Actively Dying

Truth is one. Sages call it by different names. ~ Rig Veda

“How do you get closer to your higher power?” I asked thousands of locals, fellow travelers, nuns, tour guides, babas, lamas, sisters, bruthas, swamis, deacons, zen masters, chai wallahs, taxi drivers on my five-year, five-continent journey.

Top Timeless Travel TomesAs I listened to people describing how they build and maintain a healthy relationship with their higher power, commonalities became apparent. If each person’s answer were a dart, they began to group into nine or so clusters.

The techniques and practices, while often adapted to a culture or an environment, were more striking in their commonalities rather than their differences.

The sectors of spiritual practices I observed are:

Prayer and meditation encompass many different practices, though similar veins of maintaining silence, recitation, conversing and petitioning cross cultural and religious strata. Whether chanting on the Ganges or singing during vespers on the camino, prayer and meditation is a helpful technique for most of the people I talked with.

Sacred spaces or holy places such as temples, mosques, synagogues and churches are all unique in design and denomination, however along with mountains, childhood treehouses, neighborhood beer gardens and spots on a beach, all fit into this category. Certain places exude certain energy, like the temples of Bagan, Myanmar, a family roadside wedding in Vietnam, or my happy place in Trindade, Brazil, and can serve a role in approaching one’s spiritual practice.

Charity and volunteerism are common threads in spiritual practices. From local to transnational, the act of serving or providing for others takes on inestimable permutations. I met volunteers and benefactors at a cardiac clinic for Tibetan exiles, building solar water pumps for rural schools, detonating unexploded ordnance with cheap robots and helping in Mother Teresa’s hospice.

A sense of ritual and something to rely on, in religious rites or through a sacred text like the Quran, Bible, On the Road, or any of dozens of others, the truthiness of the Words was a recurring theme. This category of practices centers around the desire to have something certain and immutable, a Tao-like foundation rooted in constancy. At one end of the spectrum is the orthodoxy of Mount Athos or the construction of permanent monuments.

Physical activity, through yoga, walking, running, skydiving, capoeira, climbing — these practices clustered around improving the physical body to get closer to a spiritual one. The particulars of the activity varied, though having an activity proves to be essential for many people. During months at an ashram in India, or trekking various sacred routes, even the joy of bungee jumping showed me how people incorporate this type of practice into their spiritual path.

In addition to the body, practices around ingestion embraced or shunned certain foods and preparations — halal, kosher, vegan, pescatarian, carnavoyeurs — the rules and mindfulness around what one ingests bridges large divides. Dietary rules in the Greek Orthodox monasteries were too complex for me to understand, and I was asked to leave a temple of Shiva in India because I smoked bhang in a way I later found out was inappropriate.

Arts and sciences form another highway to heaven. Artists and other creatives frequently mention their medium as the mechanism to reach a higher place, be it through music, dance, art, mathematics or scientific endeavors to know the unknown. The scientists at the Large Hadron Collider found the God Particle, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia found a higher place through design and the Whirling Dervishes dance to reach a transcendental level.

Having a spiritual mentor or guide also came up frequently, as some of these paths have been walked before. In some cases this was a formal relationship with an organizational elder, in others a brief encounter with intention. I sought out some in India, was disappointed with another in Myanmar, and was freaked out by a few more in different places.

Love and Community is the final cluster, centering around a feeling that being a part of a community or in selfless love is the most direct route, acknowledging that there is something greater than the self. After years of travel, the times I’ve spent in one of my groups or with my loved ones clearly show me this avenue.

Actively Dying is my story and the basis for this interdisciplinary approach based on my varied history. It is also the story of a transformational journey catalyzed by the study of death and dying. Lastly, it outlines a framework some might find helpful — much like an individual investor can create a personalized financial portfolio, a thoughtful person can thoughtfully select practices from these clusters and try to be spiritually promiscuous.