Death, the advisor

November 11, 2002

At the approach of each New Year, I take stock of the year just past and look at what I feel is in store for the next.

I recently moved from my office in a lovely Cape Cod style home (converted to executive office suites) where I had spent many happy and productive years. There are remarkable things about this move. One is that I am moving from a space that was upstairs and tucked away in the back of the attic, lovely and womb-like, with slanted ceilings and one small window to let in a sliver of light. My new space, in a single-story brick building just down the street, is a suite of offices with its own private entrance. Many windows not only let in abundant sunlight, but make me quite visible as well. I am amused to think of myself as on display… anyone driving by or pulling into the parking lot could look through the floor to ceiling windows and watch me at the work of my soul.

However, this new openness is not what I consider the most powerful aspect of my move. Beyond my wall of windows is a magnificent view of a large, old cemetery. This may seem unremarkable to many, even morbid to some. To me, it is a daily reminder that I don’t have forever to do my work in the world. Whatever it is that I consider worth doing has a time limit on it.

I believe in the Native American perception that each one of us has authentic medicine that we are to give to the world. Each one of us is responsible for discovering our truth and delivering it to the world before we die. So, sorting out what is truth and what is not has become important to me.

I also believe in the idea of using death as an advisor, a nugget of wisdom I picked up many years ago in my reading of Carlos Castaneda. Don Juan, a sorcerer who taught Carlos, told him that death is there with us, just behind the left shoulder. When we are faced with a difficult decision, we can turn to our death and ask for advice. Focusing on one’s mortality has a way of putting things into perspective. It has assisted me in sorting our what is my truth and what is not.

The first time I used this idea of death as an advisor was in 1985. I was about to give my first keynote address. The topic was humor and healing and was to be delivered to the Indiana Northeastern Nurses Association. Though my first large group, it was small for a conference; only 65 or 70 people had registered. Nonetheless I was terrified. In the days preceding the conference, I remember thinking to myself that perhaps I would get lucky and have a car accident so that I would have a legitimate reason for not showing up.

Then it occurred to me to use death as an advisor. I stilled myself with a few deep breaths and centered my awareness on my heart and asked, “If I were going to die tomorrow how important would this be?” The answer, from my deeper wisdom, came immediately. “Very important,”.

If I were going to die tomorrow, there were things I wanted to say before I left this world. I have information, awareness, and insights that could make a difference in someone else’s life. I felt a sense of calm descend over me. I could feel the wisdom inside me that had chosen this direction. Regardless of how fearful I felt at the time, my deeper truth came shining through. This truth is that I love humanity. I love the journey of the “self” evolving, from limited isolated human to a soulful being capable of connecting to the mystery of life. So I wrote on a piece of paper, “believe in yourself”, and with these words on the podium before me, I spoke.

I have lectured many times since then; often enough that people have begun to ask me when I am going to write a book. “Soon,” I usually say. I have long had ideas, things I knew that I would like to make sure that I got out to the world, yet I could never quite get focused… until now. Here I sit across from this enormous, elegant old cemetery. The trees are tall and this quiet resting place is beautiful in every season. As I watch the twilight descend on the day, I like to think of each grave as an ancestor. Indeed, I am a part of the family of man and these are the people who went before me. Do they wish they had spoken a truth in their own lives? Are they sending me the energy of support and belief, watching as I go about my soul’s business of putting words to the knowing of my heart? Either way they are a constant, gentle reminder that time is short. So much to say, create, explore. Time will slip by. Time will slip by. For them, time has slipped away.

So I ask my death, “Should I write?”