There is a phrase from Carlos Castaneda’s book Journey To Ixtlan that has haunted me for decades. “…turn to your left and ask advice from your death.” It was part of a conversation Castaneda had with the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan Matus. The phrase is part of a powerful passage that I had to look up in the book just now:
“You have to be aware of the uselessness of your self-importance and of your personal history. Your death can give you a little warning, it always comes as a chill. Death is our eternal companion, it is always to our left, at an arm’s length. How can anyone feel so important when we know that death is stalking us?
The thing to do when you’re impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death.
An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you.
The issue of our death is never pressed far enough. Death is the only wise adviser that we have.
Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet.'”
Years later, I became aware of Castaneda’s alleged lack of candor and scholarship regarding his supposed apprenticeship to don Juan Matus. That the don Juan books are fiction and not anthropological non-fiction. The truth of the matter is that I gleaned a lot of wisdom from Castaneda before his later teachings exploited darker New Age beliefs.
It was the wisdom regarding the matter of death that motivated me to ponder and investigate the meanings behind Castaneda’s words. It is not morbid curiosity, but more like a meditation on life that continues this drive.
A common theme in the don Juan books is the futility of what we do to uphold our importance. The sorcerer tells his apprentice that if we lose some of our self-importance or egoism that we could free our mental energy from maintaining our illusions of grandeur and that we would be able to more truthfully see the actual grandeur of everything else around us. If we remember that we are just a breath away from dying, this realization is easier to envision.
At one time or another, most of us might have suspected that we are foolish impostors. We didn’t take responsibility for the strangeness of living in this mysterious world. We find ourselves at odds with society and the natural environment. If we finally realize that we don’t need to have an adversarial relationship to the world, we soon discover how incredibly unfathomable, awesome, and amazing life is.
When we meditate upon death in a wholesome way, we realize just how precious all life truly is. This gratitude reminds us to make all of our actions count. There is the aching realization that because we only exist on Earth for a short time span, we can never experience all the wonders of the Universe with all the many forms of life that inhabit it.
When we know that death can be our most influential advisor, we don’t want to waste our time and throw away our lives. We understand the preciousness of life in a very deep and joyful way. We become less passive about our lives and become more active. We rediscover our rightful place as responsible, human beings.
Death awaits. Who knows whether what we are doing right now could be our last act on Earth? Is this the essence of mindfulness? What will be our legacy? Death can be a great advisor that we consult to fully be alive.