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Waking Up to Life
by The Spiritual Traveler

The great paradox about waking up to life is that it requires that we first wake up to death. It requires the realization, acknowledgement, understanding, and acceptance of our own mortality. We all acknowledge intellectually that we will die, but acknowledging this with not only our mind, but also with our heart and soul is a much more difficult and complex process. Normally, this awareness does not come until we reach middle age, have a crisis in our health, or experience the death of a close friend or family member.

There's a very famous short novel by Franz Kafka called The Metamorphosis, or The Transformation. It begins with an unforgettable first sentence: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect." In the story, Gregor, transformed into an insect in this first sentence, ends up dying miserably in his room. His transformation can be seen as symbolic of his realization of his own mortality. The rest of the novel is concerned with his struggle to come to terms with his condition, and in doing so he goes through the classic psychological stages of death: denial, anger, depression, and acceptance.

Curiously for such a seemingly bleak story, The Metamorphosis has been interpreted as a parable of modern spirituality. In finally accepting the inevitability of his death, Gregor also accepts a truth about his life, namely that a possibility for fulfillment or meaning exists for him only in his outcast state. Now this is indeed spirituality of a type, for spirituality implies a turning away to a certain extent from worldly concerns and desires. An individual with a spiritual outlook is an outcast of sorts, living in this world, but are not of it. What makes Gregor's spirituality peculiarly modern and unhealthy, however, is that it doesn't include any notion that there is something that lies beyond this life.

The problem with this is that nothing can truly have meaning except in relation to something else. A sound has no meaning except in relation to other sounds. A word has no meaning except in relation to other words. Our lives have no meaning except in relation to other people's lives. Life on earth cannot have meaning except in relation to another form of existence. So, to find meaning in our life, we must consider it in relation to that which lies beyond it. Spiritual experience starts with recognizing that we will die, but more than this, it also requires the recognition that our brief sojourn on earth is simply a stage in a larger process. Only with this type of recognition will our transformation truly be a metamorphosis.

There was a film that came out a few years ago called "Contact," starring Jodie Foster. In the film, Foster's character, Ellie Arroway, is an astronomer who makes contact with intelligent life in a distant galaxy. The transmission she receives via her monitoring and decoding efforts enables the people on Earth to build a transportation device. In this vehicle, Ellie travels millions of light years and back in a space of eighteen hours, returning with a message to mankind that we are not alone in the universe. The film sequence of her voyage in many ways mimics the death process. It's a voyage across space, rather than to a higher plane of existence, but the analogy is clear.

In the film, Ellie does not believe in God, but she believes that there is intelligent life on other planets. She expresses her belief in terms of a scientific precept called Occam's Razor. The precept is that all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one. Ellie Arroway applies this precept to her vision of the universe. "The universe is a pretty big place," she says," "It's bigger than anything in our dreams or imagination. If we were the only intelligent inhabitants in this vast realm, it would certainly be an awful waste of space." Although Ellie is not intellectually able to apply the same precept to life after death, it is not difficult to extend it in this way. We could say that, given the immeasurable extent of time, of life, or of reality, for our existence to be bound by the constraints of our earthly lives would be an awful waste of experience.

The vehicle in which Ellie travels is interesting. It's a hollow sphere, which shuts her off completely from viewing those around her, similar to the way the onset of death closes us off from all but our own experience. The launch controllers, for their part, are able to monitor her until the very second of her departure. The sphere is suddenly dropped, let loose of its tether, and Ellie plunges into a space warp. Contact with earth is severed.

There will be a time for all of us when we stand, like Ellie, in the center of a vehicle that we call the Soul body, ready to travel into another realm. This moment of death is actually a process of 'translation', a rendering of our self into another form. At that moment, we will be poised, like Ellie, at the center of a universal experience. Like her, we will feel the countless invisible eyes of humanity upon us. We will be like emissaries, ambassadors from the human state of consciousness to a higher state. And like Ellie, we will not be able to communicate that experience to others, for it is for each person to experience for him- or herself.

Ellie spent her whole life in preparation for her voyage, and our lives are likewise nothing but a preparation for our own moment of translation. There are steps along this path of preparation. Self-realization is an important step in this direction. Essentially, it means to be born again. Those who have experienced self-realization almost universally report that they have had a vision of their life up to that point as a curiously aimless enterprise, a going around in circles. We must be spiritually reborn before we are ready to undergo the death of the physical body in the way that Ellie Arroway undertakes her mission-with purpose, in full-awareness, and with total responsibility.

Whether or not one has experienced self-realization, the growing awareness of our mortality produces a similar effect. Everything that we did up until this moment seems petty and inconsequential. The emphasis we placed on finding true love, becoming successful, living up to other people's expectations, or any one of the other questionable pursuits in which people in this world are so seriously engaged, is seen as vacuous, meaningless, and laughable. Everything boils down to a precious little amount of time. It all comes down to making a difference, serving others, and living the rest of one's life happily, productively, and meaningfully.

To view our earthly existence as a mere drop in the bucket of our experience is really the only rational approach that we can take to life. Only this approach will allow us to live according to principles of moderation, humility, and service. Without this understanding, our life is all too likely to drift off into either a numbing addiction to routine or a frantic attempt to squeeze some meaning into an ever decreasing amount of time.

We have to live with the prospect of our death on a minute-to-minute basis. We have to sleep with it like we do with a lover. We have to talk to it like we do with a friend. We have to deal with it honestly, as with a colleague, and recognize its authority over us like that of our boss.

Our death must become our constant companion in the same way that the stars and galaxies became for Ellie Arroway. One day, much sooner than we think, we will be among those stars, and will awaken to a whole new life, and a whole new memory of ourselves. Only with the promise of that destiny, can we wake up to life in the present moment.

Spiritual Traveler