Imagining Our Death
Review and Setting the Context
We're still on Verse 4:
"By contemplating the leisure and endowments so difficult to find and the fleeting nature of your life reverse the clinging to this life. By repeatedly contemplating the infallible effects of karma and the miseries of cyclic existence, reverse the clinging to future lives."
This verse talks about the two levels of renunciation that counteract the two levels of clinging:
- Clinging to this life (which swirls around the eight worldly concerns)
- Clinging to future lives, i.e., to any kind of happiness in cyclic existence
Taking This Meditation to Heart
There are two antidotes to the clinging to this life:
- Contemplating "the leisure and endowments (freedoms and fortunes) so difficult to find" helps us to value our life and to seek higher purpose and meaning besides the eight worldly concerns.
- Contemplating "the fleeting nature of your life" (i.e., impermanence and death) also helps us let go of clinging to the things of this life.
Sometimes we approach the topic of death very intellectually. But when we really apply the reality of death to ourselves and those we care about, it has a very strong impact on our life.
- Much of our security and identity is wrapped up in our bodies. When we no longer have this body, who are we going to think we are?
- Consciousness doesn't end at death; it has continuity. What happens to our consciousness when it's no longer associated with this body?
- How are we going to handle rebirth somewhere else without this current body and current ego identity to fall back on?
The Shock of Death
Death almost always comes as a surprise, even a shock.
- Even people in the hospital don't think they're going to die today.
- People who are going to have a heart attack or stroke before the day's over have no idea that's going to happen to them.
- We just go on our merry way thinking we're going to live forever and not really taking care of our karma, not taking care of our minds. Then all of a sudden, death comes.
Keeping on Top of Our Lives
We have to be prepared to die at any time. Are we ready? Are things in our lives really settled? Do we have a sense of peace about our lives so that if we had to die quickly, we would feel OK about it?
- We need to keep on top of our lives.
- When something goes wrong (or we do wrong), we need to clean it up right away, purify or resolve it in some way, because death really can come at any moment.
- Ex: If we quarrel with somebody, resolve it quickly and don't let it fester. So many people have lingering regrets and suffering because somebody died before they could patch things up.
Think of the karma we create by being attached, angry, resentful, spiteful, etc.—all this suffering we set ourselves up for.
- These negative attitudes arise because we haven't remembered impermanence and death and we think we're going to live forever.
- If we remember death:
- What's the use of being angry with somebody?
- What's the use of being attached to something?
- The recollection of death acts as an incredible antidote against defiled states of mind.
- This, in turn, prevents us from creating negative karma and encourages us to create good karma.
- Then, at the time we die, we don't have any regrets. We can make that transition peacefully.
Meditation: Imagining Our Own Death
We can imagine our death a little differently each time we do this meditation.
- Imagine not feeling well, going to the doctor, and finding out you have a terminal disease.
- How would you feel about your life, i.e., what would be important if you knew the end was near?
- How would you really feel? Who would you want to tell? How would you deal with all their opinions and advice about what to do, with those who "freak out" so you end up taking care of them, etc., when you're trying to deal with your own emotions?
- So you can make these kinds of scenes in your meditation, e.g., ask yourself if you're equipped to deal with all the interpersonal stuff plus how you feel about yourself dying.
- We all have feelings that we still want to do this or that. We live our lives with a sense of time and a future. All of a sudden, it doesn't look like there's going to be a future. How do we then feel about our lives, when we have to cut out that idea of having a future?
- How will we feel about dying with our potential having not been actualized?
- We have this aspiration for enlightenment, yet we are where we're at. We can't pretend we're further along the path than we are.
- When there's a sense of future, we think we can just continue progressing along the path, and later on, we'll develop some realizations or gain more concentration or do more purification.
- When you receive a terminal diagnosis, you realize you won't have that time. So what really is important? How will you spend the time you do have? Can you accept the level that you're at on the path right now, even though you wish you were further along?
- How have you spent your time thus far?
- How have you been making use of your precious human life?
- Here we can fall into the trap of guilt-tripping ourselves, which is really just another way of wasting time.
- So then we look at our habitual mental states of how we blame ourselves for not making better use of our lives. Or is there a way to accept where we're at right now? Is there a way to keep on practicing with a hopeful and enthusiastic attitude, but also very accepting of what we're able to do and not able to do?
- We hear of so many deaths, all unplanned. So we ask ourselves, "Am I ready to die and let go of everything? Or do I feel that there are many things in my life I need to take care of? Have I told the people I care about that I care about them? Have I apologized to those I've harmed? Have I forgiven those who have harmed me? Am I holding old grudges?"
- We need to look at our own mind and feel peaceful about leaving this life.
- If there are things we feel guilty about, we need to resolve them and let go of the guilt itself. Guilt is not a virtuous mental state. It's a useless emotion, but it can be habitual.
- How will we feel, losing our bodily strength and function, losing our independence, having to accept other people's help for even the most basic things?
- Will we feel angry, humiliated, and take it out on those who are helping us?
- Can we accept help gracefully?
- How will we feel when our mind gets confused?
- It's hard to practice the Dharma even when we have a head cold.
- Are we going to be able to take refuge even at that point of mental confusion?
There are a few points of doing this meditation.
- We might realize that the sense of a big "me"—who's in charge and can handle everything—is a total delusion.
- When we're really honest, we humbly realize that we're not going to be able to handle it.
- We realize that the only way to be able to handle it is through practicing the Dharma right now.
- Use that as something to encourage and push ourselves to practice, even when we're lazy and want to procrastinate.
- We may realize that we're not going to have it totally together when we die.
- So we start to think how we might think or practice when this happens.
- Ex: We might think, "What would HHDL do?" and come up with, "Just be kind."
- As we do this meditation, we look at what kinds of emotions come up as we learn our diagnosis, or as our body loses strength, or as death nears, as we hear people in our hospital room whisper untrue things that we can't respond to, etc.
- We think how we will practice under those circumstances, how we'll gracefully accept help without shame, etc.
- We also consider how we'll deal with others' reactions and fears about my death, or people coming to visit talking about trivial matters, or people turning away from us out of discomfort, etc.
- Use this meditation as a way of trying to imagine and be honest about the possible internal attitudes and emotions that could come up. Then apply the Dharma to handling them.
- This gives us some training and practice.
- When the time comes to die, we have some practice to fall back on.
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