In a world obsessed with avoiding the symbolic and literal manifestations of death or dying, meditation on death is a courageous act.
Let’s start by facing it: we hate death.
We place our faith in doctors, lawmakers, soldiers, and policemen to stave off death for us and our families. We quarantine the sick and the terminally ill, often removing them from our sight entirely to focus on the more pleasant, vivacious aspects of living. We doll up corpses and censor combat footage and don’t allow our eyes to linger on roadkill.
To the average person, death is something obscene, something distant, something depressing that evokes fear by merely existing and burdening our consciousness. This is a natural reaction, and certainly one well-explored in psychology and biology, but it is utterly dismissive when we consider the inevitable and universal presence of death.
We will all die; everything and everybody we know will also die.
Many of us would like to erase that knowledge from our minds. But this aversion to death is truly a luxury granted by a sanitized world. We are all living in a fortuitous yet strange period in human history, many of us in fortuitous yet strange societies, that do not witness or parade the brutal reality of death. For long periods of time, we can even ignore the idea of death, or of dying, or of others dying. We can labor on with our lives under the delusion that while death might be out there somewhere, it will not come to us, nor to the ones we hold close.
But we all know, somewhere in our psyche, that we will die.
What’s the point of meditation on death?
Even if by some miracle of technology we manage to avoid the death of the body, we will still suffer psychological death in one way or another. Our idea of who we are and what we possess will die. We might call these “small deaths,” in that they destroy some conception of who we were and thrust us into a new, unfamiliar life.
Parents whose children move away to college often feel bereaved, in some sense, and I suspect that their turmoil is not only for the child. It is because they have, effectively, died as the parents of a child. They have returned to the world they inhabited prior to the child’s birth.
The Buddha correctly identified death as one of the major fears that plagues our life. We fear and abhor this death, he said, because we are ignorant of reality. We do not understand that death is a constant thread woven throughout life, binding together all beings in all forms of existence. We believe that we may outwit or escape death if we strive hard enough. This is where meditation on death comes in to rock our world.
The Buddha believed that nibbana, commonly rendered as nirvana, was a state beyond death. Note that it was not phrased as an escape from death, but a refuge beyond the idea of death itself. We need not think of it as heaven; in fact, we need not consider it to be anything at all. Our minds are incapable of understanding its true reality because we are too entranced in the “dream” of life, too swept up in its rising and falling motions.
To reach this state of total equanimity and peace, however, we need to incline our minds toward that which we resist. We need to stop adding fuel to the fire.
In this case, death can be considered a source of tremendous suffering. When we make it a problem, a fearful aspect of living, we are not truly alive—we are running from a tiger we cannot escape. Thus, to ground ourselves in life, we must learn to die before we physically die. We must be willing to surrender our common ideas of what’s worthwhile in this world.
Maraṇasati, or mindfulness of death, is a Buddhist practice that aims to make us familiar and comfortable with the process of dying. For this reason, we can also term it a meditation on death. By reflecting frequently on the fact that all living things, including ourselves, must die, we gain several precious insights into reality.
One such insight is that death should not be feared, per se, as it’s the natural conclusion to a situation that begins with birth. If we fear the inevitable, we will spend our entire lives cowering. The second insight is that we must focus on our minds on what truly matters, and what’s truly good. We are fortunate to be living as human beings, capable of seeing, experiencing, and changing the things that cause us suffering. Animals lack this awareness of death, and we might say that this unconsciousness strips their lives of some degree of meaning.
Being human—fully, passionately human—means taking advantage of our awareness and all that it entails.
How to meditate on death
To practice maraṇasati, begin by sitting in a comfortable position in a relatively quiet space. Turn your attention toward your breath. Notice that each breath begins, sustains itself, and then dies quietly. We may call it an exhale, but it is death nonetheless. Once you’ve stabilized your attention on the breath, you can begin contemplating the various aspects that comprise your body. You are made of flesh, hair, bones, mucous, cartilage, blood, and so forth.
Look at each of these aspects and think about the fact that they are constantly replaced within you. Someday, they will not be replaced. They will decay and dissolve into the soil. If you can stomach it, imagine these components decaying.
Next, contemplate the fact that death is within you. Not that it will happen someday, but that it is happening now, that you are moving ever-closer to the death of the body every moment. Look back at the breath with this in mind. Watch it moving in and out, cultivating gratitude for the fact that you are still breathing.
Then begin to envision that each inhale and exhale is your last. Focus on them intensely, reminding yourself that it will be your last. Allow the breath to slow and lengthen, bringing you to a deeper state of peace. Dwell in this space as long as possible, returning to the breath and then the ensuing tranquil ground should you become distracted.
Meditation on death may seem morbid, but it is perhaps the most important training you can undertake. If performed on a regular basis, it will not only change the way in which you spend your time and allocate your focus, but it will prepare you for the moment of actual death, should you be fortunate enough to remain lucid and experience the end of this life. In such moments, we fall to the level of our training. If we have repeatedly experienced each breath as our last, then we will be able to enjoy the peace of our actual last breath with untold clarity.
To learn more about meditation on death or other forms of meditation, consider reaching out for a free consultation.