Mindfulness of death: reflections on the brevity and purpose of life
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
My father often spoke of death as a homecoming and was as prepared as he could be for his transition in 2007. Doctors had suggested procedures to prolong his life, but he insisted on dying at home. He did not want to be medicated or intubated.
After a stroke which left him paralyzed, he was released and we took him home. He could no longer speak, but he had just enough strength to contract the muscles of his fingers and thumb. With my finger in his hand, he could squeeze. “If you can hear me, squeeze my finger.” He squeezed. “If you’re comfortable, squeeze my finger.” Squeeze. “If you’re thirsty, squeeze my finger.” No squeeze. “You are not thirsty. Is this correct?” Squeeze. If computers could be programmed using 0s and 1s, I reasoned we could communicate volumes with a simple squeeze. “Are you ready to go home?” Long pause. Squeeze.
The atmosphere was somber, but celebratory. Many people who loved him stopped by the house to pay their respects. My mother, sister, aunt, several friends and a man like a son to him were at his side when his vital force began ebbing away. We thanked him for the good he had done. We shared experiences. We took turns reading passages from the Bible and singing hymns. His breath became erratic. The time had come for him to experience the Reality of Death, the Great Mystery.
The time of his departure was at hand. The sky was pink. The sun was tucked behind a cloud. It looked like a one eyed Cyclops, or like the eye of God surveying the city, seeing all. On December 31, 2007 at 1:15PM, my father gave up the ghost. He took his final breath. I checked his pulse. There was none. The spirit that animated him returned to the Mystery that gave it. He departed as he came- helpless, fragile, vulnerable… and loved. I stood at the foot of his bed. “You have fought the good fight; you have finished your course; you have kept the faith.” Darkness fell. His body grew cool. He returned to peace. I would go to him; but he would not return to me.
At last you have departed and gone to the Unseen.
What marvelous route did you take from this world?
Beating your wings and feathers,
you broke free from this cage.
Rising up to the sky
you attained the world of the soul.
This phantom world gave you false signs
But you turned from the illusion
and journeyed to the land of truth.
Yours is now the Soul of Souls!
Now you have gone to rest
in the arms of the Beloved.
In our home, death was not taboo, nor were we shielded from it. My father presided over many funerals and sat vigil for the dying. When I was a child, I remember accompanying my father to a funeral for an infant. I still recall the swollen, misshapen head of the small child resting in his coffin. He looked as if he had been molded by an amateur attempting to sculpt a child out of clay. It wasn’t quite right. There was nothing adorable about the baby in the coffin. No innocence. He looked monstrous. His face was swollen and discolored, his eyes were sewn shut. His body had begun to decompose and I could smell the rot. I was a child staring at a child who wore the face of death. I felt fear. I could not pretend it away. My father did not coddle nor comfort me. His intention was not to comfort, but to instruct.
In introducing me to Death, my father gave me the gift of truth. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the late author Steven Covey suggests we live “beginning with the end in mind.” Death is the end. My father lived with this end in mind. He put “first things first”- another of the seven habits. My father preached on death often and showed us how to live a meaningful life: how to love, how to endure, how to serve, how to stand up to injustice, how to pray, how to fast, how to forgive, how to transcend suffering, how to live life more fully, more courageously, more authentically. From him, I learned to accept and embrace death. Death itself was servant to the One who created the Waster to destroy. My father challenged me from a very early age to confront what I could not escape and to work within its confines. I also learned to walk into fear to learn its nature.
I respected our tradition, and was curious to learn more about others. Like Nachiketa, the boy in the Upanishads who visited Yama, the Lord of Death, I, too, wanted to know, in life, the secrets Death had to teach. Although I could not learn directly from the Lord of Death as Nachiketa had in the allegory, I could explore what others had to say about death and life after death.
In the Tibetan tradition, death is a bardo, a transitional stage or intermediate state between death and rebirth. As in many religions, our thoughts, words, and deeds in life determine the fate of our souls after death. Dying can be a period of intense spiritual progress and is viewed as an opportunity for liberation. Whilst conscious, we may seek forgiveness and forgive, relaxing into acceptance, letting go of attachments, extending love to others, expressing gratitude for lessons learned and for this precious gift of life. As consciousness begins to unravel, we enter the stage of dissolution. The vital force wanes as death draws nearer. In many traditions, clerics begin administering last rites at this stage. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the following instructions are given as the breath is about to cease:
The time has now come for you to seek the Path. Your breathing is about to cease. You will be set face to face before with the Clear Light. You are about to experience it in its Reality, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky. At this moment, know thyself; and abide in that state.
