Absolute truths are rare in life, but the eventual reality of death is one that remains unchanged. Every creature that is born eventually dies. Although many people avoid contemplating death when they’re not actively facing it, there are others, like me, who can’t stop thinking about it no matter how hard we try. Death terrifies me. I’m perennially anxious about when and whom it will strike and the torment it will surely bring.
Now that I’m quickly approaching my seventh decade, it seems both pragmatic and wise to reevaluate my relationship with death. Instead of futilely trying to run and hide from it, I want to be brave and face death head-on.
Maranasati & the 9 Stages of Death
I tried to confront my fear of death once before—decades ago, when my two children were young and I worried about them constantly. I attended a workshop on making peace with death offered by my local Zen center. But the teacher did not deliver the soothing dharma talk I was expecting.
Instead, participants were led through a Buddhist maranasati (death awareness) meditation where we were told to visualize our bodies going through nine stages of death. This included becoming bloated and blue, our flesh rotting away, being a skeleton held together by tendons, and finally a pile of bones becoming dust scattered by the wind. I’m not sure how the meditation ended because my anxiety rose to such a high level that I had to get up and run out the door.
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It took 25 years, but I’ve finally become curious about this seemingly radical practice meant to help people come to terms with their mortality. Larry Rosenberg, the American Buddhist teacher who founded Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, has written numerous articles on maranasati
meditation, explaining how this ancient and revered Buddhist practice helps to shine the light of death on life.
“It’s not meant to be an exercise in morbidity or self-pity, or in terrorizing ourselves,” writes Rosenberg. “In fact, one often feels light, happy, and unburdened after directly acknowledging the truth of our inevitable death.” Maranasati acknowledges the impermanent nature of everything, he notes, deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.
“We are all companions in old age, sickness, and death—seeing this more clearly can help us see how precious each one of us is. The obstinate familiarity of everything that encloses our daily life can break wide open and yield a new freshness.”
Shining the Light of Death on Material Desires
Rosenberg explains how the fear of death becomes exaggerated in societies like ours that focus on the acquisition of material possessions, worship youthfulness, put the elderly in nursing homes, and sanitize the dead in funeral parlors. “The truth is that we are aging from the moment we are born, that we have no idea when we may grow ill and when we will die. No one is guaranteed even one more breath. Death will take all our acquisitions away, including our sense of who we are, of everything we identify as self.”
Maranasati practices are designed to arouse fears of sickness, aging, and death and bring them to the surface of our consciousness so we can see them and let them go. Death, he says, can serve as a “coach,” encouraging us to live in a whole new way, more completely embracing the present moment and recalibrating our priorities. “When we shine the light of death on the yearning for power, fame, and money, they tend to lose some of their magnetic pull.”
[Read: “Money, Ego, and Relationships.”]
Before the beloved spiritual teacher Ram Dass died in 2019, he co-authored a book meant to bring the essential subject of death out into the open. In Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, he shared his wisdom and personal experiences with the death of loved ones to help readers become less fearful of death and more peaceful when their time comes. He assured his readers that death is safe and dying is the ultimate spiritual practice. Our real home is the soul; the world is only a temporary shelter. Bodies die, but in death we are all one.
According to Ram Dass, the opposite of death isn’t life, but birth. “The beginning and the end are two sacred events, and in between, it is all impermanent. Life is arising and slipping away, each moment, each breath… If I am going to die, the best way to prepare is to quiet my mind and open my heart. If I’m going to live, the best way to prepare is to quiet my mind and open my heart.”
Ram Dass welcomed death with curiosity and calm, without condemnation or resistance. Pondering this viewpoint, I see how much I have projected onto death—so many personal and collective stories of terror and tragedy, grief and loss. But when I tune into death with a calm nervous system and a quiet mind, I can imagine it not as a terrifying reality, but as an integral part of life that I am willing to embrace.
Endings Make Way for Beginnings
I recognize how fundamental death is to all the cycles of life we enjoy and rely upon. Imagining a world without death—the aged never passing, the world running out of space and resources—is actually horrifying. In an increasingly urban and technology-driven culture, it can be easy to forget what nature is always demonstrating: As leaves fall in autumn and vibrant new growth shoots forth in spring, endings make way for and nurture new beginnings.
While I have not embraced meditating on my decomposing corpse, my contemplation of death has taught me how much easier it is to embrace reality versus run from it.
Holding death close serves as a continuous, gentle reminder that every moment I am alive is a special but limited opportunity. It helps me consciously appreciate the fleeting beauty of this world and treasure everyone I love.
For further contemplation: What does it mean to have just the right amount of death awareness?