Monthly Archives: April 2016
In the following text, the Nikāya Buddha makes a strong statement as to why he encourages mindfulness of death.
Mindfulness of Death,
Anguttara Nikāya, 6.19.
Translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash
Once the flourishing one was staying at Nādika, in the brick hall, where he addressed the mendicants:
“Yes, Sir!” they responded.
“Mindfulness of death, Practitioners, if practised and developed, brings great benefit and fruit , merging in the Deathless. Mindfulness of death comes to a head in the Deathless. So, Practitioners, you should cultivate mindfulness of death.”
After these words, one mendicant said to the flourishing one: “Bhante, I practise mindfulness of death.”
“So, Practitioner, how do you practise mindfulness of death?”
“I think in this way, Bhante: ‘Oh, may I live just for one day and night [more], to keep the flourishing one’s teaching in mind. I could accomplish much, indeed!’ In this way, Bhante, I practise mindfulness of death.”
[Other mendicants in the assembly also presented their approach to the practice of mindfulness of death:]
“I think in this way, Bhante: ‘Oh, may I live just for a single day [more]…
“Oh, may I live just for the time I need to eat one single alms meal…
“Oh, may I live just for the time needed to chew and swallow four or five mouthfuls of food…
“Oh, may I live just for the time I need to chew and swallow one mouthful of food…
“Oh, may I live just for the time it takes to breathe in, after the out-breath; or to breathe out, after the in-breath…”
[They said:] “…to keep the flourishing one’s teaching in mind. This way, I could accomplish much, indeed!’ In this way, Bhante, I practise mindfulness of death.”
After the mendicants had spoken in this way, the flourishing one said:
“The practitioners who say that they practise mindfulness of death with the thought, ‘Oh, were I to live just for one day and a night [more]… … just for a single day [more]… …just for the time needed to chew and swallow four or five mouthfuls of food… to keep the flourishing one’s teachings in mind. I could accomplish much, indeed!’, of these practitioners it needs to be said that they live carelessly. In respect of destroying the taints, they cultivate mindfulness of death in a slack way.
“But, Practitioners, those who practise mindfulness of death with the thought, ‘Oh, may I live for the time I need to chew and swallow one mouthful of food… or, for the time it takes to breathe in, after the out-breath; or, to breathe out, after the in-breath… to keep the flourishing one’s teaching in mind. Much, indeed, could then be done by me!’, of these practitioners it can be said that they dwell carefully. In respect of destroying the taints, they practise mindfulness of death intently.
“Therefore, mendicants, you should train yourselves thus, ‘We shall dwell carefully; and, for the aim of destroying the taints, we shall practise mindfulness of death intently!’ Thus should you train yourselves.”
“And moreover, Practitioners, a contemplative is one who acts with full awareness… When walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, or keeping silent, she acts with full awareness.” – the Nikāya Buddha, Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
My relationship to rituals took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophical book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he suggested that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture that invites the felt sense of Being.
For me, the ‘object’ to which I bow is never ‘over there’; the statue to which I bow, for example. I am bowing to Being, which is my own core, too. I do this to facilitate retrieval of my connection to Being, via the being of my body. This body participates in Being. ‘Human being’ should be a verb phrase, not a noun phrase.
Each morning, the first thing I do is: I step out of bed, put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of Kuan Yin, and I say this verse (gatha) (borrowed – or adapted – from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh):
“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and to look on others with eyes of compassion.”
I am speaking this from my body, with awareness immersed in my body. As the Buddha suggested, in the Mindfulness Sutta: I know ‘the body in the body,’ in the act of speaking my ritual.
So, the meaning of words (with the meaning of our rituals) is what they do in us, how they shift our state of being, how they resonate with Being, how they wake us up, bring us into full awareness.
I check inwardly, after saying my little verse, to attune to how the ritual has changed my body. Has it brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, and can I feel that? Or, what is happening, in response? Maybe it’s the opposite? Maybe it has brought fear, this morning?
