Embodied Transformation & Evolution

A Lion Of Courage ~ Getting married to amazement

Posted by on Feb 12, 2018 in Featured Writing, Lifeletters & Articles | 1 comment

A Lion Of Courage ~ Getting married to amazement

I have a dear friend, a beautiful Frenchwoman named Marie. I met her in Berkeley, twelve years ago, when we were practicing together. One of our practices was facing the reality of death, the immediacy of it, the fact that it can come in any moment.

Marie is someone who lives whole-heartedly. She gives herself to whatever is before her, with passion and dedication. It’s a beautiful quality, so deep in her I feel it as the substance of her soul. When I am with her, I drink it in. I get excited whenever I am in her company: there is so much aliveness in the space where we meet.

Marie got deep into this practice and pulled me with her, into the wild waters of peeling back, moment by moment, our denial of death. This denial that is so all pervading, so persistent, and so natural. The first time that we took a lunch break in our sessions, she was going around the corner to eat. I said, “Bye Marie, see you later.”

If we come back,” she said, her blue eyes shining with fierce radiance.

I felt a jolt in my nervous system, a contraction, and then a setting into the truth of what she was offering me: she’s just going around the corner, and she may not come back. Or I may not come back. Death doesn’t come when I’m ready for it. It’s almost always the unexpected, uninvited, extremely disruptive guest.

The Radiant Mind  practice we were doing, led by Peter Fenner, did not offer us any consolations. There was no promise of an afterlife, nothing like that. It was a direct confrontation with how far away from the immediacy of death we try to get, and how impossible it is to know anything in the face of it. To engage in this practice, we have to face death as the end of everything we know and love. This is not a popular practice! Our whole human culture is devoted to practicing the opposite of this. Only if I am terribly depressed, or in agonizing pain, do I sometimes long for death. Otherwise, to turn towards death takes immense courage, deep curiosity, and a kind of wild desire to encounter reality without abstractions.

Still why? Why would we practice in this way? Why should I allow myself to feel the truth of this: that when I say goodbye to my beloved friend Marie, I might never see her again? The very nature of such a practice feels counter-instinctual. It rubs against the grain of something deep in our human nature: our passionate desire to avoid the stark reality of human life.

There are some good reasons to turn towards death, actually. We might practice facing death because we love the truth, as much as we are afraid of it. Or because entering the field of death and dying opens our hearts to each other, and to life. Or because the immediacy of death delivers me a great and precious gift: my own deep clarity. There is nothing like the presence of death to awaken me from my ongoing dismissal of reality,  and show me what really matters. In the face of death, what I really care about leaps up and demands my full attention. Nothing else really does it in the same way.

A Lion Of Courage

Over the years I have facilitated many Death Cafes and worked with people in the field of death and dying. I was moved in these directions by the experience of my father’s suicide. I was not at all prepared for the shock of his death; it took me many years to recover. The shock was a rude awakening from the trance I was living in then. I realized  that I would have asked him to have a conversation with me, a very difficult conversation, if I had really known that he would take his own life. My grief and rage and regret about what I postponed have been strong and powerful medicine. They awakened in me a desire to bring death into the conversations we have with each other.

I loved every single Death Cafe, where friends and strangers would sit together and move closer to the visceral reality of impermanence. In the cafes we weren’t talking about death as an event in the future or the past–we were intent on becoming intimate with death, now, in this moment. The places where people would meet, in those conversations, were so tender, so intimate, so full of depth. The energy of their souls would often fill the room. Usually it takes a five day workshop or an intense long-time practice to open such a space. Death is merciful in this way: it cuts through the time it takes to get real. Death delivers us from so many of our evasions, excuses and addictions. A dear friend who is an emergency room doctor spoke one day recently about how he has experienced death arriving as an angel, full of mercy. How radical it would be to open to this mercy now, instead of just before we leave.

Marie was relentless with me when we were together in Berkeley. She called me again and again into staying very close to the fragrance of death. I loved her for that, and am deeply grateful to call her my friend. Her love is sweet and also direct and fierce. Such friends are rare, and their value is priceless. I believe we need such friends–in their company we have the possibility to become a bride or bridegroom, ‘married to amazement.’  Friends like this offer us much more than comfort. They open a crack in the impulse to keep avoiding the reality of death-an impulse which is woven into the fabric of our humanity.

As such, this instinct to avoid death deserves our deep respect. Of course I turn my face away from death, again and again. Of course I pretend that I’m going to live forever, that my child will live forever, that my partner will  live forever. Or if death comes, it will not come soon. Certainly not now–any other moment, but not now.

For us to come down out of the clouds we live in, and land in the raw truth of this, requires something different from each one of us. I won’t live the same way, if I can face death. I won’t move or breathe or think or dream the same way. My body, in the words of Mary Oliver, will become a lion of courage, something precious to the earth.


When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


with love,


Photo credit: Michael Spain on Unsplash

One Comment

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Barb Fehlau

    Wow how this touches me. As a Palliative Care physician who deals with people confronting death on every day I honor your truthfulness of your experiences and would love to come to one of your death cafes. Many blessings to you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *