Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive
By Larry Rosenberg, with David Guy
Shambhala, 208 pp.

There's a famous Woody Allen line about death, something to the effect of, "It's not that I'm afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens." Larry Rosenberg, one of the country's leading teachers of Buddhism, wants us to know that being there--being aware--isn't the problem; it's the solution.

The Buddha traced all our suffering to delusion, one of the most popular being that we are immune to death. Of course, we "know" we're going to die--ask us, we'll certainly give you the right answer. But that knowledge is only frontal-lobe deep. It hasn't reached us where we live. If we truly understood how brief, how momentary, our little firefly lives are, the way we live and love would be transformed. For one thing, we would be happier, lighter.

Larry Rosenberg's aim here is to loosen the hold of that central delusion. His premise is that the fear of death, snaked around the fear of aging and fear of illness, is burrowed into our unconscious, a chronic undercurrent of anxiety. The Buddhist method is to "flush out these fears," to invite them into consciousness, stare into their faces, and so release ourselves from their grip.

How can we tolerate being with these fears? We sit with them. Through meditation, we develop the strength to sit through impatience, physical pain, difficult emotions and thoughts. We learn to observe it all, and that observation makes it "workable." We see that the thought, the pain, the fear, are impermanent, changing--in a sense we outlast them: We're the sky; they're clouds passing by. The art in this observation is to be intimate; whatever the experience, not rejecting or resisting it but "uniting" with it. Becoming aware of whatever barrier separates it from us, and making contact with that barrier. "Intimacy comes from the clear seeing of separation," Rosenberg writes.

This intimacy, this choice to observe rather than avoid or react, has tremendous transformative power. More and more, we take refuge in our "sky nature," in pure awareness. Fears lose their sting. Rosenberg, founder and guiding teacher of the Cambridge (Mass.) Insight Meditation Center, gives instructions for formal contemplations on the inevitability of aging, illness, and death. We practice relinquishment, non-attachment. We see that we are not our jobs, our relationships, our possessions, our body ("our closest companion," Rosenberg calls it). "We are dying on the installment plan," he says.

Is this morbid? Depressing? Oddly, no. On the other side of the repressed fears is profound appreciation, deep joy, and tenderness for the vulnerability of us all. Somewhere, the Buddha said it was better to live one day with the awareness of death than a hundred years without it. We don't realize it, but our lives are like shipboard romances--intense and poignant because every moment brings us closer to the end. As Rosenberg reminds us, "Death is not waiting for us at the end of the road. It is walking with us the whole time." Knowing is better than not knowing.

Rosenberg was a professor of sociology at Brandeis in his pre-Buddhist life, and he's a gifted teacher. The clarity of his explanations, his ability to articulate what many would say is unsayable, makes this, his second book (the first was "Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation"), a treasure. He takes readers to difficult places--envisioning our own corpses, the loss of everything we think we are--and yet supports us with the strength of the Buddha's wisdom. There's nothing to believe, only the invitation to test the approach and its premises for ourselves. Along the way are jewels of insight.

For example: If you bring meditation into daily life, your relationship to time will change. Instead of allotting so many hours a day for work, for children, for your partner, for exercise, "and finally, you hope, a little time for yourself," you'll find that every moment is yours. If you're there--aware, mindful--every moment counts. You can "discover nirvana in the midst of everyday life." Just as death isn't a destination far in the future, awakening isn't a distant goal: "It happens now, and only now. It is present this moment if we want to choose it."

The subject of death and dying is heating up in the culture right now, and Rosenberg's book is a great contribution to the discussion. It's a course in living, a wake-up call that will be beneficial to everyone working to ease dying for others, everyone who is going to lose people they love, and everyone who is going to die.

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