I was 26. I watched my fair complexion darken to grey, then black. The flesh fell off my skin in damp patches that were absorbed into the earth. Then I was bone. Those, too, deteriorated to fine grains that were picked up by the wind. And then I was not there. Where my body had been, there was only earth.
This was a guided meditation on death, led by a Buddhist monk, that I attended in the early aughts. My response to it was visceral. Disgust. Dismay. Fear. On some level, I just didn’t get it. I was young and healthy and beautiful and I was pretty sure that I was not going to die anytime soon and even if I did, it would probably be in some horrible accident. I would never witness this gentle decay of my body or the reintegration of it into the earth.
I filed that experience under WTF and never thought about it, which is what most of us do with thoughts of our own death. We don’t think about it. Or we think about it logistically and legally: Who will get my stuff and who will take care of my cats? The decay of our bodies is not our concern. It will be handled, chemically, by professionals.
But the truth of life is that our bodies are in a constant state of decay. We are always moving in one direction: towards death. We still haven’t figured out how to move in the other direction. This is true for all of us. “The two things we have in common with everyone else are life and death,” says my meditation teacher, Susan Piver, founder of the Open Heart Project. “Yet these two things—being born and dying—remain the most mysterious and miraculous.” The most profound mysteries of existence, in other words, are also the most commonplace, and thus, the easiest to ignore when they aren’t actually happening to us or someone we love.
But, like most things we avoid, our culturally-mandated avoidance of thinking about death might not be helping us. In fact, it might be hurting us. It’s not that you have a higher fatality rate if you don’t think about death, it’s just that thinking about death might make you happier.
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A University of Kentucky study with found that “thinking about death fosters an orientation toward emotionally pleasant stimuli.” The study, conducted by researchers C. Nathan DeWall and Roy F. Baumeister, found that “this occurs immediately and outside of awareness, a fact that may contribute to people’s well-documented failure to predict how quickly they will recover from upsetting events. We have shown that the common response to contemplating death is a nonconscious orientation toward happy thoughts.”
In kindergarten words: We think that thinking about death will make us think less happy, but in fact, it might make us think more happy. Our conscious minds don’t know that, though, so we consciously avoid thinking about death.
These cultural norms aren’t universal. The Bhutansese, commonly touted as the happiest people on earth, are expected to think about death five times a day. And the practice of death meditation is common across many Buddhist lineages. It’s called Maranasati, and in the words of the Buddha, “of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”
“I think [meditating on death] could make us a lot happier,” says Buddhist meditation teacher and bestselling author Sharon Salzberg, “We can feel free from so many of life’s irritations and annoyances and be truly in awe of the miracle of life and the time we do have. If we deeply see the folly of holding on, we can be much more in harmony with the flow of change.” We can potentially go against society’s message of ‘you must attempt to be in control of all things at all times,’ she asserts.
During a recent meditation led by Haiyan Khan, of Swan River Community Center in New Orleans, we were asked to consider what it would be like to receive the news that we would be dying in a year, in six months, in one month, and in a day. We were asked to contemplate what we would do with that time, who we would spend time with, and where we might go.
When I stood up from that meditation I felt like I had been gifted a massive reality check. I was keenly aware that not only do I have zero knowledge about when I might die, but that considering that I might die really soon changed my priorities enormously. Given a year left of life, I would travel everywhere, say goodbye to everyone, and change my life dramatically. Given a day, I would walk to the river with my dog and love the life that I have.
“When you confront death, it does help you put things in perspective,” says Lisa Cohen, clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. “It does help you see what’s really important and what’s not important. Things related to status, self-esteem, or markers of status become much less important and you focus on what’s really a priority. That tends to be relationships, finding meaning in life, and giving back to society. There is something to be said for confronting death to some extent.”
Cohen went on to qualify these statements, though: “It’s facile to think that just confronting death automatically leads to growth and there’s no downside to it. The reality is that death is horrific.” And while the Bhutanese may find happiness in confronting death, Cohen points out that happiness is cultivated in very different cultural conditions. We may not be able to cut and paste the practices of a very different culture into our own lives and yield the same results.
Traditional Buddhist death meditations, for example, sometimes involve visualizing the decay of our own bodies. For most Westerners, this is a genuinely foreign concept. We have no experience of seeing the decay of bodies. Other traditional Buddhist death meditations are less visceral. In the Kadampa Nine Point Meditation on Death, you move gradually from contemplating the inevitability of death to the inevitability of your own death. This can take place over several sessions, which gives the practitioner a little buffer time to come to acceptance of death.
From the inevitability of death, you move to contemplating the impossibility of knowing when death might occur, and then to meditating on spiritual awareness as the only thing that can potentially “help you” through death. The meditator is guided from accepting their own death and its uncertain timing and into a tool for coping, a.k.a. spiritual practice. The experience moves from the theoretical to the practical.
Still, meditating on death can also be psychological dangerous for some. Children, Cohen points out, often don’t have the context in which to understand death. And both Piver and Cohen agree that contemplation of death should be avoided for those with trauma or psychological instability.
While death meditation can be a potentially transformative practice, it is not one that we can adopt without deep consideration. There may be no right time to die, but there are better and worse times to contemplate it.
If you feel you’re ready and open to it, here’s an example of a low-trauma guide to contemplating death. I used my own experiences with death meditation as a guide for creating this one.
Take a notebook or your computer to a place where you can have both access to people and also a relative degree of privacy. It could be a park or coffee shop, or it could be your bedroom when your roommate is home. This semi-private arrangement is important in case you get anxious. This is not a meditation in the strictest sense of the practice. You don’t have to sit stick straight and imagine your corpse. This a reflection to help you get a more reality-based dose of reality.
Complete these sentences:
-If I had one year left to live, I would…
-If I had six months left to live, I would…
-If I had one month left to live, I would…
-If I had one week left to live, I would…
-If I had one day left to live, I would…
Read over your responses and answer these questions:
-How did your priorities and activities change as the length of time you had left decreased?
-What stayed consistently important to you across spans of time?
-What do you do in your regular life that didn’t make the cut?
If you want to do a traditional Buddhist death meditation, you should definitely do it with the guidance of a teacher. To simulate something similar at home, find someplace comfortable and private to sit or lie down. Your eyes can be open or closed. Bring your attention to your breath and allow it to stay with the breath for a few minutes. Then, visualize the teeming masses of people populating this earth. Consider the reality that each one of them will die. This is inevitable. Now, bring to mind the image of someone you know and love. Consider the reality that they will die. This is inevitable. Notice and allow yourself to feel any emotions that arise, but allow them to pass.
Next, consider the reality that you yourself will die. This is inevitable. You don’t know when or how it will happen. Notice and allow yourself to feel any emotions that arise. Notice any thoughts about what you wish you would have done or said in your life. Take a moment to consider how you can use this information to inform your life.
Let your eyes open and stop meditating. Take a few minutes to reflect, either by writing or just by thinking, on what you noticed about your response to the reality of death. Does it feel terrifying? Okay? Do you have huge regrets? When faced with the reality of death, what seems important?Consider how can you use this knowledge in your everyday life. Are your priorities where you want them to be? What can you do right now to get aligned? Make a list of three things. Pick the most important and get on it. Tomorrow could be too late.
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