Practice Dying: Waking Up in Perilous Times

By Mark Matousek

For the first time in recorded history, human beings around the world are confronting our mortality in real time together, fighting a common adversary that would like to put us all out of business.

This unprecedented global death meditation is prompting a variety of responses across the planet: venality, conflict, and xenophobia; altruism, camaraderie, and gratitude for the smallest things. We’re wondering en masse what lessons can be gleaned from this sudden disaster. How to turn our quarantine into a form of pilgrimage? How to connect in isolation, and release our need for physical touch without sacrificing the “holiness of the heart’s affections”? How can we learn to stop, be present, cease planning for the future, and live vertically — not horizontally — for a change, deepening our stay-at-home roots instead of running in circles like headless chickens?

Worthy as these lessons are, however, they’re not the one we need most urgently. The coronavirus has given humankind the chance to “practice dying” (as Socrates described the central mission of all philosophy) together as an endangered species. Besides the threat of personal illness, we have the unique opportunity to share this dread with everyone else we know, who are facing their own mortality. If we can acknowledge the truth of our plight, I believe, and heal ancient rifts in the human family, we have a chance to turn this catastrophe into a major boon for humanity’s future. 

I know that this is possible because I’ve lived it. At the height of the AIDS crisis, 30 years ago, I saw how death and dying could enlighten a whole community. For more than a decade, we waited for the guillotine to fall, surrounded by thousands of others on the same chopping block. Terrifying and painful as these years were, they were also the most transformative of my life. Emotional walls collapsed, compassion exploded across social lines, and spiritual values became the norm, as we waited in the shadows of another virus. Sick people took care of sick people. Nobody was completely safe, which brought us even closer together. Love showed up in guises we never expected.

When I used to tell friends, half-jokingly, that HIV had actually saved my life, they looked at me like I was nuts. I wasn’t promoting an awful disease or claiming I was glad to have it. I wasn’t pretending to be overjoyed by the prospect of an early departure. I was simply confessing an odd bit of truth that I wouldn’t have believed myself had my own life not improved so dramatically. Without the threat of mortal loss, I would have never had had the conviction — the fuel — to become the person I wanted to be or to find my way through terrible dread to something stronger than my fear.

While traditional cultures have long understood the empowering aspects of fear and wounding, the double-edged sword of passage rites to galvanize and deepen the spirit, we are too often shielded from this secret wisdom. Our prevailing view of pain and loss as handicaps to be avoided at any cost is not only wrong but profoundly wasteful. Terror is fuel; wounding is power. Darkness carries the seeds of redemption. Authentic strength isn’t found in our armor but at the very pit of the wounds each of us manages to survive. As a widow said to me once, “Strength doesn’t mean being able to stand up to anything, but being able to crawl on your belly a long, long time before you can stand up again.”

Today, we’re crawling through this crisis together. Sooner or later, the worst will pass and we’ll find ourselves on our feet once again, ready to put this pandemic behind us. But this time we won’t be able to do so since COVID-19 isn’t going away. Other pandemics will surely follow with suffering on a scale that is hard to imagine. The question is: Will we use this rehearsal as spiritual preparation for what lies ahead? Will we see this outbreak for what it is — a global sutra on impermanence, with massive power to awaken us — and emerge from this onslaught as better, wiser, braver people? 

I believe that the answer is yes. Mortal awareness can bring us together. We did once and we can do it again.


Click below to watch and read Mark’s video interview in Catalyst:
Mark Matousek on The Gift of Adversity

Click below to listen to and read an excerpt from Mark’s book, When You’re Falling, Dive:
The End of Seeking (Or Dig In One Place)

Click below to read Mark’s article in Catalyst:
Practice Dying: Waking Up in Perilous Times


Mark Matousek is a bestselling author, teacher, and speaker whose work focuses on personal awakening and creative excellence through self-inquiry and life writing. He’s an award-winning author of five books, including When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living, and Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation & Self-Discovery.

Mark’s first book, Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story, became an international bestseller that was published in 10 countries and nominated for two Books for a Better Life awards.

He has also worked on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and collaborated with Andrew Harvey on Dialogues with a Modern Mystic.

A featured blogger for Psychology Today, Purple Clover, and Huffington Post, he’s contributed to numerous anthologies and publications, including The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine (contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Yoga Journal, Details, The Saturday Evening Post, AARP, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and many others.

Mark, who’s on the faculty of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and the New York Open Center, teaches transformational writing workshops around the U.S. and in Europe, and is the Creative Director of V-Men (with Eve Ensler), an organization devoted to ending violence against women and girls.

He brings three decades of experience as a memoirist, editor, interviewer, survivor, activist, and spiritual seeker to his penetrating and thought-provoking work with students. His workshops, classes, and mentoring have inspired thousands of people around the world to reach their artistic and personal goals and transform their lives.

Click here to visit Mark’s website.

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This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 8: Navigating the Shutdown