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Preparing my mind for the death of my body and what comes after

10/11/2013

People think that only others will die.
They forget that sooner or later they will, too….
Make the one word “death” master in your heart,
observing and letting go of everything else.
~Suzuki Shosan

Life is impermanent like a bubble on water that can be burst by the wind. ~Unknown

The Last Time
The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward
and took my two hands in his hands and said
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.
And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t
And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.
And he said, No, I mean know that you are.
~Marie Howe

I’m 70 years of age and what have I learned if anything in my quest for first-hand knowledge ? A little back information. I realised when in my teens that I was one of the Buddha’s sons. How I knew that remains a mystery to this very day. I can’t explain it. At the time there was little if any information to hand about Buddhism. Yet I knew, and continue to know. I discovered a path (bhavana) of meditation and spiritual practice. At first, I meditated because I wanted to reach enlightenment. As I got older, I practiced to be happier in the here and now. Now, I practice for my death. But I have cranked up the fire—ardency—in preparing my mind for the death of my body and what comes after. Death—the unknown, oblivion, infinity, darkness, and fear itself. To understand that the purpose of my life is to prepare for death, and that preparing to die is inseparable from preparing to live.

Mahler wrote Symphony No. 9 in D Major knowing that the end of his life was near. His fourth movement represents the five psychological stages of death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; heart-wrenching tension followed by ever-so-sweet resolve. The reality of death is a painful truth. It is what gives life its bittersweet taste, its mystery. But this is how things are, and for a time in depression we get to see without the blinders we usually wear. We have the chance to make a conscious choice—much like the person who marries someone who is dying. Though life will end in death for us, and for everyone, we can jump into this world and live in it fully. We can keep in our minds and hearts the awareness that death and impermanence are what give life its preciousness, its beauty. Thus feel your sacred anxiety about the existential truth that life is fragile, death is real, and any moment could be your last.

The Buddha exhorted his disciples to reflect on death—to use it as the ultimate prompt to practice now, in this moment; to practice every day. To stoke the fire before it’s too late. To prepare ourselves to make skilful choices in the moment when we leave this body. The same things that impede meditation are those that cloud our view at death: pain and emotional distraction. The better we master these fetters in life, the better chance we have of forgoing them at death.

So I have two strands of preparation to follow: training my mind and getting my worldly affairs in order. The two complement each other. The more I act and think in line with the dharma, the less likely I’m to put off making decisions that will ease the dying process for my loved ones and myself, that will make me less burdensome, as the Buddha admonishes us to do. And in arranging temporal things—making wills, assigning health proxies, researching and sharing my wishes for end-of-life care and for the preparation and disposition of my body—I make it easier for myself to drop the attachments and patterns of thinking that muddle a skilful approach to death and dying.

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