Death Meditation

“Anything that has a birth has a death, and I am no exception.”

~ The Book of Joy

In Chapter 4 of the Rule, Benedict writes, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I will go to church and the priest will mark my forehead with the burnt remains of palms waved in joy one year ago, and pray, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On this day, which this year is also Valentine’s day, we enter a season of penitence and fasting. A time of mindfulness of the patterns of behavior and thought that keep us from living in full faith and companionship with God, and in loving communion with one another. It is a time to sharpen our awareness of the ways we resist life, and avoid the fire of transforming death for fear we will be burned beyond repair.

During Lent, I often fast from some of the ways I use food as an emotional crutch. I thought about giving up JP’s delectable gluten free brownies but that felt old and tired and not true to the work of the moment. This year, instead of giving something up, I am taking on a discipline and meditating on death.

I first discovered death meditation in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It is one of the Dalai Lama’s daily practices. My initial response was one of mild disgust. “That’s all well and good for His Holiness, but not for me.” A few weeks later I encountered a few paragraphs on impermanence in Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict, and the notion of death meditation as a Lenten practice was born. (Word choice intentional.) It came with all the hallmarks of intuition that this is the next right thing: a sense of shimmer and excitement, the ability to breathe, and a healthy dose of fear.

In the past several years I have let go of a great many aspects of my life. Some tangible: relationships, careers, houses. Some intangible: long held, limiting beliefs about what I can and can’t do; a sense of certainty; some of the cherished visions and timelines for my life. With each letting go I have received opening, strength, and brilliance.

Now that I am working and Cole is in school fulltime, I am passed many of the major transitions that have been tossing me around like wild waves. Knowing that life is the unexpected, how can I better accept the transitory nature of existence?  I wonder what else I cling to that can be released?

Hence, meditation on death and impermanence.

My idea is to do this in two ways. First, three times a week I will sit for a formal meditation in which I visualize my own death and ask myself a series of questions posed on page 328 in the The Book of Joy. Second, each night as I lie in bed I will breathe into the back of my heart and say a few thank you’s as I always do, then I’ll visualize my death before going to sleep. That’s the goal, anyway.

I tell you all of this so that I will be accountable. I’m afraid. I’m afraid I won’t have the energy or time or discipline. And I’m afraid that in meditating on death and impermanence I’m somehow calling in an unexpected wave of more transition, more difficult currents. Which is bad theology, but it’s how I feel.

Why wait until February 14th, Ash Wednesday, to begin? Because there’s a communal power to millions of people all over the world engaging with the 40 days of Lent. And what is Lent but a spiritual cleanse; a time to prepare for death and resurrection by stripping away even the tiniest bit of the non-essential so that truth of love can shimmer forth?

I don’t know what this practice will teach me. Which is kind of the point. Consistent Lenten discipline is, to borrow from Rolf Gates’ wisdom on consistent yoga practice, “ . . . not built on rigid self-discipline, [it is] built on the desire to know more.”*

For a detailed script of the meditation I’m using check out page 328 of The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

*Rolf Gates, Katrina Kenison, Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 103.

Photo by Marc-Antoine Dépelteau on Unsplash




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