I used to be quite the risk-taker when I was young.
“You have to die of something!” I’d exclaim as I’d light up that cigarette—or, even worse, pop that mystery pill at the party, not even aware of what I had just taken.
This is a common sentiment among most risk-taking young adults. They are so willing to pay lip service to the fact that death is inevitable in service of justifying some of their most ridiculous decisions.
Death, at that point in our lives, is an abstract concept that seems so far in the distance, it becomes an easy thing to laugh about.
For me and a lot of my friends, our lifestyles changed dramatically as we journeyed forth into middle age. We stopped drinking, we stopped smoking, we stopped eating meat, and we began exercising—all in the interest of prolonging our lives.
Longevity became a hot topic.
In many ways, these changes are quite commendable, yet they still represent the principle of tanhā—the desire to have everything go as we would like it to.
In order to be truly free of all desire—or as Buddhists call it, the unquenchable thirst—we must learn to become unquestioningly comfortable with death, right now.
Try to imagine the following:
You are rushing out the door on your way to work, today. You take your last sip of coffee, you jump in the car, and get moving. Your favorite song comes on the radio as you start to wonder if the clouds forming above are foreshadowing afternoon rain.
Suddenly, you feel a terrifying jolt, and everything goes black.
Amidst ear-splitting sounds of metal and glass shattering, tires skidding, and your own screams, you are enveloped in the tangled mess of a destroyed vehicle. You come in and out of consciousness, and you can hear this burly E.M.T. wonder aloud if you’re gonna make it as they try to extricate you from the wreck. You can feel yourself getting weaker and losing consciousness again, and in your inner mind, you finally realize that it is quite possible this could be the end of your life.
I’ve used this mind movie as the beginning of a death meditation, and, depending on the success of my cogitations, it can feel quite real.
There is a story where the Buddha once sent his monks to the charnel grounds, the site used for the putrefaction of bodies prior to cremation. He had them study the decomposing bodies. He instructed them to meditate on the thought that this was the inevitable fate of us all, that they too would share.
The body is going to die and decompose—and none of us can escape this.
Now obviously we don’t have to do what the monks did, but there is a certain wisdom in death meditation. Even the ancient Romans practiced what they referred to as momento mori—remembering that you will die.
When we begin our morning meditation with reminding ourselves that it could be our last day, something magical happens to us. We tend to not waste as much time with the sad minutiae that we once did prior to taking up this exercise.
I know for myself, the things that once drove me to despair soon had little or no effect on me once I began my death awareness practices. I began to savor my time on this earth in lieu of frittering it away with the trivial.
There are some steps we can add to this meditation to make it even more meaningful:
1. First, familiarize yourself with Atisha’s Nine Contemplations.
Atisha was the great spiritual teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet. The following were his contemplations on death:
>> Death is inevitable.
>> Our life span is decreasing continuously.
>> Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
>> Human life expectancy is uncertain.
>> There are many causes of death.
>> The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
>> At the time of death, our material resources are not of use to us.
>> Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
>> Our own body cannot help us at the time of our death.
All of these tenets seem quite obvious, but something incredible transforms within us when we take a few minutes each day to remember these and keep them in our conscious thoughts.
2. Second, teach yourself to begin to say, “Goodbye forever.”
In the incredible book by Toni Bernhard How To Wake Up, she describes the teachings of Buddhist Mary Grace Orr. When Orr took leave of people she loved and cared about deeply, she would think to herself, Goodbye forever.
When you stop assuming that your interactions with those you love will go on indefinitely, it really takes the wind out of the need to be petty and nit-picky. Bernhard describes how she started this slowly with her old dog Winnie, and as she became more adept at this, she extended the thoughts to her other loved ones more and more.
This is something we can all try. I know for myself, when l took leave of my children’s mother and kept this thought at the forefront of my mind, I became a lot less interested in whether or not she was dating someone else and how that made me feel. It made me look at her with the most compassion I’ve ever felt in my life, and almost choke up with gratitude for the years we had spent together.
3. Finally, add a “life review” to your meditation.
In Stephen Levine’s A Year To Live, a captivating book about spending a year as if it were your last, he speaks of spending time in contemplation and conducting a “life review.” Essentially, he suggests going through your days in your mind chronologically, and “spending time” with each important person as you go.
“With gratitude and appreciation we invite each person from the past individually into the heart and open a dialogue with them. Such conversations lead to deeper conversations and tend to become quite revealing. After you have shared a real connection…thank them…bid them farewell.”
I have done this practice a few times, and I find it very freeing.
I know, as a matter of hard fact, that we in the Western realm deal with quite a bit of negativity and low-level depression entirely because of our blind denial of death.
This becomes obvious when we are able to read interviews with people who are on death row or who are terminally ill. The drastic shifts in their priorities and agendas are often bittersweet, however, because they always seem to have happened a little too late.
This is why death meditation, as lugubrious as it sounds, is not at all morbid.
It is necessary. It is a meaningful and often beautiful way to honor life.
Author: Billy Manas
Image: Isabell Winter/Unsplash
Editor: Callie Rushton