Learning to Die Well (and Transform for the Better)

I started my recent guest post, “Daring to Die”, with a controversial passage:

“I came to live in Manila, Philippines two years ago, and I died.   I died to the person I thought I was.  I came with plans and pretensions, and these were stripped from me.  I was left an exposed man—a man ready to absorb life outside the cocoon of my former self.”

I got quite a response from family, friends, and readers.  “Great article,” said many, “but do you really mean die?”  “Isn’t that pretty melodramatic?”, asked my wife.  Another friend wondered, “Are you trying to be provocative?  Don’t you really mean ‘transformation’?”

Yes, I was trying to be provocative, but, yes, I also deliberately chose “die.” What happens when you can no longer restrict transformation to manageable sections of your life?  What happens when events force whole populations to question their central identities and assumptions?

You get the “death” of the old and transformation into the new—deep, comprehensive transformation.

You and I are taught to fear comprehensive transformation in any area of our lives, as we are taught to avoid even the thought of physical death.  But every once in a great while, personally and socially, we are confronted with a core demand to change not just “things” about us but who we are and what our society represents.

We are now in such a time.

Our Industrial Age and its values and principles are dying.  Materialism, comfort, and working in a 9-to-5 job, getting promotions, and retiring no longer provide the purpose or even sustainable physical foundation upon which to live.  Most of us sense this dying but don’t know what to do.

We need to learn to die well and become transformed for the better.

Butterfly cells as a metaphor for death and rebirth

Most people imagine a caterpillar slowly and beautifully changing into a butterfly in the shielded comfort of a cocoon.  The reality is far different.

New cells, called imaginal cells, form in the cocoon as if from nowhere.  These imaginal cells are so different that, even though they emerge from within the caterpillar itself, they are attacked as invaders.

Eventually the number of imaginal cells are too great to be countered, and they prosper and clump together to form the specialized parts of the new butterfly.

Cutting open the cocoon midway through development, you see not an orderly transition but rather a mass of ooze-like cells engaged in a struggle.  The old cells die, but not without a fight, and the new cells emerge to complete a most remarkable metamorphosis.

So it is with our lives. The death of old ideas and ways is a valiant one, a noble struggle, which vets and tests the mettle of those new ideas and ways that emerge.

Old ideas, habits, social markers, and conventional wisdom do not yield gracefully.  They fight to remain alive before they eventually die.  We, of course, do not literally die with them, though it can sometimes feel like we have.  We remain.

Learning is facing, choosing, transforming, and creating

Few people flat out “want” to die.  But learning to transform involves consciously preparing for the death of obsolete ways that may appeal to our psychological desires for security but work against our practical requirements for the future.  A caterpillar yields to a natural process of change ending in a completely new entity.  We must face, choose, and create our change processes to do the same.

I outline these processes of comprehensive transformation in some detail in the areas of economics, education, and spirituality on this blog, guest posts, and a soon-to-be released book on the future of economies called “Transforming Economy: Moving from Corrupted Capitalism to Connected Communities.”

These essays identify evidence that business as usual is definitively ending and being replaced by new, emerging forms:

Economy: Mantras like “buy, buy, buy” and “jobs, jobs, jobs” don’t cut it anymore.  We are reaching the material limits of our environment in our overproduction of goods and financial limits in terms of debt.  Automation has erased jobs, even as the population has grown.  Lifestyle and meaning dependent upon these blind articles of economic faith are bound to die with them.

We are being invited to produce rather than simply consume.  We are being called to contribute meaningfully to our communities and families without necessarily having a paying job. Non-material goods like learning, diversity, conversation, progressive faith, creativity, and problem-solving are starting to emerge as new sources of value.

Education: Schools are being pressured to produce more students who succeed in the aforementioned obsolete economic model.  So even if those students succeed, overall they fail, because the purposes of schooling do not match up with emerging trends.  Education reform has yet to grasp the crux and enormity of change gripping our world.

We ask students to delay direct contribution to society for nearly two decades (counting the years from elementary school through university graduate education).  This is a waste of learners’ minds, just as mindless consumption is a waste of the environment.  “Direct learning,” the application of the learning mind directly to concrete community problems starting from an early age would be a welcome change.

Spirituality:  Mainstream churches are aging fast and losing members at staggering rates.  Young people are simply finding many conservative churches too intolerant and many liberal churches too irrelevant.

The fastest growing category in Western countries is “spiritual but not religious”.  Young people are looking for experiential environments that demand their involvement and leadership and that prepare them for this life of change and not simply the next life.

