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Sitting with Death
On my recent flight from Hawaii back to the mainland, I had a Death reminder.
As I attempted to relax on my flight, someone sitting near me had a medical emergency. It was one of those moments—you know the kind—when something happens and suddenly you remember that you too will die.
While the flight attendants rushed around to gather the medical professionals on board, my own muttering mind came to a clear and vivid halt.
As the lady in the back of the plane continued to receive medical assistance, our plane then ran into intense, jarring wind turbulence. Bouncing around like a paper kite, I could literally feel Death sitting on my left shoulder. Just resting there. Grinning perhaps. That gorgeous, shuddering reminder of how short our lives really are.
Since reading Carlos Castenada, I have attuned to this idea that Death sits over our left shoulder. In that moment on the plane, Death showed up in one of its most classic garbs: a raven. He was so real I could almost stroke his soft, glistening black feathers, see the shine in his dark gleaming eye, feel the soft pulse of his heartbeat…Death’s heartbeat?
Death emerged as the theme of the week, returning to the mainland to witness the beautiful death of leaves in fall, darkening days, and my beloved Halloween, or Samhain, around the corner, when the veils grow thin between this world and the next.
And then I faced another marker on the journey of Life and its partner, Death. A few days later my father was suddenly admitted into the hospital for major surgery, turning the wheels of my mind and heart to the recognition of all that passes. The surgery went well and he is on his way toward recovery; still, I realized it’s actually quite remarkable how often we go about our days without even touching into this knowing or, better yet, making friends with Death.
I am 39 years old and have had my own check with mortality reality, cancer at age 19 and the loss of my baby daughter when I was 26. These two experiences have defined my view on Life and Death, a great gift that reminds me to come back to present moment, to stay in gratitude.
The ticking clock of our bodies continues to remind us that we will soon dissolve from this life back into the next. Daily we are offered reminders of this truth, and yet why do most of us continue to scurry and procrastinate as if the future waits with a promise?
Even when we have the huge reminders, how many of us return to our daily lives ignoring the very real truth that one day we will pass away?
In my Buddhist practice, contemplating death is a kind of requirement. In The Four Reminders, we contemplate the preciousness of life, the reality of death, the truth of karma and the suffering of samsara. This is an opening practice and lays the groundwork for all other practices in Buddhism. To get very comfortable on first how precious our life is and then that death is certain and may come in any moment.
It may seem morbid at first, but it is really the most profound and necessary practice. Why? Because it’s the ultimate truth and facing Death, helps to minimize the wildly chaotic mind stream that is so often fueled by ego, emotional highs and lows, things that just truly don’t really matter…let alone exist. I like to check in with: Will this matter in 50 years? Will this relationship/person/problem even exist?
It’s tricky though because how do we confront Death and not be complacent? After cancer, I was on fire for a year. After the death of my baby daughter I lived in a state of depressive pointlessness for a year. Imminent, possible demise has a different effect on all of us in each situation. However, allowing ourselves the time and practice to mine the terrain of loss, grief and death we certainly find the richest spiritual gems.
On my birthday this year, I unplugged for five days and headed to Mt. Shasta with my beloved. No phone, no social networking, no job… I did yoga at dawn, made love with my partner on the earth, climbed to brilliant, high alpine meadows, drank mineral rich, sparkling water and on the morning of the third day, it dawned on me: I was going to practice the art of living as if I had only one year left on earth.
I had recently discovered this practice in Noah Levine’s work Dharma Punx where he mentions his father’s book, A Year to Live. While in Hawaii I discovered A Year to Live on my friend’s shelf and have been putting it into place. Practices in the book help us to step fully into life by welcoming Death and all that comes with it: fear, hopelessness, the need to come to resolutions, dealing with avoidance.
When I stepped into the practice at sunrise on my birthday, I looked Death square in the eye and felt more alive than ever. I felt a deep commitment to live my best life, as if this year were my last, as if this month, this week, this day, this breath were my very last.
Our lives are fleeting; we get 80 or so years, at best, and likely many of those years will be challenging, or have problems, sickness, and heartache.
Although I have been someone to follow my heart with great passion, I realized in that moment and in the last weeks, that I could open up wider, deeper, and be even more loving. Take risks. Be kind anyway. I can celebrate and stay in joy. I can relax into the wonder that is life and all its forms and relations and the dance of beauty that is ever around us. That I don’t really have to worry, or fret…that I have a choice.
Every moment is a choice and in the Face of Death, I choose Life.
The immense freedom that follows is wild and wonderful and many things suddenly don’t matter as much. In the vivid clarity that came with that plane ride and news of my father, I quit a couple jobs, made a deeper commitment to my work and writing, made sure to tell my beloveds how much I care about them. I seek peace and resolution in the disharmony and find it within, in a restful place of truth and recognition that everything that rises will also fall away.
Here’s to Death, here’s to Life.
Author: Katalin Koda
Editor: Travis May
Photos: Flickr/Hartwig HKD