Death is Nothing to Us
Death means losing everything, but it is also the liberation from suffering.
My father’s death
I wrote this article the day after my father died. He was in Spain and I was in California, thousands of miles away from me. Because of the travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, I had made up my mind that I would never see him again.
I don’t feel sorry for him. He was 92. I am the oldest of his 9 children. He was president of one university and founded the largest university in Spain. He was elected to the Spanish Parliament. He became a worldwide authority in his academic field, and many of his students also had successful careers. We should all be that lucky!
But death comes to all of us, and my father was always afraid of death.
I remember one time that I had dinner with him at a fancy restaurant in Madrid, Los Borrachos de Velazquez. He had a rocky relationship with his children after he divorced my mother, but I had been trying to build bridges with him. This time, he was genuinely interested in my views on religion. When I was 15, I abandoned the Catholicism in which he’d raised me. That created a big cleft between us that only got larger as I developed my progressive ideas. But he had also changed his political ideas, evolving from being a Francoist during the dictatorship to becoming one of the new converts to democracy. At that time I was in the midst of my Zen phase. I meditated regularly, went to sesshins (retreats) and had officially become a Zen Buddhist.
He finally came to the key question he wanted to ask me: what happens after death, according to my newly acquired Buddhist religion?
I told him that many Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but I did not. For me, death was the end, my complete extinction. I just hoped that Buddhism would provide a way to come to terms with that idea, a way to let go of my self so I could live in peace.
He didn’t like that answer at all. We parted. As came closer to death, he became more of a devout Catholic. In his last years, while he was able to do so, he would attend Mass daily.
Again, we drifted apart. I felt that he feared that I could challenge his faith and didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
My mother died mindfully
My mother was also a devout Catholic, although her faith was weakened by events outside her control. She dedicated her life to her marriage and her eight children. To put it mildly, my father didn’t treat her well. He cheated on her and, when she found out, they divorced. Not contented with that, my father used his political connections with the Catholic Church to have the marriage annulled.
After 22 years and eight children, in the eyes of the Church, it had never happened. The corruption in the Church that led to the Protestant Reformation still goes on.
My mother always obeyed the commandments of the Church. She never used birth control and had one child after another. And now the Church had betrayed her, taking away from her the most valuable thing in her life.
Why did my father annul the marriage? In his own words, to be able to marry his third wife in the Church so he could have sex with her without committing a sin. That’s how twisted Catholicism has become in this age.
My mother died six years ago. During her last years, she recapitulated her life and left it written in a book for her children and grandchildren to read. I can’t think of a better way to prepare to die: to go over your life, reflecting about everything that happened, looking at what you have done, who you were, who you are. That is dying mindfully.
I flew to Spain to visit my mother at the hospital a couple of weeks before her death. We spend long hours reminiscing. She told me that the happiest days of her life were when we lived in Rome, when I was an infant. I still had many memories of Rome and had always called my mother mamma, in Italian, instead of the Spanish mamá. I played in my iPod old Italian songs from that time that we used to listen at home.
Breath is the last thing you have left
The song How We’re Blessed, by Daniel Cainer, tells us that breath is the first blessing we get when as we come out of the womb, and it is the last thing we have left when we die.
When I meditate, I focus on my breath, the link between my mind and my body. Breathing is one thing that we do consciously and unconsciously. When I free-dive, I hold my breath. That feels peaceful and liberating until the air-hunger calls me back to the surface.
‘I can’t breathe’ was the theme of 2020. That’s what George Floyd said as he was being killed by the police, echoing the words of Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, Elijah McClain and many others choked by police.
‘I can’t breathe’ is also what you feel when you die from Covid-19, as the coronavirus finishes destroying your lungs. It’s what millions of people felt when they were confined inside their houses because of the pandemic.
Death is the loss of everything
When I die, I will lose my breath and my heartbeat. I will lose the consciousness that followed my breath in meditation. Consciousness is so fragile that it goes away every night when I sleep, so how can it possibly survive the destruction of my brain?
And when consciousness is gone, everything is gone. Your spouse, your children, all your relatives. Your car, your house, your bank accounts, all your worldly possessions. Gone, forever!
