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Die Before You Die

John Shea tells this wonderful story in his book Eating with the Bridegroom:

Once upon a time there was a rich and generous man who freely gave gold to various groups of people. One day it was widows; another day it was invalids; another day it was poor students, and so forth. The only requirement was that the recipients should wait in silence. Not all could meet that requirement.

When it was the day for lawyers to receive gold, one pleaded his case with great gusto before the rich and generous man. The rich and generous man simply passed by. The next day the designated group was the lame. So the lawyer wrapped splints around his legs and posed as a cripple. The rich and generous man recognized him immediately and passed by. The following day the group was widows. The lawyer disguised himself as a widow. However, he did not fool the rich and generous man who passed him by without bestowing gold.

So, the lawyer found an undertaker and concocted a plan. The undertaker would wrap him in a shroud and put him in the path of the rich and generous man. Surely, the rich and generous man would throw gold coins on the shroud for proper burial. The lawyer and the undertaker would split the money.

Well, the rich and generous man did throw coins on the shroud. As soon as he did, the lawyer’s hand quickly broke through the shroud and grabbed the coins before the undertaker could run away with them. Then he emerged from his burial cloths and said, “Do you see at last how I have received from your generosity?”

“Yes,” said the rich and generous man, “but first you had to die.”

There are two things to recognize here. First, each of us has a side that is continually exerting itself to get what we want. Sometimes we will go to great lengths to see that this happens, scheming, conniving, disguising our true selves, trying to be what others want us to be. We may not even be aware of what we’re doing. But there is also a side of us that is able to receive great gifts if only we will quietly be simply present.

The great Sufi mystic, Rumi explained, “The mystery of ‘Die before you die’ is this: that the gifts come after your dying and not before."

When Jesus spoke of the "grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies in order to produce much fruit" in John 12:20-26 he was sharing a great truth: death is transformational. Yes, I believe it is true that physical death will be transformational for all of us. However, I also believe that dying before we die is essential for the growth and transformation of our souls. It is the small deaths in life – some purposeful, some not – that can help us grow more mature spiritually. 

When Jesus spoke of his disciples following in his footsteps, he certainly wasn’t asking them to get themselves killed. When Jesus said, “if you love your life you’ll lose it; if you hate your life in this world you’ll keep it for eternal life,” what he was hoping for was that they would metaphorically die to all within themselves that did not serve them, or the greater good. He wanted them to let go of the things the world imposed on them that denied their Belovedness. What he was looking for was inner growth, new consciousness, and a deep spirituality that looked beyond the things of this world.

What do we need to die to in order to live authentically, as a whole person? There is much: selfishness, greed, judgmentalism, anger, guilt, shame, perfection, negativity, narrow-mindedness and a sense of superiority. Sometimes we also need to let go of certain belief structures we've outgrown - secular and religious. I'd also include a need to win or be right, fear of what other people think, control issues, and the propensity to be defensive and make excuses.

Any one of these categories could probably be a sermon in itself, but let’s look at just one example of something we need to die to in order to live a more abundant, fulfilled life.

Perfectionism. We can talk all we want about loving our children no matter what, but the reality is that most children learn early on that they are loved for what they do, and not simply for who they are. These children strive to be the best so as to gain their parent’s love. The reality is that this is not truly love, it is approval. Sadly, we often equate approval with love.

Rachel Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, shared how she was trained to be a perfectionist by her father. As a child, when she brought home a 98% on an exam, her father invariably responded, “What happened to the other two points?” She adored her dad, and her whole childhood was focused on the pursuit of those other two points. By the time she was in her 20s she had become just as much a perfectionist as he. No one had to ask her about those two points any more, she had sufficiently taken over that role herself. It took her many years to learn that those two points don’t matter. They are not the secret to living a life worth remembering. They don’t make you lovable. Or whole.

One of her teachers in this matter was her first love, David. They were together when her driver’s license came up for renewal and she had to take the written test of the traffic laws. The DMV sent a little booklet for her to study, which she did for days. She became obsessed with memorizing all the laws. David, an artist, tried to persuade her to join him for a walk or go to a party or dinner or dancing, or even just talk. But she told him she couldn’t take the time.

Well, of course she received 100% on the test. When she got it she rushed into his studio waving her test and shouting that she’d gotten 100%. David looked up from his painting and with an expression of great tenderness said, “My love, why would you want to do that?”

This was not the response she expected, but it made her stop and think. She had spent days studying, but it wasn’t really about the test or about driving. It felt like her father couldn’t approve of her if she didn’t get 100%, so she couldn’t approve of herself without getting 100%. It was about deserving love.

Rachel needed to die to her perfectionism in order to really live.

What does it look like once we’ve died to the things that keep us from living authentically? Well, Jack Kornfield shared a story about Dipama Barua of Calcutta, one of his teachers and a revered Buddhist elder. She was both a meditation master and a loving grandmother. Around her was a palpable sense of stillness and profound well-being. Her heart seemed to pervade her whole body, the whole room, all who came into her orbit. Her presence had a big impact on others. Those who lived nearby said the whole apartment block in one of Calcutta’s poor neighborhoods became harmonious after she moved in. One day a student complained that ordinarily his mind was filled with thoughts and plans, judgments and regrets. He wondered what it was like to live more selflessly. So he asked Dipama directly about the alternative: “What is in your mind?” She smiled and said, “In my mind are only three things: loving-kindness, concentration, and peace.”

She has let go of all of the things of the ego which hold us back from fully coming alive. It is a path where identification with the “small self” drops away and what remains is the spacious heart that is connected with all things.

The question for each of us is: What do I need to die to before I die?

Love & Light!