Last June, a 102-year-old woman with perfect hair sat on her favorite chair and balanced her checkbook one last time.
Earlier that day, she had been to the hairdresser. She had written a check by hand, as she had done for years. She died that afternoon, napping peacefully in her chair.
That woman was my grandmother, Mary.
Her death wasn’t a surprise to us. Death doesn’t exactly sneak up on a centenarian.
We were prepared. Or so I thought.
Deep Thoughts About Death
Life goes on, of course.
As life was busy going on — as I celebrated my first Thanksgiving, my first Christmas, my first Easter, and my first birthday without my grandmother — I thought deeply about the nature of death.
I thought about her death. I thought about my own death. I thought about the inevitable death of my dog, Sgt. Pepper.
Is this kind of thinking morbid?[Edit: I talk more about an ancient Zen meditation technique called Maranasati, or Death Meditation, in this article here. ]
I don’t believe it is. Humans, they say, are unique in that they are aware of their own mortality.
But are we really aware?
For most of us, death is abstract. It is a concept, a thought, not a reality. Until we lose someone. And then we get a crash course in the philosophy of yin and yang.
What Yin and Yang Really Look Like
I thought I understood yin and yang.
I’ve been studying the philosophy for 20 years. It’s the central concept of tai chi. When I went to acupuncture college, we were constantly tested on the theories of yin and yang.
I thought I knew a thing or two. But it turns out I didn’t know squat.
The knowledge was all in my head. It was book knowledge. It was cerebral.
This, my friends, is not the philosophy of yin and yang:
That’s just a symbol on a screen.
Here’s what yin and yang really look like:
Yin and yang look like real life. (In this case, they look like my wedding day, which was also my grandmother’s 97th birthday.)
Yin and yang are everywhere, if you learn how to look with new eyes.
A Crash Course in Yin and Yang
On their final exam, my recently-certified instructors were asked to define yin and yang in 1 sentence.
I took the exam with them because I like to practice what I preach. Here’s what I wrote as my answer:
“Yin and yang are opposite, complementary, interdependent, and inseparable forces that, together, form a complete and harmonious whole.”
If you’re wondering where I’m going with this article, then I’ll tell you right now.
Let’s play a simple substitution game with the above statement:
“Life and death are opposite, complementary, interdependent, and inseparable forces that, together, form a complete and harmonious whole.”
You can’t have life without death.
If you want to live, you have to embrace death.
And vice versa, if you want to die well, then you have to embrace life.
Wanting To Live
In my recent writings, I’ve opened up about my 20-year battle with depression.
I’ve mentioned that depression almost killed me, that like many depressives, I was suicidal.
But I haven’t talked much about suicide. Here’s something that I’ve never told anyone:
The day after I decided not to kill myself, I felt alive.
I had looked at death, right in the eyes.
Death was real. It was tangible. It was right there, as real as sunlight on your face.
It wasn’t even dark, or scary. It just was.
As I was looking at death, that old Clash song popped into my head.
Should I stay or should I go?
I decided to stay, not because I was afraid of death. I wasn’t.
I decided to stay because, while looking at death, I saw life.
I saw yin and yang.
I’ve never seen a dead human.
I’m 44, and I’ve never seen one. My grandmother’s funeral, like all of the funerals in my life, had a closed casket.
We insulate ourselves from death. We look away.
As if that will protect us somehow. As if that will help us to live.
It won’t. It doesn’t.
We are like children, covering our eyes when we are scared, naively hoping that if we don’t see something, then it won’t hurt us.
Remembering The Lesson
It’s ironic that, as I journeyed away from suicide, as I began to embrace life and heal from depression, I forgot about death. I forgot about yin and yang.
Until my grandmother died.
Then I had no choice. I had to look again.
I’ve been looking at death all year.
2016 has made it easy for all of us to look at death. Alan Rickman. David Bowie. Prince.
Heck, just a few days ago, Anton Yelchin, the young actor from the new Star Trek movies, died in a freak accident.
Death is always there. Sometimes it’s tragic, like with Yelchin.
Sometimes, it’s not, like with my grandmother.
Getting Angry at Death
My grandmother’s death was especially helpful in teaching me about yin and yang.
I can’t be angry about her death. I’ve tried. There is no room for righteousness.
She lived a full, happy life. She died peacefully at home, just days after celebrating her 102nd birthday with family.
It’s so tempting to be angry at death. And often, we can find something to be angry at.
The incompetent doctor. The drunk driver. When in doubt, we can always be angry at Monsanto.
Because anger wasn’t an option, I was forced to look at death differently. I couldn’t just vilify death.
Death is not the bad guy. It’s not the enemy, any more than yin is the enemy of yang.
How Death Changed Me
I am grandmotherless now. I can never go back. I will never have a grandmother again.
And that’s okay. Grandmothers die. All of them.
Sometimes, they die in a way that forever changes the grandchild.
That’s what happened to me.
I am not the same man I was.
Remember in the movie The Matrix when Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) was finally able to see the Matrix all around him?
I feel a little like that.
I see yin and yang all around me now.
Here’s the secret: you have to look at both yin and yang.
Don’t go through life looking at yin while looking away from yang.
Look at both.
Here’s what I see now:
I see the cosmic swirl that includes both life and death. I see the amazing harmony that is created by this swirling.
I see death in the food that I eat, and I also see new life.
I see that my dog will die, but I see that, today, he is amazingly, unabashedly alive.
Everywhere I look, through eyes filled with both grief and joy, I see the eternal dancing of yin and yang.
Thank you, Grandma, for teaching me such an important lesson. From the heart, Sifu Anthony