Deep Presence

The stream was deep but clear, allowing a perfect view of the mallard’s feet paddling furiously but going nowhere. Certainly the mallard was working against the current, but I wondered if any of the effort went to keeping him afloat. The water in the nearby lake was too murky to have revealed the feet to me before now.

A few minutes later I approached the lake. Two Canada Geese traversed the waters before me. What caught my eye was a ragged white goose—actually more of an apparition than a real goose. As I moved closer to water’s edge, I could see the goose was dead. Its neck and head were fully submerged under water. My question had been answered. The goose was floating effortlessly; no paddling required.

As I gazed at the goose my line of thinking turned to the goose’s death itself. How had it died? It looked to be old and spent. Did it die of old age—a “natural” death (as if there could be any other kind)? What did that look like when it happened? I had wondered this since childhood. When I came upon a dead bird or butterfly or even a bumble bee that appeared intact and as if it had simply reached the limits of its life span, I wondered how death had come. Did the living thing simply fall out of the air, mid-flight, its heart just quitting? More likely, I thought, it may have landed, tired, and slowly expired while resting. What was that like, I always wondered.

Engrossed in such thought, I was truly startled when the goose slowly, so very slowly, lifted its head, reemerging from its watery death. The goose was not dead. The goose was dying.

I watched, completely spellbound, for the next hour as the goose made its transition from this life to the next, whatever that would be. The process deeply touched me as I experienced the profound difference between a death in nature’s terms and a death in society’s terms. For the goose, this was a completely solitary process. There seemed to be nothing in the world but the goose and its sense of the world in its entirety either still being there or not being there anymore as the goose moved back and forth from life to death to life to death. Every few minutes it would lethargically raise its head from complete submergence to almost resting its chin at water level and with glazed eyes take in what must have been an impressionistic vision of the world around it. After soaking up life for just a moment, purely sensing without attachment, the goose would then let go again and inch by inch its head would sink below the water line. I was struck by the grace of the dance—there was no struggle, no clinging, no fight, merely a drifting in and out between life and death—“still here?”.

A person dying, like all sentient beings, truly dies alone. Yet it is rarely our wish that that be so. We surround the dying person, wanting to show them that they are loved and clinging to our final moments with them. But still, I think, they die alone just as the goose did. It is before we have reached the point of dying that we hope we will not die alone and it is those of us that are not leaving that fear being left here alone. Throughout life we cling, we grasp, we struggle, we deny, holding on with all our effort—like the mallard paddling furiously to fight the current. Most of the time we know that without such effort, such attachment, we can easily stay afloat. Other times, we are not so clear. Watching the goose “let go,” I was struck by how much our culture has lost track of how completely natural death is.

And though dying is a solitary process, it may contain the clearest moments in which we can truly realize our connection to all things, our oneness with the universe, the loss of our suffering self and the acceptance of our simply being. The goose had lived this acceptance and in dying was no different.

Alan Watts wrote that such “naturalness” seems most mysterious but “perhaps the clue lies in the saying of Tun-Men:

In walking, just walk.                   

In sitting, just sit.                   

Above all, don’t wobble.

For the essential quality of naturalness is the sincerity of the undivided mind which does not dither between the alternatives.”  

In dying, the goose never wobbled.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s