In the case of this particular ritual, too, I am retrieving the true life of death. This very body is intimate with death. In my bowing and saying my verse, I am putting myself in the gesture of being “100% for birth and death” (as a modern Zen teacher put it).
I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing in the day, to acknowledge primordial Being, along with the welfare of others. Being is my ground. And, ‘together with all beings’ invites the bodily knowledge that this ground is the same ground of everyone else with whom I share the planet today.
I’m reminded, as I write this, of the marvellous words of English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/1637 – 1674):
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world; and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”
This led me to add the following verse to my first prayer of the day. The first line invites a personal, appreciative attitude – a grateful orientation; and, the second guards against narcissism:
“These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
all the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.”
Levin teaches throughout in his philosophical book that we are participating, in the innermost level of our being, in the wholeness of Being. And, he says, that these very bodies of ours have a gestural, symbolizing capacity which can help us to retrieve existential meaning from our depths, a meaningfulness which is much greater than our outward cultures can produce.
Ritual is a way to put our body into a felt gesture that resonates with Being. By the gift of com-bodiment, ancient seeds in our bodies respond to the ritual gestures, spontaneously bringing us into alignment with life, which brings a feeling of well-being.
This way of using an early morning ritual is a healthy way to arrive from the change-realm of dreams into the change-realm of waking. May we all, upon my waking into any and every change-realm, be 100% for change.
“As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying.”
– George Harrison, Song: The Art of Dying
This is maybe leaping into the deep end for some of you, I know, but because I’ve mentioned the Dissolution of the Elements practice, a few times, I thought a tiny introduction would be helpful. If it’s not your cup of tea, at least you might be interested to see what some of the other folks are getting up to.
The ‘elements’ talked about, here, don’t just refer to the physical presence of earth, water, fire, air and (physical) space. Those things can be included, but the words also symbolise certain sentient processes: earth = form; water = feeling-tones; fire = sense-perceptions; air = the fashioning tendencies (of experience); and space = the inner subtle levels of consciousness. With the dissolution of these elements, in dying or in meditation, grasping onto body and mind drops away. (I’ll go more deeply into a practical use of the ‘five elements practice’ for beginners, later.)
Let me say, for the uninitiated, that this Dissolution practice comes out of a body of Buddhist teachings called the Mahayana; and, specifically, from the practices called ‘Tantra.’ As far as I can see, from nearly fifty years of practice, this teaching isn’t incompatible with the earlier teachings of the historical Buddha (usually called the Theravada, but which I am in the practice of calling ‘classical’ or ‘early’ Buddhism).
The Dissolution practice is quite in line with the historical Buddha’s teachings on the elements and his advice for dying, as we’ll see later in this project. In fact, there has existed for centuries a lineage of tantric Theravada. (Kate Cosby, 2000; see below.)*
So, back to practical matters: A friend of mine, who had just finished a retreat with the Dalai Lama at the time, told me that the Dalai Lama suggested to the assembled retreatants that they do this Dissolution of the Elements practice every day. Shor versions of the practice are included in other tantric practices, so that’s probably easier than it sounds. Once, in 2010 in Dharamsala, India, he said:
“According to the tantric teachings, at the time of death there’s the eight-stage dissolution of the elements – the grosser levels of the elements of the body dissolve, and then the more subtle levels also dissolve. Tantric practitioners need to include this in their daily meditation. Every day, I meditate on death – in different mandala practices – at least five times, so still I’m alive! Already this morning I’ve gone through three deaths.”
I’ve always included it as regular meditation, during my A Year to Live practice. I’m not as zealous as to practice it daily, because I don’t have that much time to add this on top of my regular meditations; but I do include it and recommend it.
To some, the remembrance of death is an unpleasant thought. Once, a practitioner asked me, “Why would you want to contemplate the Five Remembrances, when you could be practising the great catalysts of Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity?” He was contrasting the contemplations called The Five Remembrances with those, also taught by the Nikāya Buddha, called ‘The Four Dwelling-Places of Brahma’ (Pāli: Brahmavihāra).
