Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Death and Happiness

"That Perfect Moment"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


The headline of a recent op-ed piece by Arthur Brooks in the New York Times really caught my attention. The title of the article was: To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death.  

We live a society in which “death” is essentially a taboo topic for conversation – most people think that it is morose and macabre for anyone to spend time reflecting on their own personal death, and how can thoughts about “death” possibly lead to a state of greater happiness while you are still alive?

The Times’ article went on to explain a discipline often employed by Buddhist monks who contemplate the photos of corpses in various stages of decay and imagine themselves as being the corpse in the photo. In fact, it was the Buddha himself who recommended this practice of “corpse meditation,” advising his disciples to reflect upon their own inevitable fate by imagining their own bodies that would some day soon lie in death. The Buddha taught:

To What shall I compare this life of ours?
Even before I can say, it is like a flash of lighting or a dewdrop.
It is no more.

While it may sound somewhat bizarre to the Western mind, the purpose of this “corpse meditation” in Buddhism is not to wallow in grief over the fleeting passage of our own mortality but to recognize that we have a very limited time on earth to engage in the things that matter most in life.

The op-ed article explains it this way:

Paradoxically this meditation on death is intended as a key to better living.
It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of
their own physical lives and stimulates a
realignment between momentary desires and existential goals.
In other words, it makes one ask
‘Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious time?’

Over the past few years there has been an abundance of scientific evidence indicating that, at one level, most people know what brings them greater happiness and deeper peace in life. They understand that praying or meditating or taking long walks in a beautiful natural setting brings them deeper serenity.  At some level we know that practicing compassion and spending quality time with the people we love is a source of happiness. And yet somehow we also think that we have an unlimited amount of time to engage in those things that lead to happiness, and so we waste away our precious time watching way too much TV, constantly browsing the web, strategizing for that better job, the bigger house, the fatter bank account, clutching and grabbing onto all those things that fade away in a flash when we die.  

As I think about it, the practice of “corpse meditation” seems like a wise spiritual practice. I need to remind myself of my own inevitable demise and to reflect on the limited amount of time I have left to do the things that are important and to engage in those activities that bring me true happiness and a fuller life.

I am reminded of something the popular theologian, Marcus Borg, wrote just months before his own untimely death a few years ago:

Many of us live as if we have an indefinite amount of time and
therefore can put off ‘really living’ until some future time.
A vivid awareness of one’s death, its certainty and uncertainty,
can impel us into the present,
to live each day as if it were the last and yet also the first
in a life that may have many years left.

The earnest awareness of our own death is the master teacher,
teaching us how to live.
Without it we run the risk of frittering our lives away.

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