Birth and death — the bookends to our existence. One, we get excited about and celebrate. The other, we dread and push away. The fear of death means that many people can’t even think about it, let alone discuss its harsh realities. In the West especially, our culture shies away from the topic. Yet it’s an unavoidable experience. One day, we are sure to die. One day, a loved one will pass. Death is a part of life.
Facing our own mortality can be uncomfortable and, for some, distressing. But when we befriend death — when we approach death mindfully — its force doesn’t necessarily derail us in the same way. The grief and pain are still deeply felt, of course, but we are better equipped to accept loss and make peace with death. In addressing the prospect of dying, we open ourselves up to every little nuance of what it means to be alive.
American author Terry Tempest Williams wrote: “Our fear of death enslaves us to the illusion that we will live forever.” It’s this illusion of permanence that mindfulness can help dissolve.
The best way to achieve a mindful death is to develop a mindful life. This way, we can better appreciate how fragile and meaningful life is, and therefore, we have more gratitude for the preciousness of every moment, every breath, and a life lived fully.
“Life is too short.” We hear it all the time. But how much does that truth change the way we live? Because if we genuinely reflect on that inescapable truth, then the years we are alive suddenly take on a sharper focus. We would perhaps be motivated to live a better life with more vigor and vibrancy.
Awareness around our mortality helps us focus on our approach to life, on who and what matters, on what’s worth fighting for … and what’s not. It might sound counterintuitive, but in acknowledging death, we become more alive. It puts everything into perspective.
Mindful death means facing death. By facing death, the idea is that we remove ourselves from the fear of death. Death is the great unknown — we don’t know the how, the when, or the where — and the mind tends to fear what’s unknown.
The majority of people — those who don’t work in the emergency services, the military, hospitals, hospices, morgues, funeral parlors, or graveyards — don’t encounter death in everyday life. So it requires a conscious effort to familiarize ourselves with the prospect of dying, in the same way we have to familiarize ourselves with aging.
When we accept our own time (or a loved one’s time) is fast running out and we need to make the most of our memories with them, we are more likely to discover a newfound appreciation when it matters.
Facing death can also be liberating. It can make us more compassionate as we weigh what arguments or grievances are worth holding on to. It may even be that we have been carrying the burden of shame or guilt for a wrong we believe we once committed, so there is more room to make amends, or to seek reconciliation.
Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, is a former Buddhist monk who lives by the words from one of his Tibetan teachers: “Keep death by your side.” The context for that quote is that we miss so much of our lives because we think it will go on forever, and so we take our days, our experiences, and our loved ones for granted. “But if we live with our mortality as a daily experience, we will live a happier and healthier life,” he said.
Death is the sequel to life — and true contemplation of this sequel leads to death awareness, otherwise known as “maranasati.” There are many forms of maranasati, each with different exercises and visualization techniques that are designed to lessen our fears and misunderstandings around death.
In the East, where Buddhism is an established way of life, death awareness is a long-held tradition. Maranasati is regarded as the ultimate practice of meditation; the ultimate resistance to overcome.
The central purpose of maranasati is to open our eyes to death in the same way a classic meditation opens our eyes to the richness of everyday life.
It is common for most people to walk around thinking that death won’t happen to them, or that death is something that happens to other people, as seen on the TV news. Consequently, it’s understandable why the mere thought of death can instill anxiety, sadness, sorrow, and the fear of loss.
But if we can learn to acquaint ourselves with death, we loosen the grip of fear and instead move toward acceptance. Maranasati helps get us to that difficult place; we get to better understand the normalcy around death. It affords us an objectivity that we couldn’t have known previously.
What’s more, maranasati encourages us to live more in the present. We find that we are not so interested in living in the past or imagined futures. The here and now takes on extra significance.
DISCLAIMER: Meditating on death is not for everyone, and should be avoided for those with trauma, severe depression, or psychological instability. If in doubt, please consult a healthcare or mental health professional.
We don’t need a terminal diagnosis to start preparing for a mindful death. And don’t worry — a meditation for the dying doesn’t hasten our own end or the death of a loved one. But it does help us become more emotionally and spiritually prepared. A meditation on death is actually a meditation on impermanence, change, and appreciation.
The best gift we can give to anyone in their final hours is to surround them with love. And if friends and family are so minded at such a difficult time, doing a meditation for the dying is a powerful way to bring about inner peace for everyone.
A meditation doesn’t have to focus on death; it can be a simple loving kindness meditation that holds a compassionate space for the person concerned. A meditation at such a time is likely to be deeply emotional, but it can also be a beautiful moment — a perfect way to celebrate a life, and be in gratitude for the life that has been lived.