No wonder death is so terrifying. Especially in our culture, where we define ourselves by our possessions. We spend our lives trying to accumulate things. Not just objects, but also things of the mind: an education, knowledge, self-control, the right attitude, virtue, wonderful experiences. And yet, even the things inside our minds will be gone when we die. How can we, at the end of our lives, reverse what we have been doing all our lives, and let go?
Death is the ultimate liberation
Erin was my polyamorous lover during 2012 and 2013. We met in Fetlife.com and she agreed to be my submissive… This might be nice material for another article, but let’s leave at that. She was missing her left leg, which had been amputated below the knee after a motorcycle accident when she was 24. She had been a runner before, so losing her leg was an enormous blow to her. It took me a while to understand how much that had affected her.
One day, well into our relationship, I had the idea of watching with her the movie Mar Adentro (Out at Sea, mistranslated to English as The Sea Inside). The movie was shot in Galicia, the country in the northwest of Spain where I grew up. Erin had an Irish ancestry, and I wanted to show her the Celtic culture of Galicia.
Instead, Erin was profoundly moved by the story about assisted suicide. Based on actual events, it tells the struggle of Ramon Sampedro (played by Javier Bardem) to be allowed to die. Ramon had become quadriplegic after breaking his neck diving into shallow water, and would rather die than live like that.
Soon afterwards, Erin told me that she had wanted to die ever since she’d lost her leg. I was shocked. I was in love with her and the idea that she would kill herself terrified me. I also saw it as a personal failure, because the idea behind me being her dominant was to coach her so she could put her life together. She had survived a 3-month long kidnapping, had been in jail and was unemployed.
It wasn’t just her lost leg. Erin lived in a state of constant physical and mental pain, which she concealed below a cheerful façade. After we had several fights, Erin managed to communicate to me how, for her, death was a liberation. Yes, there were things in life that made her happy, but there was so much suffering that the overall balance, for her, was that life was not worth living.
In June 2013, Erin left me for another man who could give her what I could not: a monogamous relationship. He was a jealous man and proceeded to isolate her from me and from all her friends. At the end of November, one of them texted me that Erin had committed suicide.
She had left me a precious parting gift. Deep in my bones, I now understood that death is the ultimate liberation.
No more worries, no more toiling, no more fear.
No more suffering.
Death is nothing
Religious people pity atheists because we don’t have the consolation of an afterlife, a place where we will meet our loved ones and live with them forever.
I think that it is they who should be pitied for their wishful thinking, for their lack of courage to confront the truth. When the brain disintegrates, our mind disappears.
Perhaps one day we will have the technology to upload our mind into a computer, as depicted in the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror. But would we be ourselves when we don’t have a body? When we become software, will be drift away from our human nature?
In think that, as Buddhism teaches, we don’t have an immutable Self, something that remains unchanged in the midst of the flow of changes in the world. We are not the child, the teenager, or the young adult that we once were. We have been changing all our lives. Death is just the ultimate change.
The price that Christians pay for believing in Heaven is believing in Hell. They spend their life terrorized by the question of whether they are headed for an eternity of bliss or an eternity of suffering.
Wouldn’t it be much better to believe that we will just cease to exist?
This life is all we have, so we should make the best out of it.
And then there are those grim images of being buried in a claustrophobic casket, as if somehow we still would be locked in our dead body, having to suffer the indignities of being eaten by worms and our slow decomposition. How did we come to believe that?
Those morbid images cause us a lot of suffering when we anticipate our death.
Instead, try to imagine how it was before you were born. What do you see? How do you feel? There is nothing there.
That’s what death is. Nothing. No coldness, no regrets, no missing loving ones, no pity for might-have-been.
Nobody left to struggle. Nobody left to suffer.
It is not difficult to come to this realization. The ancient philosophers, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, already understood it.
“Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death, and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.” Epicurus.
Science confirmed that. We are our brains. Whatever happens to our brain, happens to us. If we drink, we become inebriated. If we take a drug, we get high. If the brain sleeps, we sleep. If the brain is in a coma, we feel nothing. If the brain falls apart and dies, we feel nothing.