These are: boundless benevolence, boundless compassion, boundless appreciative joy, and boundless equanimity, and I will give them, also, their own treatment in a later chapter. I listed The Five Remembrances in the introduction to this project. The third and fourth are:
3. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death.
4. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me.
My answer, on that occasion, was that the remembrance of death pricks my bubble of conceit. I think that’s very true; and at the time, I felt it as so true that I decided to put in the effort to increase the frequency of my Dissolution of the Elements practice – to do it at least a modest couple of times a week.
(The version of the Dissolution which I practise is given by Joan Halifax on her CD album, Being with Dying. I’ve put it on my iPod, so it’s always easily accessible. You can get her script here, if you want to get acquainted with it.)
And, of course, I do practise the Great Catalysts (Brahmavihāras) daily. It’s a matter of not leaving out anything which is good for the heart’s development. Perhaps, the question reflected a misunderstanding about ‘positivity.’ Positivity doesn’t exclude things that are unpleasant. It’s about turning the unpleasant to positive advantage.
By having an open heart toward the unpleasant or painful aspects of life, one can have what the Nikāya Buddha called “a pleasant abiding here and now.” Without aversion or fear, an equanimity arises which is not dependent on preferences, which is complete.
I will introduce a meditation, by the end of this project, suitable for beginners, and enjoyable, which will include Brahmavihāras, the elements practice, and the dissolution of the elements – safely.
“Already this morning I’ve gone through three deaths.” – Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama.
* Crosby, Kate. (2000). Tantric Theravada: A Bibliographic Essay on the Writings of François Bizot and Other Literature on the Yogāvacara Tradition’, Contemporary Buddhism 1.2: 141– 198.
Our fear of death leads to a diminished life. What do we do, to avoid taking death into account as an integral part of life? Avoid thinking about it? Avoid awareness that we will certainly part from our loved ones? Avoid contact with death, unless it’s fictionalised in movies or on TV? Avoid talking about it?
That takes a lot of energy, even if all this organisation of our behaviour does operate largely unobserved. In fact, remaining unaware of how we are organised emotionally is an important part of ignoring death. We cultivate the habit of inattention. For example, after my prostate cancer diagnosis, and before my operation, I took special care of my diet, my exercise, and healing meditations. However, after the operation, I noticed that I wasn’t putting my usual energy into care for myself. I got curious as to what this was about.
I already knew, directly, that there was some bodily shock due to the operation, but I hadn’t sat myself down to specifically say ‘Hello’ in a Focusing kind of way to that ‘shocked part’ of me. So, I consciously made an opportunity to do that.
Underneath all the usual, familiar thought patterns, there was a part of me saying, in a distressed tone, “This wasn’t meant to happen.” That is, cancer wasn’t part of the deal, it said. It was a kind of refusal to believe in reality; kind of saying “No, I don’t want reality, if this is what it involves.” How could I be anything but compassionate with such a short-sighted one? I acknowledged it, so as not to judge it.
And, as I write this, I remember that a friend says, as spiritual advice: “Say ‘Yes’ to all offers!” It’s a good slogan. However, in this context, that doesn’t mean imposing a ‘Yes’ over the top of a pattern of “No.” The way to say “Yes,” to reality, in this instance was to empathise with this young part of me.
“Yes. You’re there. You feel like cancer wasn’t in the deal.” This was an implicit ‘Yes’ to the reality that I had just survived cancer; and, it was a ‘Yes’ acknowledging that a reactive “No” was in me. That way I was not identifying with my content, and so it didn’t take up much space in me. The reaction didn’t feel like it was all of me, and I was thereafter able to pick up the ball on my healthcare, again. Big ‘Yes’ is not opposed to the preferential ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’
Life’s interesting. We don’t get the life we plan, though parts of us try hard for that. The life we do live is made up of the interaction of our body, speech and mind in a dance with the big process – a big process which includes cells that do their own thing regardless of the greater whole. What I do, say, and think matters, but isn’t the whole story. I bow to that dance. Death, in all kinds of ways is, in actuality, a part of the dance.