According to the Book of the Dead, when the breath has ceased, the vital-force sinks into the nerve-centre of Wisdom and the Knower experiences the Clear Light. As the vital-force continues its journey through the right and left nerves, the Intermediate State
momentarily dawns. When all the symptoms of death are about to be completed, the following instructions are whispered in the ear:
O nobly-born, do not let your mind be distracted. This is the moment of death. Take advantage of this moment. Resolve, for the good of all sentient beings, to keep your effort focused on love and compassion towards them.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is a technique for the dying called tukdam. The practitioner enters into a meditative state before death and remains in that state post-mortem. In the first scientifically peer-reviewed study on the phenomenon, researchers wrote:
Tibetan Buddhists believe that this state, known as tukdam (thugs dam), enables one to achieve spiritual liberation by experiencing the fundamental nature of mind that is said to be especially accessible at the time of death, when the mind is believed to no longer register sensory impressions or engage in conceptual elaboration. All humans are said to have this opportunity, as it is believed to arise naturally during the process of dying, but only advanced meditators are thought to have the ability to apprehend and use that experience for spiritual realization. According to the tradition, this meditative state manifests externally as a delay in, or attenuation of, the processes of postmortem decomposition. The visage of those in tukdam is described as radiant, their skin remains supple and elastic, and the area around the heart is said to be warmer than the rest of the body.
Recently neuroscientists were able to record what happens inside the dying brain (Vicente et al., 2022). Results were obtained from an 87-year-old patient who had had epilepsy and suffered a fall. She was monitored with an electroencephalogram to detect the seizures, but during the recording of the brain waves, she had a heart attack and passed away. Evidence shows the brain has bursts of activity similar to memory flashbacks. So the idea of a life recall, a life review, or of life passing before one's eyes may have some truth to it. Their research suggests that the brain may remain active during and even after the transition to death, and "may possess the capability to generate coordinated activity during the near-death period."
When the matriarch of my ex-wife's family was dying. A Catholic priest came to administer last rites. I found parallels between traditions.
I remained by her bedside throughout her transition, praying and whispering words of guidance and comfort. Buddhists meditate on tutelary dieties. We meditate on Christ and speak of angels and saints. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the dying are enjoined to "remember whatever devotional practices you were accustomed to perform during your lifetime. Meditate upon your tutelary deity." In our case, our guide is Jesus Christ. As with my father, the songs and verses came easily. During my vigil, I recognized the value of our faith and traditions and found value in traditions of others.
In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, whatever fears or terrors arise are recognized as reflections of one's own consciousness. The Knower is enjoined not to fear one's own thought-forms. As a guide, I quoted Scripture that affirmed our faith, to fear not. I encouraged her to trust, expand into Truth and surrender to Love.
Is this the way? I don't know. But in all cultures, there seems to be an intuitive knowing and similar approach to the dying process. Without schooling, many know to comfort, to express their love and gratitude to the dying.
Wrote one woman:
A few hours before my precious husband passed, I pulled the side rail down on his hospice bed. There wasn't room for 2, so I moved up as far as I could above his head and wrapped myself around him. He had become unresponsive. I just talked to him and told him how happy he had made my life and talked about all of the good times we'd had. I told him not to be sad, that we would see each other again, on the other side. Our favorite thing to say to each other, was the poem, 'To The Moon and Back'... After I had finished talking about our life I sang the song to him and even though he he had been unresponsive, I got the faintest little smile from his lips. I know he heard me. I smothered his face, hands and chest with kisses. I told him that he'd been in a long hard battle and that he didn't have to fight anymore, that he could just rest now. He passed over about 4 hours later.
What do we truly know of the mystery we call death? Who among the living can give us an account of death? Who has wandered to those remote precincts and returned to speak of the journey?
I learned that there were those among us pronounced clinically dead who had returned to life. They related their near death experiences (NDEs). Many of these NDEs shared common threads regardless of culture. Most spoke of out of body experiences, of tunnels and lights, of beautiful realms, of encounters with spirits, entities, or loved ones who had died. Many reported experiencing a life review. Their history played out as if panoramically and their perspective included not only their own but everyone with whom they had interacted. In this way, they understood why karma, or destiny, unfolded as it had. Many reported peace, an absence of pain, and a pervasive sense of absolute and unconditional love.
