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The Contemplation of Death

This week, a friend of mine posted on Facebook a new ad he’d seen on the New York Subway. It was by the meditation app, Headspace, and besides a photo of some adrenalised looking character, said I meditate to crush it. The friend in question had added the hashtag #SoNotWhyImeditate !

Actually of course, we don’t get to crush life. In fact, exactly the opposite is true; we are all going to be crushed by life, and its black shadow, death.

We don’t tend to dwell much on the fragility of our human life. Yet Maranasati, the contemplation of death, is one of the key ways Buddha invites us to be mindful, sensing the everyday miracle and mystery of our lives. Breath is breathing, heart is beating, body and mind are functioning. And we don’t know how long that will last…

To contemplate death is to meet it with eyes, and heart, wide open. It is also to address our fear, insecurity and self-deception, much of which is an attempt to deny our only certainty: We are on the way to life’s great crusher.

An old story tells of a Samurai trying to intimidate a Zen master. “I am one who can take your head off without blinking an eye” says the Samurai. “And I am one who can have my head taken off without blinking an eye” comes the reply.

To be able to die freely, to relax the defensiveness and agitation that comes from our fear of death, is also to live freely; To attend to this precious, fragile moment right here, as soon we will be gone.

Walking through a graveyard once with my teacher, he drew my attention to the birth and death dates on each headstone. “Everyone’s living and loving, all their concerns and achievements, in the end they are all reduced to that little dash line between the two dates.”

The clearer Death is to us in our life and practice, the more we know that ‘our days are numbered’, the more we start to truly care about what we are doing, what we are saying, how we are caring, for each moment. How am I attending to the person I am with? What am I doing to express what I truly value, with these few moments I have?

Life is short friends. Make good use of it. Honour what you value. Express what you care about. Care for those you are in contact with. Soon we will all be gone.