Which reminds me of a helpful teaching from Atisha: The causes of birth are few, but the causes of death are many. Acknowledging this may help me feel the deep confusion, sorrow and anger of our resisting ‘selves,’ who want to dance solely on their terms.
So, this provides another instance of how we may experience a kind of death: in the humiliation that comes when reality meets my conceit that my life is ‘mine.’ It’s best not to waste one’s precious energy in fighting the delusions, here. For me it’s best to smile and call on a soft-bellied breath, because I’m bound to meet this again and again. The art of this practice is to be ready – including ready to say “Yes” to the already-arisen “No!”
What do we mean when we say the word ‘death’? Our experience is that others die. That is, the word, if it has any basis in experience, is about our experience of others’ physical deaths. And, so usually when we apply the word to ourselves, it is often applied to the disintegration of our physical body, as an object – a thing that can be seen from ‘over there,’ in the way that we might see the body of another.
The inner experience is a mystery, and we rarely know how to go about exploring this while we are alive. Some of us – perhaps many of us – believe that it is impossible to explore death while alive. But there is a way: to the extent that we can bring the word ‘death’ into contact with the experiential dimension of our life, to that extent we can use it to point to how we feel.
There are other uses of the words ‘die’ and ‘death ‘which apply to emotional conditions. We can explore death, for example, when we have certain intense life-experiences, those which challenge our established patterns.
We can explore why, for instance, we say, ‘I could have died,’ when we have experienced embarrassing moments. Spiritual practices, including meditation and mindfulness, can bring us intimately in contact with experiences of ego-loss, and there we find the word death begins to take on a more personal meaning.
I felt this most deeply in the mid-nineties. My experience of my identity underwent such a radical change, due to Zen retreat practice, that for a few weeks, I felt as if I was ‘dying.’ What exactly did I feel that made that word the right one for my experience? It did fit; but, why was that the word I used, for this change in the way that I experienced myself?
It was the sense of losing my old personality, my identity; of losing ‘identification with’ the story I could tell, and had told, of who I was. There was stable contact with an inconceivable dimension of myself. This brought a new understanding of death. I was, at last, actually accepting a dimension that had been insistently nudging at my consciousness for twenty years – that of being unnameable.
In this time, I turned around to face the one that had been haunting me: the feeling that I was nothing that could be experienced as an object – not a body, not a mental ‘me,’ nothing with colour or form.
It wasn’t just that the ‘I’ couldn’t be found, that there was nothing anywhere. I had lived in that kind of existential crisis, as I said, for twenty years. No, this was the recognition that my deepest ‘I’ did exist after all, and that what it was could be called the Unfindable. I was (and am, of course) that big not-graspable silence, the (…..).
And, the best way for me, the human, to describe how the shift from the old felt was to say, “I am dying.” “I feel like I am dying,” I said to my Zen teacher Subhana, when I rang her for to get a reality check.
I didn’t know what the end of the body is like, but this felt like what death must be like. People who take up A Year to Live practice are often surprised at how easily the practice drops off their radar. One reason that this is so is because we want to avoid feeling the loss of our familiar sense of self.
And another is that we fear, down in our depths, that we are nothing. I find, in my work with others, that we have a belief that, to be ourselves, we have to always be able to tell a story.
Stories are an important part of our lives, but they are not all there is. And neither are stories the core of our life. No person is their content. I’m not my gross physical life – that’s content. I’m not my emotional content, and not even my subtle mind content. Now is not content. Try grasping hold of this now. Where is it? Death, as an inner experience, is: dying to our content.
When you take up the way of present-moment remembrance, you get the chance to surrender attachment to the sphere of death – all your content – many times a day, of course, in the flow of your usual relationships. No special retreats are necessary. And, alone in your life – while walking, standing, sitting, lying down – you can also let go your mental chatter, and relax into not naming.
