Spiritual death can sound pretty macabre. But it isn’t as gruesome as we may think, even if at times it can feel difficult and even painful. It also isn’t as lofty as it may initially seem. We’ve all most likely already had an experience of spiritual death, even before we began formally practicing meditation. Anytime we change in a way that leads us towards greater wisdom and compassion is an experience of spiritual death. The greater wisdom and compassion that becomes accessible to us as a result, is an experience of spiritual rebirth. The paths of spiritual death and spiritual re-birth go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.
So what is it that dies, and what is it that is reborn? What dies are our old ways of doing things, and the views that underpin them, that we have outgrown, that no longer serve us, and that are not aligned with reality. What gets reborn is that which we have never been separated from, yet was obscured from our awareness - the true nature of reality, and of ourselves as a facet of reality.
Spiritual death and spiritual rebirth are two sides of the same coin – insight. Buddhist insight involves seeing more clearly the situation we find ourselves in. Many of us will have come to Buddhism or meditation because we are unsatisfied with some aspect of our life. For me, I wanted to learn to love myself and others more fully. I intuited that there was a more skilful way to be in the world and that learning to work more creatively with my own mind could help me. It was painful to acknowledge the ways I had already hurt myself and others through my limited capacity to love. But I knew it would be more painful in the long run to ignore my desire to change, than to take a closer look at what was going on for me.
Life is marked with unsatisfactoriness. So the first step on the path of spiritual death is simply to acknowledge this and get curious about the conditions that give rise to our suffering. Luckily, the Buddha was crystal clear on this. He said that we suffer because we falsely view ourselves, others and the world as separate and unchanging, and then cling to them as such. When they change, as they inevitably do, we suffer. These habits of clinging are what we can get curious about in our meditation.
When meditating we will inevitably begin to become aware of sensations, thoughts and emotions that are deeply familiar to us. They feel as though they are us. In the open space of awareness, we can begin to turn towards these sensations, thoughts and emotions and learn to unhook from the identification with them. In the Purabheda Sutta, the Buddha describes an awakened person as:
a person with nothing in them that they grasp at as theirs, and nothing in them that they reject as not theirs.
When I first heard these lines read out loud, I immediately felt intimately connected to the entire universe and everything in it. In a flash I was not at all separate from anything. And then, as quickly as it had happen, it was over and I was back to being little old “me” sat on my meditation cushion.
I’ve been reflecting on this verse from the Buddha ever since that strong experience on first hearing it. What I’ve come to realise is that the fundamental work for me as a meditator (at least for now) is to get curious about how I grasp at experiences as “me or mine”, as well as how I push away experiences as “not me or not mine”. This commitment to looking out for these moments of clinging or aversion has led to a rich unveiling of the habits of my mind. How when I grasp or push away, I inevitably cut off from my direct experience, creating a false separation within myself where some things are accepted, and others rejected.
In seeing this, I have also seen how much suffering this has caused me, and others. I’ve touched into the tension inherent there. When things, experiences, or other people don’t add up to my views of how it or they “should” or “shouldn’t” be I suffer, because I want something different to be happening. I can’t be with things as they actually are. Therefore, I can’t be as I actually am. And the truth of interconnectedness elludes me. I am cut off, from myself and the world. This false sense of self that I’ve created, where some things are welcome and some unwelcome, is clearly the root of my suffering.
The path of spiritual death is one of realisation into no-self. This realisation doesn’t happen once, but over and over again, in ever deepening and more and more subtle ways. We have built up the illusion of a self over our entire lives (or multiple lives, if you believe in rebirth). And as we practice, we begin to see more clearly the layers of the self, like those of an onion, to finally find that there is no there there. This isn’t to say that we don’t exist, just that we don’t exist in the way that we think we do, or as we appear to exist.
In meditation, we can begin to get curious about the selfing process, and enquire into what is actually going on. For example, we might begin to notice that many of our thoughts are quite critical, frustrated, or annoyed. We may become aware of aversion, or maybe even full-blown anger. Or perhaps we find that we are constantly craving a different experience than the one we’re having, are lost in fantasies, are making plans for when we’ll have a “good” meditation, at some other point in time and in some other place. Or maybe we’re racked with boredom, or thoughts about not being good enough.
Whatever your version of this is, at some point we all realise that this is actually a mental state we are very familiar with, a way of being in the world that we’ve become accustomed to. These mental states are traditionally referred to as the klesas, or root poisons, the most prominent of which are craving, anger, ignorance, pride, and jealousy.
Up until now, we’ve been laying the ground so that we may begin to turn towards our experience more fully and investigate what is actually going on. Whereas before in our meditation we may have experienced the klesas as hindrances to deepening concentration, now they become aids to waking up. Our own unskilful mental habits provide the conditions from which we can begin to see more clearly how things actually are. Its critical at this stage that we both see clearly the klesa and see how it manifests in our direct experience. By getting curious about what that experience actually is, we can begin to unhook from it.
Now we can get curious about the “gap” between feeling and craving. This gap is a rich working ground for bringing awareness to the processes that keep us bound to suffering. When we see how we’ve been bound up, the ways in which our own particular version of delusion is wired, the seeing itself begins the process of unbinding. Of unhooking ourselves from what was once a seemingly solid, unchanging reality. We see how a particular sensation leads to a particular thought or emotion, how that leads to a familiar story about ourselves, others or the world, and how we then rest our whole sense of how things are on that story.
Liberation lies in coming back over and over again to the beginning, before mental proliferation binds us in cycles of delusion. When we do this, the awareness and love we bring to that raw, initial experience transforms the energy of the klesa into virya, energy in pursuit of the good. This energy then becomes available to us in new ways and can be reapplied to the practice. The klesas become aids to waking up!