I may die today. This is a poignant truth we are unable to hide ourselves from. In spite of our efforts to exercise control, our life course remains shrouded in uncertainty. The unexpected is a presence that is waits for us, always close by yet completely out of sight. Death can come to greet us unexpectedly: we can suddenly perish, disappear, and become a memory. How does this unavoidable truth help us to live?
Considering Our Own Death
“I may die today” is a “non-deceptive” thought because it originates in a universal truth.
According to Buddhist teacher Geshe Kilsang Gyato, this thought is an essential object of contemplation that serves to deepen our spiritual path. Death in this light is not morbid, sad, or depressing, even though it may quietly invite potent 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.
Death is one of our most trusted advisors in life.
Medical science sanitizes death and dying. Our fears cause us to pathologize death and to view it as a kind of failure. We anxiously strive to render it invisible. We avoid and ignore the sacred message of death by dismissing meaningful conversation about it as being morbid, sad, and depressing. It is difficult to reflect upon our own impermanence.
Strangely, we are 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 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 death; it has largely become sanitized, depersonalized, and outsourced. It is time to bring death back home and reclaim it as our own.
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. The felt-meaning of death and the wisdom it invites requires careful 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
By avoiding or ignoring the contemplation of death, we create of possibility of pursuing wrong direction in life and causing our human life to become empty. 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
I recently completed an Introduction to Thanatology course. Thanatology (from the Greek thanotos meaning death) is the formal study of death, dying, and bereavement. Most of the students in the course had recently experienced a significant loss and were trying to make sense of it.
In The Hour of Our Death Philippe Ariès characterized the twentieth century as an age dominated by the concept of success. Death and dying were cast as failures of medical science. In order 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 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.
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 perspective. We need to retrieve death from the sterility of medical science and technology, and invite it back into our hearts and minds.
Making Death Visible Again
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. Relief from the symptoms of dying are provided, but there is no attempt to medically extend life beyond its natural course.
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 focus of hospice-palliative care is to immerse the dying and their loved ones in a supportive home-like 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.
I Will Die… One Day
Life is a terminal condition.
A great deal of our suffering originates in the fear of death and dying. Thanatophobia is the formal term for an abnormal fear of death, or death anxiety. Consideration of our own death places us into close proximity with the dread and apprehension of our own disappearance.
Death is the natural and unavoidable 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 morbid.
We have developed an 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.
Reclaiming our own death is a source of inspiration. Our task is to transfigure the faces of our own death. In doing this sacred inner work, we move deeper into the here and now – the present moment. The thought I may die today retrieves the surprise and wonder of simply being here.
Death is a spiritual achievement, not a medical failure.
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.” It offers a solution to Aries Invisible Death in which, “The individual no longer had the identity of his or her own death.”
Wisdom and death are intimate with one another. Truth often lies hidden behind the barrier of our deepest insecurities. To die is to disappear, to become a memory.
We may not die today, but we know with absolute certainty that we will die one day. Embracing death and dying as a creative practice is a pathway to personal growth and development.
It is a wise person who can say, “I may die today.“