Two weeks ago, I wrote about how to live; today I’m writing about how to die. It may seem that living and dying are two very different things, but they are completely interconnected. We learn how to live by learning how to die, and we learn how to die by learning how to live. Each informs the other.
According to this teaching how you conduct yourself during life is the most important preparation for how you conduct yourself when dying. This is actually quite provocative. We usually divide and evaluate our experience, viewing some things we do as a big deal and very important and viewing other things as trivial or insignificant. It is easy to think of dying as an end to our ability to do anything of significance and to think of living as what really matters because it is the only state where we can get things done. But the idea here is that how we conduct ourselves in every single action matters and is important in and of itself.
Acting properly takes strength and exertion. To begin with, you have to set your mind in the right direction. Meditation is the main method of doing this. If you are just drifting along in a haze, you will easily be thrown off course, but with a mind trained in meditation you can have clarity in every moment. It takes real determination to maintain a sane and compassionate approach even in the face of death. When we are threatened, it is so easy to lose both our sanity and our compassion.
Determination goes a long way towards a calm approach to dying, and we gain even more strength by developing an ongoing habit of mindfulness. By practice and repetition, mindfulness becomes familiar territory for you. It is like the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Through practice you begin to uncover obstacles that may arise when you are facing death – obstacles such as fear and attachment. Buddhist practice gives us a way of dealing with these states. When you really look into fear and attachment, you see that they can all be traced back to the fixed belief that we have a solid separate ego, which seems to be being threatened. Many religions attempt to reduce our anxiety about dying by telling us that we will continue to exist after death and that if we are “good” we will go to heaven and live for eternity. If we are bad, we go to hell. But in Zen, we realize that there is no such thing as a solid separate ego—it has no true existence, so in fact, nothing dies.
Today’s practice: Spend some time contemplating the things that make you afraid, and how you react. Contemplate times you are in pain, and how you deal with it. Notice whatever causes you to lose your mindfulness. Determine to hold the perspective of mindfulness and compassion even in the midst of fear, pain, or dying.