“In general, the human condition is in a horrifying state of chaos. No one is better off than another. We are all beings that are going to die and, unless we acknowledge this, there is no remedy for us”. Carlos Castaneda in an interview with Uno Mismo magazine
In a famous short story by Flannery O’Connor , “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a family traveling in a car on vacation are not aware that they are about to die. The sleep walkers are mom, dad, two kids and the grandma.
Their conversation as they go down the highway is the pedestrian exchange common to those who are not aware that this will be their last day. Grandma, in particular, prattles on about her life and how children used to be better. She also talks about some killers in their travel area just escaped from prison. One of the killers is called The Misfit, she tells the family.
Grandma wants to see a place from her past and mistakenly urges her son to go down a remote dirt road to find it. Then, deep in the woods, their car rolls over when Grandma’s cat jumps out of its basket onto her son’s neck.
Of course, The Misfit and his two fellow murderers show up. Grandma, her life instincts in fuller alert now, recognizes The Misfit and tries to manipulate him into thinking that he’s a good man, an absurd effort as her family members are taken away into the woods and shot by The Misfit’s colleagues.
Hearing the shots, Grandma knows that her family have all been murdered and begins pleading desperately for her own life.
Now, facing death herself, she is fully awake and tells The Misfit “You’re one of my own children.”
The Misfit shoots her and then comments to his colleagues that she would have been a good woman if there “had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
O’Connor thought that most people need a gun to their head to be awake.
The Long Queue
Everyone alive today on the earth is in a long queue. We’re all lined up for death, although we’re not very aware of this energetic fact.
When we get to the number one spot at the front of the queue, it will by our turn, and we will die. We may say goodbye to the 7 billion people behind us in the queue, and then the precious consciousness that was given to us at birth will be taken away from us.
If we have a great sense of humor at that last moment, we might turn back to those in the queue and holler, “Next!” as a parting gift—waking everybody in our vicinity up just a bit.
But even if we are comedic geniuses at death, our parting words won’t have much effect.
Most of the people in the queue are obliviously confident that they will not be next.
Not acknowledging their own death, most people assume that they have time.
That assumption is a very bad explanation for what is happening to us.
Here’s what is really happening:
v There are more than 7,000,000,000 of us humans breathing on earth right now.
v 57,000,000 of us die every year.
v That’s about 155,000 of us who take our last breath each day.
v Two of us die every second.
And lots of people don’t make it to old age. Some people are born but live only for a few minutes, a few days, or a few weeks or a few years.
We don’t know where we are in the queue. We don’t know where those close to us are in the queue.
We could be unlucky #1,085,000, slated for death a week from today. Or we could have three more years at #171,000,000, slated for June 5, 2017.
Or we could be next. A loved one could be next. Our colleague could be next.
We don’t know.
Not acknowledging death, we cannot sustain our poise in the queue
Only vaguely aware that death can take us at any moment, we drift through life in a murky consciousness, half awake.
Castaneda says, “In general, the human condition is in a horrifying state of chaos” because people don’t understand that we are going to die.
Can things really be that bad for us if we aren’t keenly aware that our death could be imminent?
Yes, we pay a high price if we don’t understand that we are going to die—if, in other words, we assume that we have plenty of time.
We can’t be can’t be in state of poised consciousness if we aren’t aware that we will die:
1. Not informed by the possibility of our death at any moment, we don’t need to be present, a requisite for being awake.
Sleep walking, we are convinced that some moments are better than others, or that some days are better than others, or that whole periods of our lives are better than some other periods. This view guarantees that we will not be fully present some of the time.
We reject some elements of our lives, thinking we have time and that times we like better will come along. Much of the time, then, we wish for some other time, some other circumstances, some other life even.
Often, we don’t like the now.
2. Thinking that we have plenty of time, we don’t feel connected. Like Grandma, in O’Connors’ story, we feel separate from some people. We love a small number of people, but we don’t love most of the people on earth whom we never meet or whom we disapprove of in some way or whom we are frightened by.
Not connected, a substantial number of us are violent and murderous.
Or we work like beavers to make sure that we get our share of the bounty, shouldering our way to the goodies. Or, even better, we would like to get more than our share
We find it very difficult to love others as ourselves.
3. Only vaguely aware that we will die, we fail to live in gratitude. Assuming that we have plenty of time, we complain endlessly. Often nothing is quite right in our lives when we think we have forever to live.
We are angry or irritated by the behavior of others. Or we feel ill treated by politicians. Or we think life is often unfair to us. We can give thanks part of the time, but we’re not grateful for a wide swath of our life.
4. Sleep walking, unaware that death could call our number at any time, we tend to think that life is happening to us. Sometimes we feel like a leaf at the mercy of the wind.
We feel sorry for ourselves some of the time, creating victim stories to explain why we are unhappy, convinced that someone or something is doing something to us.
Living in a bubble of self-reflection, we fail to create the life we want in the short time we have on this earth.
5. With plenty of time to waste—with death a far off unreality—we indulge in sourness, earnestness, and heaviness. If we were aware that death could be imminent, we might decide to be lighthearted—happy and joyful in the short time we have left.
But, sleep walking, absurdly assuming that we have plenty of time, we claim with confidence that no one can be lighthearted all of the time.
The best assumption is that we are next
It’s best to assume that we are next.
Warriors of some traditions, fully awake men and women who are living extraordinary lives of vibrant joy and practical advantage, imagine death sitting on its mat directly behind them, within arm’s reach. They don’t make the common, foolish assumption that they have time. Death, they know, can reach out and touch them at any moment.
This is the consciousness required to be fully awake.
But, no doubt, this is a state of consciousness that is difficult to achieve and sustain.
Logic seems to tell us that we won’t be next. Mary and I have a loving and brilliant friend who is waging her second battle with cancer. Very concerned about her, we know that she is in a life and death battle. Because we are in good health, it seems logical to assume that she is more likely to die than we are—that she is ahead of us in the queue.
This assumption is completely untenable. We cannot predict that someone will die before we do. Our friend may be healed through her current treatment and we may die decades before she does.
We have to find ways to overcome our logical convictions that death is probably far off.
We have to find ways to remember the energetic fact that we are going to die in order to stay awake every day, every hour, even every minute.
We can use the image of the warrior and place death on its mat just behind us, ready to touch us in order to remember.
I have used that image for decades now to great benefit.
Lately, however, I’ve used the real world around me to supplement the warrior’s image of death on the mat behind me. I love to watch the ravens and hawks soaring on the thermals next to our mountaintop home. But I have had a bias against another soaring bird—the huge turkey vultures gliding slowly around my house, the ultimate scavenger, looking for dead things.
Looking for me, I wonder?
For years I have thought of the vultures as foreboding presences, hanging around my house as if they are death’s messengers, letting me know that the end is near. I have seen them as a bad sign.
Now, though, I welcome the sight of them lazily circling outside my office window as invaluable reminders that I’m in the queue like everybody else.
Ah, yes, I think when I see them almost every day, it’s good to be alive.
Thanks for the reminder to be awake.