As I heard today of the news that Dean Potter had died, I felt a sudden pang of sadness. But almost immediately the sadness faded away, as I silently celebrated an honourable death and a life well lived.
All men die. But not all truly live. Dean Potter lived the life of a thousand men.
Potter is best known for free soloing (no ropes, one mistake and you die) some of the most difficult and dangerous routes on earth, and taking his dog Whisper base jumping and climbing with him, strapped to his back.
He achieved fame for his mind bending free-solos in Yosemite and Patagonia and he repeatedly set records in wingsuit-BASE-jumping and high-lining.
My wish is that Dean Potter goes down in folk-lore not just as a record breaker, but as a human who grabbed life by the balls and was prepared to risk it all to experience the edges of life that only few others will ever know; as a warrior who pursued the rawness of life at the limits, and was prepared to continuously transcend his fears of dying so that he could fully cherish the experience of living.
Living is Dying
From the moment we are pushed out into this world we begin dying. Is that a sad or morbid fact? Only if you choose to see it that way. Dying is living. Living is dying. The duality of life, the dance of the Yin and the Yang. You can't have one without the other.
When we learn to embrace death we can get busy with living.
In the classic book Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Casteneda, the wise Shaman Don Juan urges Carlos to be-friend death:
“Death is the only wise advisor 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.”
In a world of uncertainty, the infallible certainty of our eventual earthly demise is a wonderfully solid fact from which we can decide how we wish to live. It can be a launchpad to our greatness.
Do you choose to run away from what challenges you? Well in the context of your looming death, perhaps you might choose otherwise. Perhaps you might choose to to face your fears and experience the profound growth that only occurs beyond the safety of your comfort zone.
Do you choose to put off for later what you know deep down you should be building your life around now? Well my friend, death is just around the corner, so don't be such a fool. Do it now. This is the gist of Don Juan's blunt wisdom.
The Exquisite Beauty of Death
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.
In the way he lived and died, Dean Potter was a modern day Samurai warrior.
For the Samurai of ancient Japan, to die well was the zenith of life. Much of their life was spent in preparation for a good death, and they would spend time meditating on death so they could mentally and spiritually prepare for its eventual coming.
Like the cherry blossom that falls from the tree, a Samurai meeting death with honour at the prime of his life was an event of exquisite perfection.
Jisei is the Japanese word for a "death poem" that warriors and monks would often write in their final moments. The idea was that in those moments would be deep meaning and timeless profundity. The death poem contained important wisdom about life and was considered a gift to loved ones.
The spirit of the Samurai warrior was to treat every moment of life, as if it was a star shooting across the night sky: exquisite, yet temporary. Through their practice of deep mindfulness of death, they achieved profound awareness of life. And as Carlos Castaneda observed, “To seek the perfection of the warrior's spirit is the only task worthy of our temporariness”.
The spirituality of death consequence
For Dean Potter, his pursuit of the outside edges of experience was a profoundly spiritual quest. He wrote a few years ago:
“These mountain arts bring me peace, and I play in the void and come closer to understanding interdependence. Death Consequence reduces lesser motivations to the necessity, breath.”
Potter saw his movement art with "death consequence" as a spiritual practice. By spiritual practice, I mean a practice intended to connect him with the spirit within- call it soul, intuition, higher self, or whatever resonates.
Potter, like many mystics and monks before him, would break away from the trappings of society to seek out solitude and stillness. Before he free-soloed Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy in Patagonia he spent weeks in total isolation, immersed in nature.
Potter was training himself through solitude and meditation to tap into his inner voice, his intuition, his true self.
After his famous first free solo of Heaven in Yosemite, Potter said:
"What I felt on my freesolo of Heaven wasn’t like a fairytale. It was ultra real. One mistake meant splatter…Though sometimes I have felt like I’m above it all and away from any harm, I want people to realize how powerful climbing, extreme sport or any other death-consequence pursuits are…. I hope this footage of Heaven clearly shows the spirituality of it all as I offer up every last thing within me to become connected with the rock, the Big Valley, the mountain peaks and everything else that connects us."
Make death Your friend
I have observed people who have expressed disapproval sometimes bordering on disgust, when it comes to people risking their life in the pursuit of living their passions. They see it as pointless or selfish. What these people fail to see is that for some, living far beyond the comfort zone is the only way to live.
Here is the great paradox. When you live tucked up within the safety of your own comfort zone, whatever that may mean to you, this is not living. This is dying a slow and tortuous death. This is to deny oneself life.
I'm not saying we all should risk our lives in the way that Potter did. Our comfort zones are unique to us. We all know where our boundaries lie.
But like the tree that grows toward the sun, we all have an inner voice that guides us in the direction we should be headed in life. To deny this is to deny life. To put off what we know deep within us we must do now is to live in deluded immortality. You will die. Do it now.
Dean Potter was acutely aware of his mortality. Death was his friend, his trusted advisor who helped him live a life few men will match.