Deeper looking

When presented with physical death, we typically put our house in order, giving away what we cannot take with us.  We put the important before the urgent. We put the fundamental issues of love and mourning before the pressing trivialities of committee meetings.

This is not simply an ideal we need practice when we are about to leave this world.  It is a practice we can cultivate now, by surrendering what can no longer be maintained and opening to rebirth—the rebirth of a new person, a new awareness, a new society, and a new reality.

If we look more closely into our lives, we can gain insight into facing the shadow of physical death.  We notice that dying is itself a change ending in a new form of life.  We practice this by engaging the present shadows in our psyches—fear of change, fear of vulnerability, fear of not being what we thought we were.

We realize upon deeper looking that we never were what we thought we were.  We are a work in progress, as much created as creating.  Our job is to keep that conversation between creating and being created continually moving.

Ask yourself: Are you playing “not to lose” a mortal life that is already lost when you were born.  Are you clinging to your fragile condition?  Are you trying to freeze time and fortune in a “sensible” (but somewhat senseless) job or a comfortable rut musing about the “good ole days?”

Try something fundamentally new.  Lose the life you cling to in order to gain a life that grows within you.

If you like this essay, please subscribe for free up at the top of the Citizen Zeus home page. I will notify you about upcoming essays on transformative learning and give sneak peeks into my upcoming book, “Mindflexing: Unleashing the Power of Transformative Learning” as well as information on how to access “Transforming Economy:  Moving from Corrupted Capitalism to Connected Communities.” Thanks!

by Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Ph.D. January 28, 2013, copyright 2013 (please feel free to share for educational or personal purposes)

  • dougbrong says:

    For sure the US and Europe are in a state of denial, and the people we chose as leaders are not encouraging people to think about alternatives.

    We live a fantasy where we are told that the status-quo of cheap energy, ever growing consumer demand, and recovery of the housing market is right around the corner. As one person said: “Our leaders are reality deficient.” I believe the real people in charge have a lot to lose if we don’t maintain the status-quo.

    Take the case of statistical misreporting from government agencies: the unemployment rate falls (because more discouraged people drop out of the work force), while more people go on SNAP and SS Disability. Right now in California there are 137 people receiving some sort of monthly payment from the government, for every 100 private sector employees!

    Eventually the truth will catch up, but by then this behavior will have eroded our trust in the government.

    Lastly we are becoming debt-serfs. With 16 trillion ( 16 x 10 **12 ) National Debt + 90 billion ( 90 x 10 **9 ) of monthly QE (printing money) from the treasury. All of this debt – just trying to get back to the status-quo. Children are now born into significant debt! Add to that the non-discharagable student loans – young people will never get out of debt.

    It’s obvious there’s no logical reason to sustain this system. The problem is how are we going to transition 330 million people? It’s not like you can just ‘drop out’, or grow a garden, or volunteer, that’s just a small part. We need a vision to go to. Something which our leaders are not in tune with.

    I’m afraid we are going to continue chasing the status-quo until reality hits us in the face. But since we have nothing to transition to – a lot of people may suffer.

    • Doug, Great points on all counts. You bring up three particularly pressing barriers around proactive transformation in the face of an unworkable system.

      1) The “reality-deficient” (your words) status quo rarely chooses to give up its power or share its resources even in the case of clear failure, and in fact will try doubly to reassert old ways when it is challenged.

      2) Even those struggling under the status quo rely upon mechanisms of denial (like debt and making minimum payments) to psychologically put the need for change out of our minds (perhaps because they are overwhelmed with coping).

      3) The sheer enormity of the change is a barrier. As you say, “[H]ow are you going to transition 330 million people?” (and that is just in the United States, forget the rest to the world)!

      But that is what this blog is for, attracting people who are enlightened members of the status quo, willing to risk and think something new, members of the middle and working classes who are ready to face their personal situations and share in problem-solving (finding what we need to face, choose, transform, and create), and cultural creatives who embrace the process of transformation as an adventure.

      Effective change starts with small, vibrant communities who have done the work on themselves and band together to do work in society. My experience is that there are more people out there like that than we think. Therefore my main focus is not just to identify barriers but to offer personal and social education to lower and/or transcend those barriers in creating a new world.

      In short WE are the imaginal cells I talk about in this essay, and we are engaged in a fulfilling struggle in a time of change. Great crisis equals great opportunity, and from a life standpoint, you can’t get any richer than this!

      Thanks so much for your comments,

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