The Art of Dying: Part 1 of a 2 part meditative study on death and dying
Taking time to reflect on death is essential to life. Meditation on death is a primary motivating force in any spiritual practice. Why is this so? Because to contemplate your own mortality will serve to liberate you from that which is not essential in your life and will enable you to focus you on what is most essential. It will encourage you to feel more urgent and conscientious about your life, more sincere and aligned with your spiritual intention. It can move you from conceptual realty to ultimate reality -- from conceptual ideas and beliefs about life to the ultimate truth of direct experience. When we reflect on death, we are motivated to ask some profound questions of ourselves and it becomes easy to see how meditation on death facilitates transformation. Basic meditation practice, even for beginners, will always lead us to examine the areas in our lives where we are most stuck or deeply attached, where we are most anxious about living our life.
Contemplating death forces us to ask hard and revealing questions of ourselves. Questions like, what do I really believe? Am I living my beliefs? When have I not forgiven, and when have I not apologized? Who have I loved well and who have I not? Who have I shown appreciation to and to whom have I not shown gratitude? What fears do I still nurture and how have these fears effected the quality of my life? Am I living (or have I lived) an authentic life? Am I true to myself and to others?
We need to confront our own mortality now, while we are consciously alive. If we don't do it by choice on our own terms the time will inevitably come when we will be forced to do so on death's terms. Death is an ever-present truth that we all must face and accept. Accepting our own mortality is also a form of liberation. It releases us from the limits of ego. It teaches us to focus on what's essential, while releasing us from that which is not. When death is contemplated, it can be an uplifting and positive experience by spurring us into ever present awareness, wakefulness. This is a level of awareness we may have never experienced before. It is awareness without the illusion of a reference point to self or ego.
Contemplating death awakens our presence to each moment of precious human life, each breath of wakefulness. It helps us prioritize what is truly important, which then enables us to more properly shape our intention. Meditation on our own mortality will provide a deep mental imprint that will provide us with the most powerful fuel available for spiritual practice. Simultaneously, meditating on death opens us up to the gift of life. When discussing the need to contemplate one's mortality the Christian saint Augustine councils us "die daily”. The Buddhist tradition offers us much to reflect on about the art of dying, Buddhist texts, in fact, tell us that there are three important and spiritually healthy ways to die. Before we outline those specific ways, let's consider some relevant information about death and the art of dying.
If we identify exclusively with our ego, we will always have a fear of death. Quite understandably, our ego fears the cessation of itself, thus its insatiable desire for permanence. Ultimate reality informs us that the egoistic sense of self is like everything else in our universe, an illusion and transitory. If we have lived our lives thinking that we are bound to this illusion of sense of self, our predicament is tenuous to say the least. The mere thought that this notion of who we think we are may suddenly slip into total oblivion or non-existence is terrifying to be sure. The notion that we can concretely be and suddenly not be at all is hard for us to wrap our heads around, to grasp let alone accept and live with.
On the other hand, when we identify with our true nature which is soul or spirit, the fear of death begins to dissolve because we are now identifying with that which is eternal. In Buddhist terms, this is our Karmic life force which is impermanent, ever transforming and all encompassing consciousness. This is what psychologist Carl Jung aptly described for us as the "over soul" or "collective unconscious". Jung points out to us that we are not human beings with a soul, we are souls who are now human beings. Interestingly the Buddha shared this same finding, he tells us,
"You do not have a soul, you are a soul, you have a body."
Soul, in this respect, is defined as life force. In the Bible book of Genesis, when the animals boarded Noah's Ark they are described as living souls.
When we identify exclusively with our egocentric sense of self, we may be at first overwhelmed by the psychological stages that lead to our death experience. Without proper guidance or understanding of our true nature, our death experience may be extremely frightening and difficult in this respect. That is why a healthy understanding of the death experience is so essential for us going forward into this transformational time in our life. The psychological stages we will all experience in one way or another leading up to our own death are chaos, surrender and transcendence. Being aware of these stages beforehand offers us time to reflect and prepare.