Monday, May 7, 2012

Practicing with Death and Dying

Death and Dying, A Contemplative Meditation

It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.
–Woody Allen

The aim of our spiritual journey a life without greed, anger and delusion. And these three: greed, anger and delusion, are at the core of our fear of death. Until we successfully address death as an event and issue, it’s unlikely we will be able to live with any meaningful level of peace and contentment, with any real off-loading of greed, angerand delusion.

What we know from observation in general, as well as in our meditation, is that we are impermanent and ever-changing. When we model this out into the five aggregates or the 12 links of dependent co-arising, we see that we are an ever-so-slightly different person from moment to moment, both physically and psychologically. If we can understand and then on a deeper level realize this, that we die and are reborn in each moment, death loses its grip on us. We see from this that life and death are just labels, just our stories about when something begins and ends rather than what is really happening, that everything is ever-changing and undifferentiated.

Finally I realized there is no death and I relaxed!

Coming to know that I am reborn in every moment, that I die and am reborn thousands upon thousands of times a day, has allowed my to understand that there is no death, just a process. A process that is simply the natural state of things, no more, no less. And certainly there is no reason for me to make the natural state of things into a personal problem by convincing myself that it should be other than what it is.

We all know that we are getting old and will someday die. But that understanding is so weak and underdeveloped that on a weightier level we are able to see ourselves as solid, substantial, somehow permanent–certainly not a process. Even our language hinders us in thinking about and talking about dying: there’s no way to die in the present tense. Dominique Bouhours, the late 17th century French grammarian, put it this way in his last words:

I am about to–or I am going to– die: either expression is correct.

When we understand our impermanence and interconnectedness with everything: then and only then are we fully present in each moment and fully engaged; then and only then can we let go of the arrogance and conceit of my life being, my life being so important, my life being more valuable than the lives of others, and the delusion that my life is so important that it shouldn’t end. When we understand our impermanence and interconnectedness with everything: then and only then do we realize that there is only arising (birth), abiding (running our course), and ceasing (death); there is no death.

Our fear of death stems from the fear of our ceasing to exist, our fear of losing our identity and foothold in the world, our fear of not being here. And this fear is so deep that it prevents us from seeing all the tell-tale signs of death approaching; it is so strong that we spend billions on everything from beauty creams to botox to stop getting older, to slow the march toward death. Instead, what a spiritual journey tells us we should be doing, is to prepare for death.

“How can I Prepare for Death?”

In the broadest terms, we prepare for death by living skillfully, by living in ways that in each moment make us and our families and friends, our communities and our planet a better and more peaceful place. We do this by living wisely, with moral discipline, and through meditation. Living in that way requires a conviction to ripen our inner potential purely for the benefit of others and without defiling our efforts with craving, clinging and attachment.

Contemplative meditations on death are an important tool in learning to die peacefully, and with ease and grace.

Contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are important because it is only by recognizing how precious and how short our life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully and because by familiarizing ourself with death, we can remove the fear that is so haunting.

The aim or mark of a spiritual practitioner is to have no fear, not now and certainly not at the time of death. People who practice to the best of their abilities in each and every moment will die, it is said, in a state of great bliss. In other words, the more diligent our practice, the less death is an issue.

Here’s a traditional Tibetan meditation that looks at the certainty and imminence of death and can help motivate us to make the best use of our lives. Consider making this a regular practice.

The practice is known as the nine-round death meditation, in which we contemplate the three roots, the nine reasonings, and the three convictions:

Root One: Death is Certain

1. There is no possible way to escape death. No one ever has. Of the current world population of over 7 billion people, virtually none will be alive in 100 years time.
2. Life has a definite limit. And although it is not defined, each moment brings us closer to death. We are dying from the moment we are born.
3. Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected. All that separates us from the next life is one breath.

First Conviction: To practice the spiritual path, to cultivate positive, wholesome mental qualities and abandon unwholesome, negative mental qualities.

Root Two: The Time of Death is Uncertain

4. The duration of our life is uncertain. The young can die before the old, the healthy before the sick, etc.
5. There are many causes and circumstances that lead to death, but few that favor the sustenance of life. Even things that sustain life can kill us.
6. The weakness and fragility of one's physical body contribute to life's uncertainty.
The body can be easily destroyed by disease or accident.

Second Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay; to practice as though our head was on fire.

Root Three: The Only Thing That Can Help Us At The Time of Death Is Our Mental/Spiritual Development (because what goes into your next life are the karmic imprints we have accumulated in this life)

7. Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money can't stop death
8. Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go with or for us.
9. Even our own precious body is of no help to us. We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk, an overcoat.

Third Conviction: To work with great diligent on purifying body, speech and mind, without staining our efforts with attachment to worldly things and concerns.

My own experience with death leads me to suggest that starting here with the three roots is safe and doable. Try contemplating each of the roots, each of the nine reasonings, and each of the three convictions for an hour or so once a week, and in a few years, or a decade or two, when they have settled in and you have come to some sense of meaningful peace with them, consider finding a teacher who can guide you more deeply into other practices on dying and death, such as the meditations on decaying bodies that is a traditional part of the Theravada teachings, or the more advanced Tibetan practices that have developed this area of Buddhism into a deep and profound practice and science.

Email through our website if you have any questions about practicing with death and dying.