Since I just recently posted a couple of poems about death, you might get the idea that I am dwelling on this topic. I don’t even know what “dwelling” means in this case; one man’s dwelling is another’s obsession.
I don’t know you, but am becoming increasingly conscious of the entropy of my days. Perhaps you’ve had a brush with mortality in the form of disease, declining function or an accident. I have been fortunate in that regard. But otherwise, I doubt I am very far from average. I don’t think much about my death in general, but every time I have an encounter with impermanence, a disappointment, a loss, someone else’s loss, whether it’s a specific or a general loss such as, you know, a gas attack or any of the fanatical US military escapades abroad, famine, disease, I’m likely to contemplate, even if for only briefly, my own demise.
There are other times when one encounters mortality, such as in deciding what to do with one’s stuff or completing an advanced health care directive. In fact, recently I had to decide who to put on a list of people I designate to receive my personal medical information. The only time I could imagine such a list being relevant or such information being useful would be if I was incapacitated or at the end of life.
Just the other day I was looking at my premium notice for long-term care insurance. I don’t know how many people have such policies, but the decision to get one is accompanied by journeys into end of life scenarios. And those journeys can become complex, even take on a life of their own if you aren’t careful. Although most people prefer to think of their demise as a short period of declining health or even a sudden event such as a heart attack or stroke, the reality is that for the majority, the end of life is a long and slow process. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the segue from denouement to the downhill slide.
That being the case, some years ago I decided to insure myself against the potentially exorbitant expense of personal care out of concern that my family should not be burdened with that responsibility if I could possibly relieve them of it. But here was this premium notice in front of me and I started thinking about my life expectancy and the relative values of the insurance versus other options. It’s a crapshoot, really. And this is only one way of thinking about one’s death.
Another way has taken place intermittently for me over the past few years. From time to time, I have meditated on feeling my way into the precise frame of mind I would choose to generate at the moment of my death. This has been an deeply illuminating practice of construction, not very different from the vajrayana practice of guru yoga. What usually occurs is that for short periods I am fully able to internalize an expansive and infinitely generous state, settling deeply into vast spacious clarity, unlimited and unreserved loving and also…not surrender, but a fearless acceptance. A choice. What is also interesting about this practice is that while I can visualize myself in some undetermined future, I am less adept at generating this state in the present moment. It’s much easier as a hypothetical than as an immediate reality. Hmmm.
I noticed right away that there were obstacles to sustaining this frame of mind. I began to look more closely at what these obstacles were and engage with them as if they had personalities of their own. Invariably, they involve some form of self-cherishing, some need to concretise my beliefs, hold onto an identity. I was either afraid of feeling my fears or exploring attitudes that limit my ability to open completely to the possibility of unlimited, unconditional, unrestrained loving regard for all. There is something in the way that needs to protect itself, guarding against the prospect of that loving regard not being returned….or a plethora of other reasons. If there was any sense of opening resulting from these internal encounters, it was from realizing that if there’s no one home, there’s nothing to protect.
Which is not to say at all that I don’t exist–or some other self-satisfying emotional dodge. Ultimately, such an exercise is actually about living now rather than living or dying in some imagined future. After all, the idea that at the moment of death I will have the presence of coherent mind to choose my view is a complete projection. It’s a worthy objective, but it’s also a creation of ego. And yet, the contemplation of the finer details of that projection, such as how I really feel about leaving everything or just dropping off into the complete unknown, offers a vehicle to examine the immediate nature of ego operating in a less than fearless and open way.
Engaging directly but with impeccable neutrality with emotional resistance creates a vantage point to approach that resistance with true and unlimited compassionate regard–bodhicitta. It allows me to look more deeply at the resistance I feel to awakening into fearless loving in this moment. A neutral orientation is supremely important. No effort is required, no judgment is possible, no narrow definitions or any agenda are necessary. No requests made, no time limit allowed, no limit at all to the depth of ones ultimate positive regard for whatever hinders one’s innate capacity for fearless loving.
Another component of the imagined ideal mental state at death is its uncontrived and spontaneous nature, unreactive to anything, welcoming everything, undistracted by either the past or the future. Everything is equal and everything is positive. Being present in one’s actual state as it is. No regrets, no needs, no desires; a supreme letting go. Like a bundle of kindling collapsing when its binding is cut. And again, imagining this state in an undetermined future invariably brings me directly into contemplating the reality of this state in this moment.
Take it into the world-now. How does that feel–everything opening up right now into the vast expanse? Isn’t it amazing? Suddenly death is a million miles away….and also, right here.