Die Before You Die: Facing Fear on a Spiritual Retreat

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The inviting, human-scaled central courtyard of the Te Moata Retreat Center where 40 of us gathered from February 4-9 to attend Australasia’s first Wisdom School taught by Cynthia Bourgeault. In the upper right hand are the loft quarters where I slept at night.

“Daily, keep your death before your eyes.”

-St. Benedict

“This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.”

– “A Clear Midnight” by Walt Whitman

Perhaps it had something to do with Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of Thomas from the previous night’s study, “I assure you, whoever grasps their meaning will not know the taste of death.” Certainly it had something to do with the bed, which was so flexible that it seemed to split in two when I lay in it, sandwiching me in the mattress. It was my second night at the Buddhist Retreat Center in Te Moata, New Zealand, about 3 hours southeast of the capital of Auckland, and I was relieved to sleep after a restless first night in the simple loft quarters of the retreat house.

At 4:30 in the morning my sleep was broken and I awoke to a pitch dark room. My flashlight had stopped functioning the first evening, so there was nothing to do but endure the darkness and wait to fall back to sleep before the 6:30 wake-up bell. And it was then that I felt it . . . fear. Alone . . . in the dark . . . with fear. A slow panic dawned in me. As I recalled in my journal the next morning, “I woke up last night in deep blackness in a casket-like bed, fearing my death. Fearing the entering into that blackness when the light of all I know, all I take joy and sorrow in, and all that I can control is shut out like the closing and sealing of an incinerator door. I am afraid to die – afraid to enter into the darkness.”

The moments of fear ebbed away, and to my surprise I did manage to get another hour of sleep before the bell’s toll. But the experience reawakened the image of an incinerator, which had been stuck in my psyche ever since I had seen the beautiful Japanese film, “Departures.” When the central character’s father dies, the body is prepared for cremation. A shot then shows the door slamming shut from the inside of the fire chamber.  A pause . . . nothing but blackness. That silent, dark screen had been etched into my subconscious.

Beginning our early morning meditation, our retreat leader Cynthia Bourgeault read logion 77 from the Gospel of Thomas:

Yeshua [Jesus] says…

“I am the light shining upon all things.
 I am the sum of everything,
 for everything has come forth from me,
and towards me everything unfolds.
Split a piece of wood, and there I am.
Pick up a stone

 and you will find me there.”

After our morning meditation, we headed to a silent breakfast, maintaining the Great Silence from evening until noon as we did everyday. The logion’s dual message – Jesus as light-bearer and seek that light in everything – was one I was eager to hear. I sat near the window, rethinking my evening and – typically – lost in thought. Remembering that the goal of the retreat was to escape mental autopilot and seek presence, I decided to check in outside the window where a riot of verdant New Zealand rain forest swayed and buzzed with life. As I took in the multi-colored green and brownish hues of the living forest, I noticed in the very center of my perceptual field, perfectly framed by the window, a flickering candle hovering in the forest; the image of our table’s candle had taken up residence in the forest – and also now in the unfolding of my morning. The symbolic message was obvious: the luminous appears in a cut of wood, in a rain forest, and maybe even in a dark night of the soul.

cynthia teaching

Later in the afternoon session as we continued our discussion of the Gospel of Thomas, Cynthia asked the retreat community, “What does death feel like?” Rosh, sitting in front, stated emphatically, “Fear!” “Fear of what?” asked Cynthia. “Just fear!” Overcoming my own fear to share the previous night’s experience, I shakily read my journal excerpt. Cynthia responded, “99% of people on the planet do all they can to avoid this fear. Better to confront it. As the Sufi saying goes, die before you die.”

Then one member of the group shared her story of having a life-threatening hemorrhage that required surgery, but she could have no anesthesia. The choice was truly tortuous: go through unimaginable pain for life or allow her existence to drain away, a process that was under way. She chose pain, but she explained, “There was no fear.”

After the session, Julie drew me aside to share her story. She herself had had a near-death experience years ago in which she began to ascend to the light. She didn’t want to come back, but a Presence made it clear that she needed to return, and she recovered. But again . . . there was no fear, and she harbors no concerns about crossing this boundary line in the future.

Die before you die, explained Cynthia, for that which dies is the small, finite, illusory self. “For when by dying did I ever grow less,” Rumi wrote. We can only approach the lexicon of profound religious teachings through living our life, present to its intimations, open to its paradoxes. Today’s lived lesson: dying before you die is a path to life.

DSCN9948temoata australia grouplabyrinth temoata

DSCN9943Other related resources:

  1. Discover the Spiritual Gifts of Sufism: 7 Practices to Experiment More Love and Compassion by Susan Audrey.
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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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5 Responses to Die Before You Die: Facing Fear on a Spiritual Retreat

  1. Meg Hegarty says:

    Beautifully written, Marty. Thanks for sending the link. Meg

  2. Brent says:

    Thanks for this post, Marty! It was very interesting for me to read and reflect on after being with my mother this past week as she passed. She fought the battle against cancer for almost 4 years and our conversations these past few months have been very powerful. Her last communications with me were meaningful and I would love to share with you when we return. She was ready…

    • I’m sorry to hear about her passing, Brent. But I’m very glad to hear that she was ready, and it seems like you have first-hand experience of what I was dealing with in NZ. Look forward to hearing more when we all get back to school. Blessings.

  3. Pingback: The Role of Inner Awakening in Compassionate Action: The Worldview of Wisdom Teacher Cynthia Bourgeault | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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