Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Vivid Awareness of Death

"In the Moment"
- desert sunrise -

Throughout the day yesterday I saw image after image of those 49 young people who were so viciously murdered at the Orlando nightclub. As I contemplated each of the youthful faces of those vibrant men and women, it struck me how full of life they all were, just starting out on their life-path. The other thought that came to my mind was that, in all likelihood, no single one of them ever imagined they would enter the club that evening and never come out.  After all, when you are 20 or 30 years old the last thing on your mind is the thought that you are going to die.

But, of course, life is short and fleeting and no one escapes 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.

As I meditated on the faces of those 49 young and vibrant faces who were killed so unexpectedly, it came to me that perhaps we might all do well to spend more time thinking about our inevitable 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 dying.  Many may also fear that thoughts of our ultimate death might provoke feelings anxiety and depression, perhaps causing us to lock our doors and hide away from life to keep death at bay. But, as I think about it, I wonder if a vivid awareness of our “death” might in fact lead us to live a fuller “life?”

I am reminded of a recent New York Times article about a discipline employed by some Buddhist monks who contemplate photos of corpses in various stages of decay, imagining themselves as 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 thinking about their own bodies that would some day soon lie in death.

While it may sound somewhat bizarre to the Western mind, the purpose of this “corpse meditation” in Buddhism is not to provoke fear or 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 Times news article explained 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?’

It seems to me that, at one level, most people know what brings them greater happiness and deeper peace in life. They understand that praying or quietly meditating, watching the sun rise or taking long walks in a beautiful natural setting leads to deeper serenity. At some level we also know that practicing compassion in the service of others and spending quality time with the people we love is a source of true 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 peace.

No one thinks this day may be their last day on earth, and so we waste away our precious time watching too much TV, constantly browsing the web, spending way too much time at work away from our families, strategizing for that better job, the bigger house, the fatter bank account, clutching and grabbing onto all those things that fade way in a flash when we die.  

As I meditated on the faces of those young people in Orlando, so tragically “cut-down” in their prime of life, it struck me how important it is for any single one of us to remind ourselves of our own inevitable demise and to reflect on the limited amount of time we have left to do the things that are important so that we might live more fully while we still have time to do so.  

I am reminded of something the popular theologian, Marcus Borg, wrote just months before 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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