This has been one of the hardest blog posts for me to write. It is difficult to write about death when there are so many different views about death from various philosophical, spiritual and religious perspectives. It is even more difficult to confront the reality of your own death – accepting its inevitability and the impermanence of life on earth.
Our concept of death develops as we grow older and its inevitability becomes part of our consciousness. However, there is a real taboo about talking about, or thinking about, death. We fear death and avoid it – but we cannot avoid its inevitability despite the stories we might tell ourselves to stave off the fear of death.
The benefits of meditating on death
One of the primary benefits of meditating on death is to overcome this fear. Annie Robinson, for example, suggests that mindfulness can “ease our fear of death and dying” – it can also help to reduce the pain, anger, grief and denial that occurs with dying. Other authors support this view and add that meditation on dying enables us to better assist those closest to us with the process of dying.
One of the really strong and lasting benefits of meditating on dying is appreciation for the life that we have to live – valuing each day as the first day of the rest of our life. This encourages us to live mindfully in every aspect of our life – to value nature, our freedom, our friendships, our gifts and talents and our close relationships. This was the very clear message of Holly Butcher as she confronted her imminent death from cancer.
What people value when dying
Mathew O’Reilly, a critical care, medical emergency technician, spoke during a TED talk about his experiences in helping people who were very near death as a result of an accident or a natural disaster. In his early career, he felt that he needed to lie to these critically ill people who had moments to live to protect them from the fear of death. Once he decided to tell the truth about their impending death, where there was nothing that he could do for them, he found that the majority of people faced their death with peace and acceptance.
What he found too was that three things were important to different people at the time of death:
- wanting forgiveness
- wanting to know that their life had meaning
- wanting to be remembered (even by Matthew and his team).
Meditating on death
Pursuing three questions
One form of meditation on death is to pursue the above three things for yourself. You could ask yourself one or more of these following questions, thinking about how you would respond at the time of death, if you knew it was imminent:
- Who do I need forgiveness from – who have I neglected or caused suffering to?
- What meaning does my life have? What have I actually contributed to make this world a better place for others, near and far?
- What will I be remembered for?
Writing your own obituary
Some mindfulness experts suggest a form of meditation on death is to write your own obituary. Lux Narayan, in his TED talk, shared his experience of reading 2,000 published obituaries of people who died. What he found was that both the famous and not-so-famous did extraordinary things to help make society a better place – “they made a positive dent in the fabric of life”. He asks that we consider how we are using our talents to help society so that our obituary will reflect the “positive dent” also.
Buddhism Nine Points Meditation
Buddhism offers Nine Points Meditation on Death which reflects the foregoing discussion of what people value at death and what obituaries say about people who have lived a meaningful life:
It is vital that when we die, we will have as many positive imprints—which will bring good experience and as few negative imprints—which will bring suffering—on our mind as possible. Also, we should aim to die at peace with ourselves, feeling good about how we lived our life, and not leaving behind any unresolved conflicts with people.
The nine points meditation on death explores this rear-mirror perspective after helping us to confront both the inevitability of our death and the uncertainty about the timing or means of our death. It concludes by reminding us that, as we live, we still have time to live a life that is “meaningful, beneficial and positive.”
Mindfulness of Death Meditation
WikiHow provides a detailed Mindfulness of Death Meditation that covers the potential distractions (in part, generated by discomfort with the topic of meditation), explores the reality of death and your feelings about it, and assist you to identify ways to improve the wellness of your life here and now.
A Death Meditation method
This is a detailed meditation on death that involves relaxing your body in the first instance, then imagining the dying process with energy progressively leaving all parts of your body, then identifying the real self that remains and following this with reintegrating with your body. This can be a confronting meditation initially but lead to a sense of peace and relaxation. The author suggests that you first read about preparing for the death meditation.
As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death, we can achieve a level of peace and acceptance and, at the same time, increase our motivation to live our life in a positive, helpful and meaningful way.
By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)
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