Death is painful and often tragic. It’s frightening and one of the hardest things we face. It’s been said that all human fears are individual manifestations of the one fundamental fear: fear of death.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; survival and reproduction are the driving forces of any living organism. Death is the antithesis and thus we fear it on a deep biological level.
Our society often reflects this. When someone close to us is dying, we only talk about it in hushed, serious tones, and sometimes we pretend it’s not happening at all. The dying are confined to hospitals, out of sight and out of mind, and we often avoid telling young children about the reality of death.
Paradoxically, death is constantly trivialized in the media around us. It’s in the newspaper and on TV every single day. As a society, to say the very least, our relationship with death is dysfunctional.
Death is frightening, but it’s also an inevitability. Perhaps the defining quality of the human experience is that one day it will be over. There’s no sense shying away from this as it is simply the truth. And while it can seem depressing, from another perspective it is enormously life-affirming.
If death is the fundamental fear, what happens when you start to confront it? What happens if you fully face your mortality and can ultimately come to accept it?
A powerful method for coming to terms with death is to meditate on it. This consists of visualizing, in as much gory detail as possible, all the different ways you could die. Samurai warriors in ancient Japan were instructed to do this on a daily basis.
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (The Book of the Samurai)
Acceptance of death rarely happens in an instant and will likely be a gradual, ongoing process. But if you can regularly confront the reality of death in your mind, over time the fear will lessen. That’s the practice today—spend a few minutes dying.
Reflecting on death instills an unparalleled sense of urgency, as it makes clear how little time you really have. If you can fully internalize the fact that you only get to do this once, then it is impossible to overlook the necessity of living rightly and living well.
You only have so much time on this earth to create, to love, to feel emotions and sensations, to achieve or to have adventure, to give, to explore or build, to help others, and to experience any part of life worth living.
Remembering death also brings about a sense of gratitude for what you have, because you recognize that it won’t be here forever.
Meditate on death today, and strive to be mindful of death in everyday life. Talk to you tomorrow.
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