A little while ago, the whisper came across my heart to do a meditation on my own death. This may be odd, given that during this time of year, with Christmas and the start of a new year, many of us are focused on birth, hope, and new beginnings. But for me, there is something about birth that also brings up its opposite. When both of my children were born, I found myself thinking about death and dying. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that child birth is the closest we can get in life to the experience of death. The birthing process and the process of dying are strikingly similar – baby is coming, no matter what one does, and mom (and partner!) has to eventually let go, allow, and go with the flow of a force beyond her yet includes her…no matter if this is a “natural” birth or a c-section. Dying is similar in the sense that death is coming – we might be able to put it off for awhile, but eventually we die. And eventually we all let go, allow, and a force beyond us moves through us.
Our culture doesn’t like to think about death. We are much more comfortable with talking about and preparing for birth. Yet they are really two sides to the same coin. Yin and yang. When one thing is dying, another is being born. Nature is filled with millions of examples. Our every day is filled with births and deaths. Take even our breath – an inhale begins, rises, and then let’s go as an exhale begins, rises, and then let’s go into an inhale. I often talk to my clients about this – we wouldn’t last too long if we held onto an inhale and never exhaled, nor if we exhaled and never took an inhale!
From the moment we come into this world and take our first breath, we are on the path of dying. We are one breath closer to our death. (Which has me thinking – the moment we die and take our last breath, whatever we believe happens after that – are we on the path to being born??? But I guess that may be a separate existential blog entry!). Our time is limited. We are finite. Fact.
In Buddhism, we acknowledge we are “of the nature to grow old” and that we and all those we love will cease to exist. We meditate on death and dying not out of some strange morbidity, but rather so we live…with a greater awareness of the fragility of life, a deeper appreciation for the breaths we are given, and a fiercer purpose to our lives.
So maybe it’s not too strange then that with the birth of my son almost four years ago and then with the birth of our daughter nine months ago – and all the joys, highs, and delight of welcoming a new one into the world – I also become acutely aware of and conscious of death. As I came in touch with both the tenacity and fragility of life, I also came to acknowledge (ok, or at least begin to acknowledge!) that death will happen – mine, my husband’s, my children’s. This fact struck me once very strongly years ago when I was bathing our newborn son. And when C. was born just nine months ago, I began to sit with the inevitability of my own death.
It wasn’t until the other week though, that I had the courage to do a focused meditation on my death. Though there are many meditations on death, from actually meditating on the process that happens to one’s body and mind as one is dying, to meditating on “what if’s” such as the meditation I decided to do last week:
What would you do if you had one year to live?
Who would you want to be with you? What would happen to your body? How would you spend your day(s) or breaths? What would you like to do? What would be most important?
As one of my teachers said, this is the ultimate of meditations. You get real with yourself.
And “real” I got. The process got really uncomfortable in certain places. Clear in others. At times, I felt myself really resisting the fact – denying it – that this will happen – I will have a “one year, one month, one week, one day, one hour, one minute, and one last breath.” Some day. Whether I know it or not.
Though I will share in Part 2 some of the particulars of the meditation for me and what has risen within me in the last few weeks after doing the practice (the grief, hope, letting go, forgiveness, loving, delighting, letting be, and planning!), I’d like to share one part of my experience:
Oddly enough, it was with the last question – what if you had one breath left to live – that there was no clinging. There was just a letting go, an acceptance, a giving over to death and to the Beloved. There was no planning, struggling, finding the right words or even regret. I envisioned myself sitting with Brian (sorry, Love! I envisioned me going first!). And with my final breath, my last words were, “thank you.”
Thank you – to Brian for the sweet, tender way he loves me. For our children. For the life we’ve created together.
And then I recognized, even if my last breath would be alone and by myself (I still have to admit, I hope not!), I found myself still uttering, “Thank you.” Thank you to the Beloved for allowing me this exact experience, in this body, in this lifetime (along with sending out a prayer from my heart that my beloveds would be protected and happy and love themselves and this world with passion, and sending out a prayer of peace and gentleness to this world. Because even once I exhaled for the last time, I would still have a moment before all consciousness ceased! I guess I”m forever the extrovert connecting to people!).
And maybe that is enough. Even if I go through my whole life doing not much else but saying “thank you” – to the dawn, warm showers, early morning snuggles with my children, the sweetness of my husband, the new beginnings, the inevitable endings, the mournful times, the ecstatic times, scrumptious soups, kind exchanges with friends and strangers, snow softly sitting on tree limbs, the sound of birds chirping or my kiddos playing, the feel of cotton against my skin, the warm summer sun on my face, the smell of Brian’s bread baking, the sweet smile of someone I lend a hand to, my children softly folding into my arms, the silence of sun setting – that might be enough. For a fulfilling life and a welcomed death/birth into new form.