In Buddhism we meditate on death.
It may sound morbid or like a downer to you, but hear me out. Death is the only thing that we know for sure is going to happen, and yet it is the only thing that we don’t think is going to happen today. Right now we can think about death, but we don’t believe we are going to die (at least not right now), therefore we are disconnected from the preciousness of this life.
Meditating on death is said to leave the deepest impression in the mind. It is likened to an elephant’s footprint because it moves us to a place of practice. The death meditation is our spiritual alarm clock. It’s our wake up call to start living each day as if it was our last.
I remember the first time I heard this teaching. I was new to Buddhism at the time. Heck, I was new to meditation for that matter. The teaching was being given at a church in New York City by a nun that I had never seen or heard of, but was told was very inspiring. I went in, a little apprehensive. Hundreds of people had come to hear her speak on this seemingly random night in the middle of the week. I had no idea what the topic was going to be about.
She kept telling us we could die today. We all know this deep down don’t we? We all know we could die, but we don’t believe today will be the day. We just keep going about our lives as if it was an event far off in the future. Even when we are on our “death” beds, we still don’t believe we will die today.
I went home from the teaching feeling full of hope. Sounds weird right? The truth is that I was really unhappy with certain circumstances in my life at the time. I had recently gotten divorced, I was working at a job that was uninspiring to say the least and I barely had money to make ends meet. I had been feeling like a failure.
But when I got home that night, I was inspired to dream about what I wanted my life to look like. If I died today, would I want my last moments of this precious human life to be unhappy? If I died today, would I want to have anger, jealousy, resentment or fear in my mind? The answer was a resounding no.
The other day, my husband and I took a motorcycle ride.
We were on a busy interstate and traffic suddenly came to a screeching halt. The sound of squealing tires was all around us. The smell of burning rubber instantly made me feel nauseous. A big tractor trailer in the next lane felt as if it was careening toward us. We were completely exposed and came within less than an inch of smashing into the car in front of us. We swerved onto the shoulder to avoid collision. My heart was beating out of my chest as I braced myself for what was about to happen. A huge sigh of relief came when it didn’t. And then, I started to breathe again. Tears of gratitude sprang from my eyes. The woman in the van behind us pulled alongside us and put her hand on her heart. Her eyes spoke the words, “I’m so happy you are okay.” We kept moving along to our destination. We didn’t die that day. We hugged each other tighter that night.
When I got home, I called my mom to tell her I loved her. She told me her sweet cat had died that afternoon. She was crying as she recounted the story of watching little Zoë’s helpless body give way as she was trying to feed her. She felt bad, and said if she had known her sweet cat was about to die at that moment, she wouldn’t have disturbed her by trying to get her to eat. She would have just allowed her to continue to lie there and be peaceful.
The truth is we don’t know when our moment of death will come. It could be today, or tomorrow, or weeks, months or even years from now. But when we allow ourselves to meditate on our death, it inspires the sweetness of life.
It allows us to appreciate every moment and every experience we have, even when these are challenging and not what we expected. It reminds us to be loving and spread kindness to others. It helps us to actually see and connect with that woman behind the checkout counter, to spend more time enjoying the quirkiness of our loved ones, and to stop the negative self-talk that can sometimes get stuck on a seemingly endless repeat cycle.
After all, we might die today.
Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Rutz / Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: Iron and Air Facebook page