lives and eventually dies. The expansion of time felt by embracing a belief in reincarnation is suddenly compressed into that one second before midnight. Could that really be the time human souls have reincarnated within? If a spiritual continuity does exist between human lives, would not this continuity carry back throughout more of the twenty-four hours of our earthly evolution? Were we present with the beginning of life? The beginning of Earth? Might we have some spiritual continuity beyond even that beginning? And if so, what happens moving into the future, when the clock does eventually toll midnight?
A rite of passage is often related to the notion of the dark night of the soul. Perhaps it is only fitting that humanity would emerge during that dark night, in that one second before the midnight hour. Bache writes of his own personal understanding of our significance as a species, in connection with the greater whole of the cosmos:
How blind a species we are. How noble. How deep and profound the evolutionary currents that carry us. Sometimes the darkness stands out for me, sometimes the dawn. Increasingly it is the dawn.
The midnight hour is the hour of mortality, death, the crossing of a threshold. It is the hour of transformation. Humanity may be undergoing a rite of passage but I believe it is an initiation in which we are one of many participating members. If we learn to support our fellow initiates, our fellow species, ecosystems, and biomes, then some of us may pass midnight. Eventually we, in an expanded sense of the term, may see the dawn.
Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Kelly, Sean “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival.” Integral Review. 4. No. 2 (2008): 5-30.
Lifton, Robert J. The Broken Connection. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.
 Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 76.
 Macy, World As Lover, 183.
 Sean Kelly, “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival,” Integral Review, 4, No. 2 (2008): 6.
 Macy, World As Lover, 17.
 Macy, World As Lover, 174-5.
 Robert J. Lifton, The Broken Connection (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 338.
 Christopher M. Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 41.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 42.
 Kelly, “Integral Time,” 24.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 34.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 133.
 Kelly, “Integral Time,” 23.
 Macy, World As Lover, 57.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 223.
 Macy, World As Lover, 87-90.
 Macy, World As Lover, 92.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 169.
 Macy, World As Lover, 184.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 215.
 Macy, World As Lover, 181.
 Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 249.