[Exploring Life] “I may die today.” According to Buddhist teacher and meditation master Geshe Kilsang Gyato, this thought is an essential object of contemplation that serves to deepen our spiritual path. “I may die today” is a “non-deceptive” thought because it originates in a universal truth. Death in this context is not morbid, sad, or depressing, even though it may quietly invite feelings of discomfort, insecurity, anxiety and fear. To contemplate our own death is a pathway to living with meaning and purpose in the here and now. In other words, death can be one of our most trusted advisors in life.
Medical science has attempted to sanitize death and dying; we have a tendency to pathologize death, view it as a kind of failure, and attempt to render it invisible. We often try to ignore the message of death, quickly dismiss a meaningful conversation about it as being too morbid or gloomy, and avoid personal reflection on our own impermanence. Strangely, we are often willing voyeurs of death; we remain attracted by superficial portrayals of death in the media and entertainment all while we hide behind the electronic haze of our collective screen. Our education systems are remarkably silent and unresponsive on the topic of death and dying. Religious doctrine often attempts to assimilate death into a one-size fits all narrative of reward and punishment. We seem to have lost a meaningful relationship with our own death; it has largely become sanitized, depersonalized, and outsourced.
I May Die Today
In Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom, Geshe Kilsang Gyato identifies the contemplation of death as being fundamental to our spiritual development. That is to say, we must fully inhabit the reality of our own impermanence so that we may embrace the essence of being alive. It is very easy to comprehend death and dying on an intellectual level, but our depth of awareness and the sense of purpose we create from that knowledge often remains undeveloped. The felt-meaning of death and the wisdom it invites require cultivation.
Since our intellectual knowledge of death does not touch our hearts, each and every day we continue to think, I shall not die today, I shall not die today… This mind that thinks every day I shall not die today is deceptive – it leads us in the wrong direction and causes our human life to become empty.
- Geshe Kilsang Gyato in Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom
The approach of death is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. In ignoring death, we create of possibility of pursuing wrong direction in life and causing our human life to become empty. There is no assurance that we will wake up tomorrow, or if we will live long enough to enjoy our hard earned savings in retirement. When we find ourselves ruminating on the past or grasping wishfully at some imaginary future reward, we lose our awareness of the here and now. The contemplation of death is a practice designed to center us in the present moment. Each day is a brand new day, because it always carries the possibility that it may be our last day.
Contemplation: I May Die Today
I shall definitely die. There is no way to prevent my body from finally decaying (aging). Day by day, moment by moment, my life is slipping away. I have no idea when I shall die; the time of death is completely uncertain. Many young people die before their parents, some die the moment they are born – there is no certainty in this world. Furthermore, there are so many causes of untimely death. The lives of many strong and healthy people are destroyed by accidents. There is no guarantee that I shall not die today.
- Geshe Kilsang Gyato in Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom
The Hour of Our Death
Thanatology (from the Greek thanotos meaning death) is the formal study of death, dying, and bereavement. Through Georgian College in Orillia Ontario, I recently completed an Introduction to Thanatology course that is offered through the OntarioLearn Program. Most of the students in the course had experienced a significant loss in their lives and were engaged in thanatology as a means to try to understand their loss, explore their grief, and to search for meaning and purpose in the aftermath of loss. Many of the assignments required us to re-inhabit our personal experiences with death, dying, loss, grief, and bereavement.
In The Hour of Our Death (Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader 2004) Philippe Aries characterized the twentieth century as an age dominated by the concept of success. Death and dying, however, were cast as failures of medical science, and to cope with these failures science sterilized the deathbed and turned the entire process of dying into a clinical experience. He referred to this model of death and dying as The Invisible Death, which is symbolic of a desire to hide our “failures.” In summarizing his ideas about the Invisible Death, Marilyn Hadad states:
In the twentieth century, however, Western society became dominated by the concept of success. Death represented the failure of medical science… the pathos of the deathbed scene was removed; compassion was shown by denying to a person that death was imminent… The scene shifted from the family home and familiar bedside to the sterility of a hospital in which medical science prolonged life to the point of ugliness… The medical profession, becoming so skilled in prolonging life, took over death and sanitized it with white coats and medical smells. The individual no longer had the identity of his or her own death.
- Marilyn Hadad in The Ultimate Challenge: Coping with Death, Dying, and Bereavement.
Far too much of the experience of death and dying has become medically outsourced. The sanitization of death and dying is a deeply disturbing trend. Death is not merely a medical event, and medical interventions on a dying patient designed to extend life are viewed by some as the medicalization of suffering. Medical science now offers us the possibility of being kept alive too long. Sometimes people are embarrassed by death, and view it as a kind of failure. This is a bizarre and immature perspective. We need to retrieve death from the bleakness and sterility of medical science and technology, and assume responsibility for it on a personal level.