I let go my constructed identity, right there in my stories, my commentaries, my self-scenarios, my self-justifications, and so on. I have, then, the entry into the wonder of being empty of content, empty of all that comes and goes; yet I feel full, in the fullness of this (…..).
I can notice that the mind makes a lot of unnecessary invitations – habitual invitations – to take up the content, the commentaries, and so on; but, I can practice the art of dying, by just saying: “No, thank you. I’ll accept not knowing anything about who I am, just now.” The Buddha said that to stop identifying with our content is to become “profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean.” (Majjhima Nikāya, 72)
There is time for stories, so I am not suggesting suppressing thinking. It’s rather noticing the implicit background to thinking and letting that play a part in your life. Then, the stories serve life, rather than obscure it. This means relinquishing reckoning oneself in terms of anything ultimately findable. To do this, we will need to feel the fear of dying.
This ocean of the Inconceivable is not the only aspect of awakened life, of course. There is a place for your uniqueness, after all. However, it is an important discovery, this mystery of Being, which will then put your individuality in perspective. With this discovery comes true riches.
And, aren’t we in a runaway habit of trying to fathom ourselves with concepts? Are we willing to become the Unfindable, the profound ocean? Or, will we keep frustratingly looking for ourselves in the sphere of what comes and goes, the sphere of what is being born and what is dying?
To find the true refuge, we need to turn around, and say hello to our fear of being nothing.
I do understand that tracking my breathing will not help, altogether, at the very moment of death. I am confident that when awareness of breathing stops, and when breathing itself stops, then there’s more of dying to experience, thereafter, on the subtler planes. So a deeper training in Presence is necessary. (Try the Dissolution of the Elements practice, to see how this can be).
Nevertheless, I have learnt much from my breathing. I’ve learned, for example, that any kind of body – the gross body, the feeling body, or the subtle energy body – is a self-organising process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. Every body is of that larger life.
Grounding myself in the body, sensing into its condition in all its situations, helps me realize what the Japanese Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. In a paper (Sunflowers, Sardines and Responsive Combodying: Three Perspectives on Embodiment) Dr. Ikemi writes:
“The English word ‘embodiment’ may have a dualistic connotation originating in Western culture. An exact Japanese translation of this word does not exist. The word may have come from a cultural background where the spirit was assumed to be incarnated or ‘embodied’, encapsulated in our physical bodies. The prefix ‘em-’ denotes a ‘putting into’. Thus far, this paper has described a sort of ‘com-bodiment’, where the body points beyond itself ‘altogether with’ (com-) the universe. The body is seen as a processing-generating itself with the whole universe at every moment of its living. This view of the body will be referred to as ‘combodying’.”
Ikemi advocates “seeing bodily living as generating its own living together with the universe, and emphasizes the person’s reflexive awareness with which one can make sense of, and change one’s combodied living.”
My Oxford English Dictionary says of ‘com-‘: “The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.”
The way that I think of it is, that each body is made up of all which is not the body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its direct participation right now in the biosphere’s carbon cycle, its nitrogen cycle, and its water cycle.
Or, what would it be without the oxygen generated by the forests of the Amazon Basin? There is no body apart from gravity (even for astronauts), or apart from the unseeable electro-magnetic and nuclear forces. Your body includes all that.
Breathing is always of the nature of inter-being. The body is not one thing, and the environment another. They are in each other. Right now, feel into your body, and say gently to it, “I understand that you are a part of the water cycle.” See how the body responds to that acknowledgement. See how it shifts your sense of yourself, to have the bodily feel of your unity with life.
If we are to save ourselves, as a species, and to flourish with our fellow species on this little blue planet, we need to explore this, to know intimately, to feel it intensely – the nature of this body as always together-with.
We don’t live in our bodies, but in our thoughts. Our bodies need re-minding. Did you know that the Buddhist word for ‘mindfulness’ – sati – means ‘remembering’? Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ includes a remembering that the body is already-always a ‘minded’ body; that it is a body-mind, is a bodily being-together-with-all.
