Professional athletes train for significant events. Weightlifters rely on strengthening their core; yoga practitioners also build a stable and flexible core. One day you will deal with death. Why not be prepared? Failing to think about death is like running a marathon without training. You might make it, but it is going to be exceptionally painful. Like the marathon, death will probably still be difficult, but with some specific training, you can rely on your core to help you face your own death or navigate the loss of a loved one.
You may think, “I’ll deal with that when the time comes.” That is your right. However, again, this is like choosing to run that marathon with no training. Even though you rarely even jog around the block, you go out there and attempt to run all 26 miles and 385 yards. You might make it to the finish line. But it is going to hurt.
Death is difficult, and some of us come from a culture in which we turn our heads away from death. We grit our teeth and get through it. As you move through life, you will have more and more experiences with death. You can choose to accept this as part of your life, or you can spend more time in denial. Do not waste your energy.
Make the day not-in-vain,
a little or a lot.
the day passes,
that’s how much less
Your last day approaches.
This isn’t your time
to be heedless. (Thag 6.13)
The clock is ticking. The date for that marathon approaches. An athlete follows a training program designed to build his or her strength and endurance. Each part of that program is geared toward setting him or her to participate in a specific event successfully.
Suppose you faced the death of a close family member at an early age. Consider revisiting your training and consider becoming a coach to others.
If you were introduced to death more conventionally, perhaps, as a child, you dealt with the loss of your favorite pet. Then, later, a grandparent. Or one of your friends had a death in the family. You have begun your training and now it is time for you to get back to work.
Training Level One: Impermanence
If you follow the lesson on impermanence to its natural conclusion, it is not just your thoughts and emotions that are rising and falling. Everything is rising and falling. Every one of us rises and ultimately falls. It is important to remember that everyone is going to experience death.
Recognize that everything will change. We are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. Old age is a gift. The more you can become comfortable with the knowledge that you cannot keep everything and everyone you love, and that you cannot avoid the things you do not enjoy, the closer you are to the end of suffering.
It is not just good times and bad times that will pass; we will too. It is useful to work with the phrases, “We too shall pass.” “I too shall pass.” “Mom and Dad too shall pass.” “[Beloved friend/partner] too shall pass.”
It is not about whether you and your loved ones will die. It is about when you and your loved ones will die.
Training Level Two: Keep death in mind
You would do well to spend time considering death and thinking that today could be your last day. That this could be the last day of someone you love. The purpose of this practice is not to dwell in a place of morbidity but to appreciate the preciousness of the life you have been given. To be born as a human being is a gift. In this lifetime, you can practice the Dharma. After you die, you might lose this opportunity.
You can save yourself a tremendous amount of pain with some preparation. You do not have to walk around obsessed with death; just hold the possibility of death in your thoughts.
Think about death throughout your day. Use death as a meditation device. Consider the phrase, “Today could be my last day.” Death is just one of many experiences that make up a life. It is neither good nor bad. It just is.
One way you can make it easier is to accept death as an integral part of life. A way to accept death into your life is to allow yourself to think about it. Don’t turn off thoughts about losing others. Don’t turn away from people who have experienced loss. Be part of that experience.
Ignoring people who are sick does not make them well. Refusing to acknowledge death does not make you or anyone else immortal. The more you wish to avoid suffering, the harder it will be. And the more you crave or want for the people you love never to have to leave you, the more difficult it will be when they do.
Training Level Three: Practice the Five Contemplations
The Five Contemplations combine a healthy recognition of impermanence with death awareness. See? Like a good training plan, level three is drawing from the foundation you built for yourself in levels one and two. Most of the Buddhist monks and nuns that I know chant these contemplations every day. Place these contemplations where you will see them and remember to recite them. Please pay attention to these words and the impact they have on you. Use them in your meditation practice.
“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?
“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.
“‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’. . .
“‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’. . .
“‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’. . .
“‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’” (AN 5.57)
Training Level Four: Meditate on death
Meditating on your death and the death of your loved ones is beneficial. It is also challenging. That is why this is level four of your training plan.
When my father told me that his lung cancer was terminal, I meditated on his death. Not so much on the actual moment of his death, but on the fact that he would die, I meditated on him being dead and how I would feel about it. I shed many tears, but it helped me to wrap my head around the fact that he was dying. I used the same approach when my husband was dying.
Long before you have a loved one with a terminal diagnosis, you can develop a solid maraṇasati or mindfulness of death practice. In the Satipatthana Sutta (MN: 10), instructions are given on how to contemplate the body as a body that has been disposed of in the charnel grounds. And remember that just as that body has met various stages of decay, so too will your body. Your body is no different from that body in the charnel ground.
The Kāyagatāsati Sutta (MN: 119) teaches mindfulness of the body and again refers to charnel ground contemplation to remind us of the impermanence and dissolution we all face.
The Maraṇasati Sutta emphasizes the importance of the mindfulness of death. Not just because it makes it easier for us to deal with death, but because it reminds us to be more dedicated to our spiritual practice.
These are not hidden teachings, they are commonly taught in many parts of the world, yet they could be new to you. And if that is the case, remember to seek out a qualified teacher and practice with your local Buddhist community.
Take this training plan and give it a try. Make adjustments that will make it more useful for you. Note that I did not say make adjustments that will make it easier for you. You do not run a successful marathon based on a series of easy sprints.
And know that each time you encounter death, your experience will be a bit different. And if you approach each death from a place of openness, you will improve your practice. You will become stronger. Please remember to keep up with your training. You are not finished until your last race is run.