The best place for death to happen is where the patient belongs, and that is the home environment. Most symptoms can be controlled and the relevance of home care cannot be overemphasized. Good communication skills are vital. The family needs to be convinced that unlike in mainstream acute care medical practice which is like mathematics, a problem to be solved, several incurable illnesses have to be regarded as an experience to be lived through.
- Dr. Cherian Koshy in Do we need ‘deluxe deaths’ or dignified dying?
The hospice-palliative care movement views death as a completely natural event and is focused on providing the dying and their loved ones with a good death. Death is neither sanitized nor hidden in a hospice; as much as possible, medical relief from the symptoms of dying are provided, but there is no attempt to medically extend life beyond its natural course. The focus of hospice-palliative care is to immerse the dying and their loved ones in a supportive environment of respect, compassion, dignity, belonging, and gratitude.
Questions that arise from the study of death, dying, and bereavement will challenge many of our long-standing cultural assumptions. At the same time, one fundamental universal bond between us is the fact that we are all only visitors here for an uncertain amount of time. In order to live life as vibrantly as possible, we need to openly embrace the reality of our own death.
Our Own Death
The most profound source of our insecurities and our most penetrating fears originate in death and dying. Death is the natural outcome of aging. It is often an unpopular and unwelcome topic of conversation; we sometimes avoid discussions of death because it feels depressing, uncomfortable, and sad. We have developed a potent arsenal of avoidance strategies, and we circumvent an authentic, meaningful, and personal exploration of death and dying. As a result, we lose a powerful source of personal enrichment, inspiration, and opportunity in life.
To continually transfigure the faces of your own death, ensures that, at the end of your life, your physical death will be no stranger, robbing you against your will of the life you have had; you will know its face intimately. Since you have overcome your fear, your death will be a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of your own nature.
John O’Donohue advises us not only to consider our own death as a source of spiritual inspiration, but to creatively transfigure “the faces” of our own death. By working creatively with our own death, we develop an authentic relationship with it. Developing personal insight and wisdom about death helps us to cope with life’s vicissitudes when they do enter into our lives. Finding a way to accept that life is a terminal condition has been a timeless, universal human endeavour. Acceptance of death not only means the reduction of fear, but also a development of a deeper appreciation of the here and now. More importantly, to become intimate with our own death may provide the inspiration to positively transform our assumptions, beliefs, actions, priorities in life.
One of the outcomes of repressed fear is habitual avoidance, that is to say, we have an innate tendency to avoid consideration of the things we fear the most. By avoiding discomfort, we create the frail illusion that our fears are under control or at least held at bay. Death naturally and effortlessly strikes fear into each one of us, and being intimate with our own death is to be intimate with the very essence of our fear.
A great deal of creative expression is inspired by fear; fear can be an inspiring presence when we choose to move directly into its midst and consciously seek out the wisdom that lies hidden within its embrace. In this sense, being afraid becomes a potent opportunity for significant personal growth and development. Embracing death and dying as a creative practice helps to centre us firmly in life and build meaningful capacities such as belonging, gratitude, and compassion.
The heart of O’Donohue’s message about death is captured in the beautiful phrase, “your death will be a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of your own nature.” This is a wonderful insight. Meeting death as a lifelong friend, an Anam Cara, is the solution to Marilyn Hadad’s criticism, “The individual no longer had the identity of his or her own death.” It is also a remedy to Philippe Aries criticism of the twentieth century’s preference for an “invisible death” in which death is clinically presented as nothing more than a perceived failure of medical science.
Returning full circle to Geshe Kilsang Gyato’s I may die today, we may now feel a different resonance in those words. When I first read his advice, I felt a sense of disbelief coupled with healthy portion of discomfort; after all, why would I really want to spend time thinking about my own death and, even worse, worry about it each and every day? Truth often lies hidden behind the barrier of our deepest insecurities.
At the same time, growth in life often proceeds when we are able to creatively inhabit the aspects of life that cause us the most difficulty. The power of transfiguration lies in the ability to reshape a negative presence in life into a positive influence for creative growth. This is the kind of creative action O’Donohue advises us to inhabit in the phrase, to continually transfigure the faces of your own death.
Within death is the primal nucleus of meaning, purpose, gratitude, and belonging; death inspires authentic wisdom and profound truth. In this sense, embracing death and dying as a creative practice is synonymous with spiritual growth and development; there is no wisdom that does not embrace the authentic presence of death and dying in our lives.