So, what makes death such a big deal? Is it not because we cling to encultured patterns of ‘body’? The various kinds of bodies, however – the gross, feeling and subtle bodies – are each patterns of experiencing at differing levels of subtlety, a fact which only mindfulness can reveal, illumining the body at ever more and more subtle levels.
An important perspective on this is that: As I come to know myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. What does death mean, at the different levels of experiencing ‘body’? And, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?
Firstly, apologies for yesterday’s confusing post. I have been ill during this last week, and I was working late. The actual blog entry has been amended, to show what you should have received, if you would like to see it.
In a more general sense, I’m writing, now, to explain what’s happening with this blog, in case I have caused some confusion.
By all appearances, it should have finished. I died, after all, back in February. J On the other hand, on two counts I feel encouraged to write a book on the subject that emerged during those eight or nine months of writing.
Firstly, as I wrote, it became clear to me that there was sufficient value in the approach for me to consider turning it into a book, after I complete the initial task – which was: a blog written over the remaining months of my then current A Year to Live practice.
Secondly, during that time I had a number of suggestions, from readers who found the writing helpful to their path, encouraging me to publish it as a book. It was a joy to hear the particular points that people treasured, and to think that I was in some small way a help to their interior life.
So, I’m now going through the posts – culling, rewriting, and re-ordering them. It’s an interesting and enjoyable process – just as engrossing as the original creation – and it’s a fitting commitment during my current year of A Year to Live (which I began at the end of March); that is, to try and edit a new entry each day. With a chronic illness and my other commitments, it isn’t always possible, but it’s an inspiring commitment, and a labour of love.
I began to write another blog/book, over at thefocusingmandala.com.au, which is much more complex, phenomenologically. Its subject matter which is also something very dear to my heart However, it came to me, as I began editing the death and dying project, that it was going to take a lot more work than I realised – not only because it meant rewriting, but reordering in the light of a very different genre of publishing. So, I couldn’t give both these projects my full attention. I had to choose between them. Having already committed to this one, I realised I would pull back from the other. (Perhaps I’ll live long enough to complete both.)
If you stay, the posts will each be edited, some will be dropped out altogether, and some will be edited and relocated. Hopefully more coherence will emerge in the whole. If you stay, I hope you enjoy and benefit. I’ll try to activate the comments section, so that you can share your responses, if you wish.
You may want to stay with this ‘death and dying’ course, or you may wish to de-register. There’s an unsubscribe link, at the bottom of each post.
Wishing you all, in your path, much joy, and a deep appreciation of the basic beauty of being.
“In breathing, oxygen enters the bloodstream-environment and goes all the way into the cells. The body is in the environment but the environment is also in the body, and is the body.” – Eugene T. Gendlin, A Process Model
Do we know well what dies? The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my feelings. My partner and I were talking, as she entered the freeway, going back home to the mountains. She asked me how I was with this, the fact that my life was in danger.
I checked inwardly, in the middle of my body, and a meaning crystalized out of the whole feel of the situation. It was this: my biospheric body – the very large natural body of planetary life which I participate in – was in a lot more trouble than my prostate was. On my part: yes, at that point there was cancer in my physical body, but my energy body was relatively peaceful.
However, I felt a big sorrow that this whole planet is going through dramatic changes, and species deaths are happening at a rate not previously known in human history. Perhaps my cancer was a simply symptom of that big change.
I live with my several bodies, three of which are: the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body. And, isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body?
For most people, death is usually associated with the gross body (that is, a physical body). The odd thing, though, is that we are divorced from our physical existence. Are we really putting our heart into living as bodies?
I realised even in my twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, I was living in the very tiny portion of it which was above my shoulders. In the story A Painful Case in the Dubliners, James Joyce wrote of Mr Duffy, who “lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glasses.” (I will later explore the inner sub-personality we could call the ‘by-stander’ self).
So, what is this body which I am – from the inside – that is knowable only in this moment’s experiencing? Can I know what death is, if I don’t know the many levels of this body’s life, intimately? That takes presence.
