The truth of this was brought home to me recently when a friend was ill and it gave me cause to meditate on my own past illnesses. I realized that at least when I’ve been ill, I agonized because I feared for the future and I feared death which turned into huge relief when I rounded the corner in my recovery.
As always, it was my thinking mind, it was my thought, that caused my anxiety, not the physical discomfort of the moment. And that anxiety makes it very difficult to be present let alone free of the intervention of thought.
Why are we so fearful of death, which is such a natural part of the life cycle? We fear death because of the images of death we have from our learned experience. When we are children, the grim reaper and horror stories strike fear in our hearts. As we grow older, the actual images of death that get imprinted on our brain, whether from the photographs of harrowing death from disease or violence that we see in the media or from our experience with relatives who have died a long and often lonely death, are unsettling if not scary.
Further, we fear death because we fear pain. So many of the images of death that we have stored in our learned experience are embedded with agonizing pain. It is rare for us to experience either in person or in the media a peaceful death, a “good” death.
When my partner of many years died at the end of a long illness, I received a phone call from the hospital ICU telling me that a blood clot had moved into his lungs and that he was gasping for breath … I needed to rush over. By the time I got there, he was dead. And while I was sorrowful not to have been there at the very end for him, I was grateful that I was spared the experience of watching him gasp for breath, dying what would appear to be a very agonizing claustrophobic death which would have forever been imprinted on my mind. Instead when I got there he looked peaceful and at rest.
We also fear death because of the great unknown of death. What actually happens when we die? Is there really a hell and will we suffer there for eternity? Will we be reborn? Is it all just over and there’s nothing? We do not deal well with uncertainty partly because it scares us and partly because it is something over which we have no control.
As a Buddhist, we learn that all these perceptions are illusory, that our skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence. Every image that we have of death, regardless how real it seems, is not a reflection of what it means to die because the reality of death is unknowable with the power of mind. We cannot know what it feels like to die. I know, for example, that my partner died what was most likely a physically unpleasant death, but I have no idea what it felt like for him. I know he was tired of suffering … was death a relief to him, did he have a flash of peace at the end? I just have no way of knowing.
The one thing that we do know is that death is a natural and inescapable part of life. The Buddha taught that everything that arises must fall. That is certainly true of birth and death.
If we free ourselves from these images by understanding their illusory nature … again, yes we saw what we saw, it happened, but what the experience was really like we cannot know … then we have no thoughts of death; we experience it directly and have no fear of death. It just is. We know that it can come at any time … tonight or in many years. But regardless when or how, we will be ready because we have not lived our life ruled by fear.
As with many things, expect the process to be an incremental one. At first, your understanding of these things will be mostly intellectual, but even so it will provide you with the ability to distance yourself somewhat from the neuroses of your thinking mind.
But as your practice deepens, you will come to understand the emptiness of all five skandhas directly, in your gut and heart, and you will be able to be present free of the intervention of thought. Then you will truly be at peace because the acceptance of death is perhaps the ultimate surrender of your ego to your true Buddha nature and turning you will and your life over to its care.
But as with all aspects of freeing ourselves from the known, this does not mean that your thinking mind will not arise with the fear of death again. We cannot retrain our thinking mind, nor negotiate with it. All we can do is learn to discern the difference between what it, our ego, is telling us and what our true Buddha nature tells us. And when our ego or thinking mind arises, acknowledge it, have compassion for it and where it is coming from, but firmly say that that is a function of the past and that you are now looking to your true Buddha nature for guidance.
While I have thought about this topic and discussed it in the past, I never made it an active part of my practice. And so the fear continued. But after my friend’s illness, I decided that I needed to incorporate the reality of death into my daily practice.
I had once read of a monk who each night turned his cup upside down in recognition of the fact that he may not wake the next morning, that death can come at any time and that he was prepared. Taking my cue from that practice, I have a picture of my family on my nightstand which I now place face down before I go to bed.
Then I say, "I do not fear death because I know it is a natural part of life. I know it can come at any moment and when it does I will be prepared for I have lived a good life. I have offered others joy and have made a difference in others' lives.
That provides me with a moment to face the possibility of death without fear and to be at peace with death. And when I wake up the next morning and turn the photo up, it provides me with an opportunity to realize that this is a new day, a new opportunity to offer others joy and help relieve the suffering of others.
As a postscript several years later, my mother is now 106 and is in a very slow process of dying, of withering away. The other day while meditating, I was one with her and the image came to me of her retracing her steps through her earlier stages of life, going back ultimately to being a baby in her mother’s womb. And I knew that death is a state of being at one with the universe once again, for the first time since we left that womb.
What a comforting image. One more reason not to fear death.