From Before I Go: The Essential Guide to Creating A Good End of Life Plan. Chapter 7: What Is A Body?
In many Western countries, when you see a closed coffin at a funeral, it can be a shock. Imagining the person you loved in there is not always a pleasant picture. A lid over the top of a box in which a person lies is all wrong somehow, as it is when we draw a sheet over the face of a dead person – it is our way of saying, this is the end of their life. Never usually would a piece of material be drawn over someone’s face. When you see a person’s body wrapped in a shroud, this may be even more shocking. I remember the first time this happened to me, I turned up at the funeral and saw the body covered in a beautiful woollen embroidered shroud, and laid on a willow frame. I was a bit taken aback. It was so clearly a body shape, but with the head all covered up, as it needed to be. I was faced very much with the reality of the death of that person.
And yet, is it really true that they have died? Different religions say different things and have different beliefs about what happens to bodies; and then there are plenty who believe in anything from atheism to past lives to the existence of ‘something else’ that is unidentifiable.
My belief, and experience, is that if you recognize that what keeps you alive is something more than a body, then it may be much easier to complete the Taking Action section in this Guide. However, I didn’t fully appreciate this until I watched my husband die, which I wrote about in Gifted By Grief: LINK
“Last night, 1st December 2011, dear Philip left his body at 8.19pm. I say left his body because it became very obvious that there was no longer an inhabitant in that body at that time. You may very well have seen this yourself – one moment the person is there, and the next moment, having taken their last breath, they are not. And that is death; that moment. Philip struggled in the last few days of being in the body. I have to say ‘the’ body instead of ‘his’ body, because it sounds too odd now to refer to him as having a body when it was so clear that the body was just the packaging for his spirit. Who Philip is was simply flowing through that form for that particular time.”
A few days later, I referred to his body as an empty bag. In fact, about three weeks after he died, I woke up thinking, ‘If that was an empty bag, then what is this? (referring to my own body). It had been so definite: this inhabiting a body, and then not. Just like someone living in a house, and then moving out. The empty house has all the objects of the life that was lived there, but when the person no longer lives in the house, those objects are no longer useful. And so it seems with a body, although not everyone thinks like this by any means.
My belief is that when you can adjust your thinking to having a body, instead of being your body, then you can also begin to make a separation from identifying with your body.
I know this might be confusing; it’s not how we talk about it at all, usually. Normally everyone is completely identified with their body. By that I mean we use language such as:
- I feel terrible
- I’m hungry
- I need some exercise
What we really mean when we say these things are: my body has an ache/pain/unspecified unwellness, my stomach is empty and wants to be filled up, and my body wants to stretch, run, walk, or be outside.
Notice that even in these examples I use the word ‘my’. It’s more true to say, ‘this body that I inhabit’. More true maybe, but definitely clumsy! We all have shorthand that allows us to make more sense to each other, and avoid these kind of truthful but clumsy phrases. The trouble is, we all believe this shorthand – we really believe that ‘I’ is my body and my hunger, ache or pain or need for exercise. Then we begin to take things personally when they don’t go right for us, or according to the way we think they ought to go. So I highly recommend beginning to dis-identify with your body by starting to create some distance from it, simply by acknowledging that you have a body, not that you are a body. As spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi said: “Who am I? Not the body because it is decaying; not the mind, because the brain will decay with the body; not the personality nor the emotions, for these also will vanish with death”.10
Who or what is ‘I’?
This question, ‘Who am I? is a very useful one to ponder, if you are interested in reflecting on ‘having’ a body instead of ‘being’ one. It is used in many spiritual traditions, to help encourage people consider just what is meant by the idea of ‘I’. Initially, when asking this question of oneself, we tend to answer ‘a mother, daughter, sister; an accountant, co-worker, or artist’. These are actually roles we play, though, they are not who we are, even though we may identify with them.
So who are we? And what actually is a body? To explore this question more, you can read the rest of this chapter by getting yourself a copy of the book!
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