When twenty years after my discovery of mindfulness practice, I faced up to my mind’s tendency to ramble all over the place, lost in thought night and day; so, I decided to follow my breathing. This was in 1995.
Why did it take so long? One day in the early nineties a teacher said to me, “You know, sometimes I think we fool ourselves that we are aware – when actually, we are only thinking Dharma thoughts.” I realised he was right, at least where I was concerned. The fact that I was rambling all day was obscured by the nobility of the topics of my thought!
My thinking gave me the false impression that I was engaged with life, while in fact I had so much more depth to discover. So, from then, I began to keep in contact with my breathing. It led to being able to distinguish, in reality, the difference between being present and thinking I am present.
And, only this way, in contact with my body, can I learn about all the ways in which I set up my ego-centre and ego-boundaries. Knowing how we create boundaries is a powerful part of understanding how we obfuscate the meaning of ‘death.’ (That is, we deprive death of light or brightness.)
THE HIDDEN LIBERATIVE ASPECT OF DEATH
The kind of consciousness which we cultivate in preparation for the occasion of our death, depends on how you see the opportunities that dying and death can offer.
One of the benefits of ‘A Year to Live’ practice has to do, not just with a better life while living, and not just with a better dying process, but with awakening to a profound level of human consciousness right there in the process of dying.
And, there is a level of preparation that is possible for that. Of course, living a conscious, compassionate life is an excellent preparation; however, one specific practice that we can do is a Tibetan practice called the Dissolution of the Elements.
This practice involves simulating the inner process of death, in nine stages – gradually losing contact with succeeding levels of experience, from gross to subtle. When mastered, it culminates in a very peaceful state of inner freedom.
I have a story about how this has already helped me, before dying physically. One time when practising this, I discovered that, in all my previous meditations of this type, I had been harbouring an unconscious wish that this practice would help me have a non-painful (and, even a pleasurable) death, when death finally came. I was very surprised by my discovery. I was attached to the idea of a non-painful death. This was several years after I had begun Buddhist death and dying practices.
Many deaths are peaceful and painless. However, death can also be attended by considerable pain. We can’t know how we will die. There are no guarantees. The process of a natural death needn’t be pain-free, even if you have done all your preparations for years on end.
So, seeing directly that I had this longing, my motivation for doing the Dissolution of the Elements practice shifted. I began to simply accept whatever experience was presenting itself during the practice. I shifted to remaining peaceful in my attitude toward experience – a peaceful mind, though I might not necessarily have a peaceful body.
So, I knew, then, that being conscious during death means accepting anything that happens, and it means a vast mind of not-knowing; or, openness. The point is to be with what is happening, because it is happening – it is what is happening!
This approach was helped by the fact that, due to a chronic illness, I never have a body free of pain, anyway. It further deepened my open experience of my chronic pain. As it turned out, this shift was also very helpful, when I was diagnosed and treated for cancer in 2014. I had ample opportunity in that period to accept peacefully, and even gratefully, whatever I was experiencing during my treatment.
The mindful death isn’t for everyone, though. Many would prefer not to know what they are experiencing at the time of death – or, at any time, for that matter. I remember a friend saying to me, decades ago, that she’d rather not know what her mind was doing during everyday experiences, so she wasn’t interested in training to be mindful.
So, I study how death lives in me, as a way to keep my own mind aimed toward the certainty of that event – to be ready, and say “Yes” to death, when it arrives. That’s true. However, I also practice this to get to be familiar with everything about my own mental functioning, while I’m living. It simply enhances self-knowledge, which turns out to be liberating. It cleans up the mind!
But, a really marvellous fruit of this practice is that we can realise the subtle and luminous nature of the mind. Contemplating death makes this more likely, both now and at the moment of death. As we become familiar with death, we explore the deepest levels of the mind – what some call the fundamental mind.
This enriches our living, now, of course. But, then: at the moment of death we have an unfettered introduction to this level of awareness, because – as this practice can verify – all that we identify with during life drops away completely.
This is a difficult-to-talk-about territory, this luminous, boundless awareness, and the ‘deathless’ element. I will address this more, though, as we go along in this project.
