Exploring Death Without Fear

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? –Mary Oliver

I have sat with many people as they were dying. I love getting to know people at this time of their life because all pretense is dropped. We deeply appreciate the shared moments because we know their impermanence and fleeting nature. Thinking about death also gives me perspective. What is important and what is not. My meditation practice emphasizes awareness of life’s impermanence.

As a nun I often recite:

Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.

There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.

There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love

are the nature to change.

There is no way to escape

being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.

I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Recently I was invited to lead a series of meditations on death and dying.  While preparing I was reminded of my sister, a nurse midwife, and the norm of thoroughly preparing parents to be, for what they are about to experience during birth. It occurred to me that we are still very far from normalizing death, even though death is a universal experience.

In birth classes prospective parents learn:

  • The basic medical procedures to expect
  • Physical sensations they will likely experience
  • What exercises can make birth easier
  • How caregivers can help
  • Choices they can make to have a more positive experience

I would love to see dying taught in this manner. We are taught that death is merely a change of state along a continuum, one of many we enter and exit throughout life.  Strikingly similar to death, is the process of going to sleep.  We are awake and engaged in the exterior world, then there is a momentary gap and we are in a dream state with another kind of mental experience.  We don’t fear sleep, we accept the changes.  Now I pay attention to the moment before falling asleep, to see if I can recognize it. I have become curious.

Hospice training and experience helps in observing the minute physical shifts that signal progression towards death. I think Tibetan Buddhism looks most acutely at the stages of the dying process  because it offers the potential of intentional rebirth as well as enlightenment during this period. We map the dissolution of the elements of the body inn this tradition. When our body feels too heavy to move it is the earth element dissolving. When our lips are dry and we are thirsty it is the water element dissolving. When we cannot get warm it is the fire element dissolving.  And when breathing slows and is hard to breathe, it is the air element dissolving.  Then the mind consciousness dissolving into space leads to a moment of naked primordial mind. All these stages are a natural process, like going to sleep and waking into the dream. If we can focus our minds on our spiritual ideal we might not miss this precious opportunity to see mind directly – our full wisdom and compassion naked and unadorned.  I have to be curious about that!

We ask our spiritual friends to sit with us reading the map, so we can remember our commitments and that there is nothing to fear along the way. I tell myself again that it is time to write my spiritual will, the texts to read to me, prayers to be said and who to say them. It is a gift for our loved ones to accompany us in this way, helping as a midwife would, to be with us in this spiritually intimate moment. I have treasured the times I have sat in the vast mystery of a life leaving this realm. I know that I meditate now to understand this vastness of heart mind.

Empty-handed I entered

the world

Barefoot I leave it.

My coming, my going —

Two simple happenings

That got entangled.


Like dew drops

on a lotus leaf

I vanish.

—Shinsui, 1769

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