In 2019, I experienced my own NDE. I was by a trail in Mexico with 2 friends and lost consciousness. I stopped breathing for about a minute and was unconscious for about 20 minutes- according to them. Many of the most salient features of NDEs were present: dissolving into an ocean of pure light, a life review, a pervasive sense of absolute and unconditional love, an acceptance of death, an absence of fear. I knew my work was not done and felt my spirit returning to the physical plane. As I descended, I felt old, familiar pains and the heaviness of this physical form. I welcomed them all.
When I opened my eyes, I was on the ground. I noticed layers of white cirrus clouds dancing on a canvas of blue sky. Every blade of dried grass seemed sacred to me, every insect, every bird. I sat in timeless awareness. I felt disoriented. My sense of proprioception (the awareness of the body in space) was rebooting and I felt disjointed- as if one arm were longer than the other or my lower body was disconnected from the trunk. I felt like an infant who realizes that with thought, he could make a finger twitch or leverage the arm and prop the body up to a seated position. A deep sense of reverence for this precious life flooded my being.
A sadness descended as I took inventory of the meaninglessness that had been my life. Even though I spent my life serving others, it seemed pointless: the ambition, the goals, the plans, the busyness, the titles, the possessions, the attachments. Death is the universal solvent, it burns through every illusion. Death is no respecter of persons. Death destroys all that seems to be, all that is transient. "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!" (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Once I regained my strength, the illusion of what I used to think was normal returned. I requested solitude after reassuring my friends that I was OK, saying that I would rejoin them shortly. I sat in meditation with my eyes closed. I was startled by a grunt and opened my eyes to see a bobcat about 8 feet away peering at me. He leapt and ran about 30 feet before turning around to look long at me. What is this Mystery and profound gift we call life?
Skeptics might dismiss these anecdotal experiences as the final gasps of a dying or traumatized brain. Brain activity spikes prior to death. Studies have shown evidence of surges in EEG at or in the period following clinical death (Chawla et al., 2009; Auyong et al., 2010; Norton et al., 2017). Excessive carbon dioxide in the blood produces tunnel like effects. Lack of oxygen can produce hallucinations. Using ketamine and other drugs, scientists could replicate many of these experiences, suggesting that consciousness is merely a neurochemical response to the trauma of impending death.
Veridical near death experiences challenge this assumption. A veridical NDE is one in which a clinically dead person reports verifiable facts acquired while in the death state that they could not have otherwise known. Dr. Raymond Moody studied NDEs. I cite two examples from his research:
"An elderly woman had been blind since childhood. But, during her NDE, the woman had regained her sight and she was able to accurately describe the instruments and techniques used during the resuscitation of her body. After the woman was revived, she reported the details to her doctor. She was able to tell her doctor who came in and out, what they said, what they wore, what they did, all of which was true."
In a second instance, “a woman with a heart condition was dying at the same time that her sister was in a diabetic coma in another part of the same hospital. The subject reported having a conversation with her sister as both of them hovered near the ceiling watching the medical team work on her body below. When the woman awoke, she told the doctor that her sister had died while her own resuscitation was taking place. The doctor denied it, but when she insisted, he had a nurse check on it. The sister had, in fact, died during the time in question."
Some skeptics dismiss the methodology behind these claims, asserting that many were reported by the patients themselves years after the event. These are valid critiques. But, what of those validated by clinicians?
NDEs suggest that a part of consciousness survives physical death. But then what? The Department of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine has been conducting 50 years of active research into claims by children between the ages of 2 and 5 who speak of memories they claim to have had in previous lives. Of the 2,500 collected cases, about 2,300 have been coded and entered into their database. Examples of comments a child might make include:
“You’re not my mommy/daddy.”
“I have another mommy/daddy.”
“When I was big, I …(used to have blue eyes/had a car, etc.).”
“That happened before I was in mommy’s tummy.”
“I have a wife/husband/children.”
“I used to…(drive a truck/live in another town, etc.)”
“I died … (in a car accident/after I fell, etc.)”
“Remember when I …(lived in that other house/was your daddy, etc.)”
While it is not uncommon for a child to make such statements, what distinguishes these is their persistence, detail, and incongruity with their current life situation. Upon investigation, many of these recollections match up with the lives of those they claim to have lived.
When my nephew was 2 and just beginning to talk, he told me that before he was born, he was floating in the clouds with God. He said that God put skin and bone on him and he entered his mother's womb. What he said was similar to a commonly held Native American belief of the Great Lakes region. A spirit chooses his or her parents. The spirit then comes to Earth to hover around his or her mother while she carries the fetus until it finally inhabits the body, or "niiyaw," the Ojibwe word for vessel.
I knew nothing about the University of Virginia study then. But I remember being perplexed. I took notes. We were a Christian family. My father was a minister. I did not accept the validity of reincarnation.
