Remember you will die: 3 practices for contemplating death

Do you have a practice? I suspect you do. We all have little practices, even if we don’t think of them that way. Since I began to study yoga, and particularly since I began to study the dharma, I’ve picked up more practices than I can fit into a day. At their core, the practices all have the same goal: to wake me up to my life. Lately I’ve been bowing before I make my bed. The idea is to turn the mundane into the sacred, and the sacred into the mundane. The other day a meditation student asked me if I light a candle before I meditate. “No,” I said, “but I do light a candle before I watch Netflix.” Everyone laughed, but I think there’s something to that. My meditation practice is already infused with care and intention, but my Netflix practice runs the risk of being unmindful without a reminder that I’m engaging in the important practice of rest and downtime.

Many, if not all, religious and spiritual traditions encourage the practice of contemplating one’s death. From the medieval Christian practice of the memento mori (keeping a reminder of death, such as a skull, in prominent view) to the Buddhist practice of meditating in charnel grounds (above-ground sites for the putrefaction of corpses), there’s a common recognition that a considered relationship with death makes for a better life. Why? Because contemplating death keeps fresh the knowledge that our time here is limited and helps to clarify priorities and values.

To this end, here are three practices for contemplating death in your daily life.

1. Death is all around you

Spend a few minutes each day looking around and noticing everything that once was alive and now is dead. If you’re indoors, you may notice wooden furniture, fabric made of cotton, a leather belt, fruit displayed in a bowl. If you’re outdoors, you may notice branches and leaves scattered on the ground, a dead squirrel on the road, the husk of a desiccated insect. Acknowledge the death that is all around you. Remind yourself that this is also your fate.

2. What will outlast you?

Spend a few minutes each day looking around and noticing everything that will likely carry on after your death. You may notice the grand and stately buildings that have been around for centuries, the saplings and young children whose lifespans may be presumed to extend beyond yours. But also notice the plastic water bottle, the tea spoon, the ball point pen. Even these objects of little significance will likely outlast you.

3. Contemplate death in times of illness

Seize the opportunity to contemplate your death any time you’re ill. It’s a wonderful way to gain insight into the experience of dying. As you lie in bed, listen to the world go on without you. Listen to the cars passing outside your window, the children on their bicycles, the parents pushing strollers. Meanwhile, contemplate your waning strength, your poor appetite, your lethargy. If you’re someone who has built an identity around doing and accomplishing, experience the stripping away of that identity as you cancel meetings and appointments. Mourn the small losses, such as not being able to eat your favorite foods, or missing out on fun plans.

 

If one of these practices intrigues you, I encourage you to incorporate it into your life for a period of time and see what effect it has. Keep in mind that contemplating one’s own death can be distressing. Apply curiosity and self-compassion as emotions arise.

Image © 2019 Erin Bidlake

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