“Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.” ~ Socrates
What does that mean? How can death be a blessing, let alone the greatest?
I have been fascinated with death since my younger sister died when I was a child. My mother told me that this was macabre, and this is the normal reaction of many people in our society—that thinking about death is not only strange, but actually negative. To do so will corrupt you, or change you, or somehow emotionally f*ck you up.
Our society teaches us to ignore death—to pretend it doesn’t happen, which is ridiculous considering it is the one guarantee that we all have—we all die.
Many spiritual teachers suggest that rather than not thinking about death, we should think about death. That it is not only healthy and mature, but wise to do so.
So here are seven reasons why thinking about death can be beneficial to your life and to your spiritual evolution:
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” ~ Lao Tzu
The recognition of our own mortality helps us practice aparigraha, or non-attachment or non-grasping. Why hold onto anything impermanent, when all of that will be lost? This is one of the most difficult tenets of the spiritual path, and death is the most powerful catalyst for this understanding.
2. Sense of Humor
“Everyone is so afraid of death, but the real Sufis just laugh:
nothing tyrannizes their hearts. What strikes the oyster shell
does not damage the pearl.” ~ Rumi
“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” ~ Woody Allen
Hand in hand with non-attachment comes a sense of delight, of playfulness, of the innate lila or play of the cosmos. When we are not so identified with ourselves—with our lives—we can engage with even suffering in a playful and joyful way. The awareness of death and the impermanence of this life can help us see the innate hilarity of the human situation, and our own lives, even in their midst.
3. Clarity of Belief or the Meaning of Life
“There is but one freedom, To put oneself right with death.
After that everything is possible. I cannot force you to believe in God.
Believing in God amounts to coming to terms with death.
When you have accepted death, the problem of God will be solved–and not the reverse.” ~ Albert Camus
“Normally we do not like to think about death. We would rather think about life. Why reflect on death? When you start preparing for death you soon realize that you must look into your life now… and come to face the truth of yourself. Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected. Our exploration necessarily begins with a direct reflection on what death means and the many facets of the truth of impermanence – the kind of reflection that can enable us to make rich use of this life.” ~ Sogyal Rinpoche
Pondering death, and the end of life, will help us bring clarity into what we believe—in terms of spiritual understanding—about ourselves and the divine. To bring this to an experiential clarity, rather than just a mental understanding, takes the courage to really accept our end. To imagine dying, and to be open to what one experiences afterwards. Not just to read what others think, what one has been told by different cultures and traditions, but actually to open oneself to this possibility, will crystalize one’s understanding of reality quickly and powerfully.
By making sense of death, we make sense of life. We learn the meaning of life and the meaning of our life.
4. Evolution and Action
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” ~ Steve Jobs
“It is clear to me as daylight, that life and death are
but phases of the same thing, the reverse and obverse of the same coin.
In fact tribulation and death, seem to me to present
a phase far richer than happiness or life…
Death is as necessary, for a mans growth as life itself.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Death will force our evolution. It keeps us going forward when sometimes nothing else will. The constant image of Kali pursuing us, with her vicious fangs and claws, forces us to grow, change, and transform. Kali, the goddess of death in Hindu tradition, is also the goddess of spiritual transformation. This is her true gift to us.
5. Life’s Purpose and Priorites
“Death is a challenge. It tells us not to waste time… It tells us to tell each other right now that we love each other.” ~ Leo Buscaglia
“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” ~ Susan Ertz
“Sometimes in tragedy we find our life’s purpose…the eye sheds a tear to find its focus.” ~ Robert Brault
Facing our own impermanence and our own ending invites us to be more focused on the here and now, and what we want to get accomplished. When we know that we may not wake up tomorrow, we are less likely to put off those important things for the future—we will not kill or waste time on useless activities, meaningless relationships and the like. Instead we will re-prioritize our goals, we will accomplish those goals, and we will surround ourselves with the situations and people that really matter.
When we really prioritize our life, we will come to our core purpose—what we were put here for, or our best gifts to be offered to others. The knowing of the finite nature of our life can be the impetus to discover our true reason for being alive and to fulfill that.
6. Spiritual Practice
“Meditation on impermanence and death that inspires you to engage in spiritual practices. It is an eye-opener. When you become aware that sooner or later you have to leave this world, you are bound to be concerned about the affairs of the next life. This awareness automatically helps you to turn to spiritual pursuits… that helps you to prolong and continue your spiritual practice… this meditation acts as a stimulus, helping you to successfully complete your practice. Therefore, awareness of death is essential at every stage of your spiritual life.” ~ the Dalai Lama
The natural consequence of being non-attached, with a sense of humor, clarity, compelled to act and evolve, with an understanding of your priorities and your purpose, will be the movement towards spiritual practice. This is why nearly every extant spiritual tradition contains among its techniques, a meditation on death.
7. Presence & Mindfulness
“Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations, That on death is supreme” ~ Buddha
The final and most important outcome of bringing more awareness about death into your life is that your awareness in general will deepen. Your presence will stabilize, bringing mindfulness into every aspect of life.
Therefore I invite you to bring death intimately into your life.
To think about it often, and see how that intimacy allows the rest of your life to blossom.
Until the end of your days,
With love and gratitude,
Author: Amitayus Haga
Volunteer Editor: Lindsay Carricarte / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Natalia Drepina/Deviantart