Over the years, I have come across research and books that challenged my assumptions and stretched my imagination, returning me to a beginner's Don't-Know-Mind. These accounts allow me to see events and people in a way that is more open and compassionate. Like a boy enjoying Aesop’s fables, I do not have to accept talking lions or mice to appreciate the lesson. Staying open to other interpretations focuses attention away from what my mind thinks it knows. These stories open the mind to Mystery in more expansive ways, challenging my own hubris. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. I am approaching 50. To assume that my life experiences and belief systems explain all phenomena (seen and unseen) is arrogance and can be both dangerous and limiting.
What follows are 3 accounts that invited me to question what I thought I knew. The first story challenges the egoic identity which identifies with race, gender, nationality, religion, etc. These attachments are the root of much suffering.
As I considered this, I imagined a Nazi solider returning as a Jew (and vice versa), a Christian fundamentalist returning as a Muslim (and vice versa), a man returning as a woman (and vice versa). This framework accounted for why many people have peculiar interests, why some feel uncomfortable in their bodies, why people have particular personality types, strengths and weaknesses. Again, the point is not to present this as truth. It is to challenge myself to question what I think I know and to stretch my thinking.
The second account is an NDE. Lewis Brown Griggs invites us to reframe adversity.
That we are here to do soul work is compelling. The idea challenges me to reconsider my work not in terms of the title or role I assume, but as a quality I want to embody and work toward expressing. For one, the work might be to extend compassion, for another to practice forgiveness. Some of us must learn to let go of fear or control, others how to express from one’s highest being. The curricula for one may be to discover the beauty within, for another, it might be to learn to remain equanimous through suffering. Everything else we imagine as our work, is of secondary importance. If my true work is to learn to love unconditionally, for example, I can do that as a janitor or as a CEO. The role I assume is not as important as the way I use my role to connect with others. After all, a carpenter modeled love and compassion for generations.
In Seth Speaks, the author puts forth the idea that we choose our circumstances: our ethnicities, gender, race, birthplace, etc. We make agreements with other souls to play certain roles (e.g. I will be the father; she will be my confidant; they will be our adversaries). We immerse ourselves into these roles, receiving guidance from the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional self as needed. The drama that unfolds is for the good of all. From this perspective, the soul is not singular, but larger, more expansive and interconnected. Again, we are not accepting this as ultimate truth. We are approaching the unknown with a curious and open mind.
In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a neuropsychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, chronicled his experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps.
Even under extreme duress, Dr. Frankl wrote, we had the freedom of choice, the freedom to choose our own response. Stripped of clothing, imprisoned, starved, beaten with the butt ends of rifles, prisoners still made choices: whether to curse or forgive, whether to share or steal, whether to aid or abuse fellow prisoners like the kapos did; whether to love or hate.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate. Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.
Our choices are influenced and informed by our beliefs. Another survivor of the Holocaust, whose name I can't remember, recalls witnessing crowds of people being marched to the gas chambers. Some were in tears, some were full of fear, others were rejoicing and singing songs of praise. What accounts for this? The event was the same for all. Death was imminent. There was no hope and no possibility of rescue. Yet, each approached death as they had lived.
The final account challenges my assessment of "good" and "bad." Most of us would judge illness as bad and health as good, for example. In this talk, "Dying to be me!" Anita Moorjani shares the lessons cancer taught her.
Several times weekly, I meditate on death. There are many practices. Often, in meditation, I die to ego. There is no self, just awareness. There are analytical practices and other techniques that help us deconstruct conditioned thinking.
Not only do I imagine my own death, but the inevitable deaths of loved ones: my mother, sisters, relatives, my own children. This practice reminds me of the brevity of life and encourages me to live life fully with deep reverence.
Bronnie Ware, a hospice nurse, recorded the top 5 regrets of the dying:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
We can turn these regrets into positive intentions, vowing
to live courageously, boldly and authentically.
to work harder on ourselves than we do on our jobs.
to practice communicating mindfully and compassionately.
to nurture relationships with family and friends.
to pursue our passions and happiness.
I chanced upon a commercial for an online travel agency that pointed to a deeper truth: “Do you think that any of us will look back at our lives and regret the things we didn't buy... or the places we didn't go?” This superficial ad copy points to something deeper. Few have ever walked the untrammeled, pristine beaches of the mind or the islands of refuge that remain unexplored within. While you still have time, go within.
May these words encourage reflection. We will all face death. May we live life accordingly and appreciate the moments that remain with wisdom and gratitude.