Since the Buddha’s time, many different ways of meditating on death have been devised in Buddhist communities. In their religious rituals, Tibetan Buddhist monks blow ceremonial horns made of human bones, and they sometimes eat their meals out of bowls made from human skulls. In the temples and monasteries of Thailand, one will often find pictures of skeletons hanging on the wall. They might depict, for example, a middle-class family—father, mother, and child—with half of each body clothed and face smiling, while the other half is a bare-boned skeleton.
In some sense, the act of mindfulness meditation itself could be understood as a practice of dying—to each moment. If you get good at it, your last moment will be easier. Mindfulness meditation can also be thought of as learning to let go of the ideas we have about ourselves, and those may be all that are holding us together in the first place.
Contrary to what most people might believe, meditation on death is not about morbidity or denying life. Many meditators report that contemplating death brings them a renewed appreciation for being alive. Suddenly, this very breath can seem to be enough. After reflecting on death, one’s life needs no other justification than itself.
As you reflect on death, you might acknowledge that it is not only you who dies but everybody and everything. Death happens to people, cities, civilizations, knowledge, and fashions, even planets and world systems. Scientists believe the universe itself will either die in what’s known as a “cold death,” thinning out into nothingness, or in a “big crunch,” collapsing into a very dense point or singularity. Which do you prefer?
In some sense, the act of mindfulness meditation itself could be understood as a practice of dying—to each moment.
When you contemplate your personal death you might also consider that from the perspective of quantum physics, there is no such thing as death. Matter-energy continues to dance on through space-time, moving to its own rhythms, oblivious to whether we call it one thing or another. Everything is alive and continues to live, whether it has your name on it or not. However, that knowledge may not be much consolation, especially if you are very attached to your current name and form.
Nothing is ever at rest—wood, iron, water, everything is alive, everything is raging, whirling, whizzing, day and night and night and day, nothing is dead, there is no such thing as death, everything is full of bristling life, tremendous life, even the bones of the crusader that perished before Jerusalem eight centuries ago.
–Mark Twain, Three Thousand Years Among The Microbes
Each of us humans goes from womb to world to tomb and, some would say, back to start again. Every ending is also a beginning, and death must lead someplace, perhaps back to life. And, of course, we know that without death for a comparison there would be no such thing as life. Death is indeed one of our best friends. And with friends like death, who needs enemies?
Not to Be: Death Reflection
Without being mindful of death, whatever Dharma practices you take up will be merely superficial.
–Milarepa, The One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa
Close your eyes and bring your attention inward. First establish mindfulness of your body, becoming aware of its shape and weight, its warmth and vitality.
Bring consciousness to the pulses of your breath and heartbeat, one pulse gathering in energy and the other pulse pumping it throughout your body. Be aware of your strength, and that you can hold your body erect as a result of these pulses.
Next, take a few minutes to become aware of your current state of mind. Check in on your mood and your thoughts. Are you curious, anxious, impatient, contented? Remember that death may come to you in an ordinary living moment, just like this one. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you were making some long-term plans or worrying over some trivial pursuit?
Now begin to imagine that you are in the final process of your dying. Sense that the muscle of your heart is weakening and beginning to slow down. Imagine that in a few minutes your heart will quit beating, your blood will stop circulating, and due to a lack of oxygen and other nutrients your flesh will begin to grow weak. Imagine your entire body growing heavy and lifeless. Meanwhile, your mind, having recognized death at the last minute, will probably be running quickly through scenes from your life, an experience that those who have survived describe as rather chaotic. Finally, all the thoughts and images will begin to disappear like a fading radio dimming out into static and white noise.
As you imagine your death, what feelings arise? Is there an alarm going off in your chest? A systems alert lighting up in your head? If you can truly imagine your death, chances are you will begin to hear some strong signals. Your survival brain speaks loudest when death is hanging around.
It is quite possible that when you imagine the death of your body you will feel deep sorrow or fear. Whatever emotion arises, let it be there in mindful awareness for a few minutes. Let the feeling become as strong as it wants to be, even exaggerate it if you wish. To reactivate this feeling or to make it stronger, once again imagine your body dying.
Bring your awareness back to your breath for a few minutes to reestablish mindfulness. Then turn your attention to your current plans, concerns, desires—the issues of your life at this particular time. Then again return to the feeling that in a few minutes you will die. All of this mental life that you call yours will disappear—all the thoughts, political opinions, financial schemes, jealousies and vendettas, regrets and sorrows, everything you had to get done this week—feel all of that floating away into nothingness. When your body dies, so will your mental life.
Does the fear return? What other emotion accompanies the imagining of your own death? Regret for things not done, life not completed? Experience these feelings, hold them, let them grow, explore them.
You may want to do death meditation lying down. Then you can let your body go limp, sinking into the floor or ground. You can even imagine that you are on your deathbed or in a coffin.
If you happen to feel a sense of happiness or relief during the death meditation, it doesn’t mean you are a self-loathing individual. In fact, as a separate reflection you might even try looking at the upbeat or brighter side of death.
Once again, establish mindfulness and imagine your body dying, only this time realize that after death you no longer will have to struggle with gravity. You will no longer have to work in order to pay for shelter or to feed and fuel this particular form.
What a deep rest it will be! No longer do you have to react to the stimuli of the world (at least not in this form or this world). Furthermore, the demands of your needy, vulnerable, and all-too-human personality will be ended. You won’t have to satisfy it with special experiences, or struggle to make it happy. You will get to take a long rest from reacting to yourself. Although no one knows for sure what happens after death, some reports of near-death experiences describe it as delicious peace. Maybe we have nothing to fear from death but nothing—and nothing is the best thing that ever happens to us.
Before you bring an end to any of the death reflections, be sure to return your awareness to the breath and heartbeat, at least for a few minutes. Once again experience the pulses of life. Feel the warmth of your body telling you that metabolization is continuing; feel the strength of your muscles and flesh, your ability to hold yourself erect and move your limbs. Feel yourself come back to life.
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