Knowing the ground state has many benefits for oneself and others. And, yet, it is also just to be tasted, exactly because it has no benefit. It is just so. Personally, I want to be awake and aware of the changes during death, and taste the beauty of the pure ground state – just because it is what it is – not for any other reason than this: it is worth approaching with love. In this sense, death can be a sacrament.
“(A Year to Live) is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness. It is an opportunity to resolve our denial of death as well as our denial of life in a year-long experiment in healing, joy, and revitalization.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
This practice is to turn toward what we fear; to explore, feel, think, sense into, and know one’s actual relationship to death. We help others when we help ourselves in this way, too. There will always be people in our circle who will appreciate such reflections.
To reflect on death leads naturally to studying – directly, in our own experience – how we know ourselves. We can resolve the question of who or what dies by knowing ourselves. I have found that, for me, the enquiry naturally deepens into an understanding of human nature as being more about ‘process’ than ‘content’ – how we are in the world (how we interact), and not so much what we are. (Selfish or altruistic, for instance).
One thing that has slowly become clear to me, over close to fifty years of contemplative practice, is that an experience-near way to think of ‘selfhood’ naturally leads to a different understanding of death. When we able to see the death of our identifications with self-images as the basic death, then what we emphasise about being human changes. We then know what matters about living.
During the year of writing the blog, my strong focus on the Pāli mythos came as a surprise for me. (This is, broadly speaking, the earliest form of Buddhist culture). I thought I’d be talking about the things that have caught the attention of Western Buddhists, such as: the means of early preparation for physical death, involving forgiveness practice, gratitude practice, and life-review; and teachings about death from Tibetan Buddhist culture, such as after-death experiences; and so on.
Some of these topics you can find in Stephen Levine’s book. Going through such contemplations, and those in the book, certainly supports being able to approach death with a sense of completion or fulfilment.
Regarding the Tibetan or tantric approach, I do the Tibetan Dissolution of the Elements practice from time to time, and there are other aspects of tantric practice that I use – mandala practice, for instance – but, I nevertheless have found the early Buddhist meditations every bit as powerful as the Dissolution of the Elements meditation. There’s nothing more powerful, for me, than classical Ānāpānasati meditation (which I’ll explain in the course of the project).
So, what emerged in this year-long project was a clear picture of how the Buddha of the Nikāyas saw death and preparation to death. Because the Pali texts are my primary Buddhist texts, that is what I will concentrate on, in this writing. It turns out that the Buddha of these texts (which I hereafter refer to as the Nikāya Buddha) sees the practice of life as the preparation for death.
One thing that has deepened, due to the practice of A Year to Live, is my understanding of what the Buddha means when he talked about the ‘deathless.’ It came to me forcefully several years back, with a radical clarity, that “There is no death.” I then undertook a period of review, to be sure that I was seeing right, which has included checking with other Buddhist teachers. I hope to present this radical claim to you, during this project.
“Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have to inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
My understanding of the body is the other most radical shift in my thinking during my long Buddhist life, so that naturally arises in this project. To dwell in the body intimately and fully only happens after a thorough training; because, this ‘dwelling’ not just about being in contact with bodily sensations and actions. As I see it, the body is a local representative of true nature – it is the intelligence of the universe manifesting in specific ways.
While I glimpsed, forty years ago, that I could say rightly, “I am not my body,” on the other hand, I have also come to understand “I am only my body.” This is not the body of modern medicine – a constructed thing, or a machine. In this project, body and mind are perspectives on experiencing, and ultimately on Being (which resolves these contradictions).
There is the always present the profound presence of luminous Being, felt as the core of our very own bodily life. So, I’m confident that knowing the body thoroughly will allow its dissolution without any resistance, on the occasion of my death.
“Old age, sickness and death do not have to be equated with suffering: we can live and practice in such a way that dying is a natural rite of passage, a completion of our life, and even the ultimate liberation.” – Joan Halifax, Being with Dying