In a world where death is an absolute certainty, we will all inevitably have to face what we fear the most. This certainty and fear lurks behind just about all our neuroses, delusions, and obsessions in this life.
We are obsessed with fulfilling our desires as quickly as possible, because we know we might die at any moment, and are afraid that, if we don’t seize them now, we will never get a chance to again. Because desires such as these are born of fear, they generally do little but generate more fear in the process, by making us obsessed with reaching for things that are beyond our current experiences.
The same can also be said of all our ambitions. We know our lifespan is limited, and so we want to do something meaningful with our lives, even though we’re often seldom certain of what shape such meaningfulness should take.
Even though we know we will all die, we still act as though we will not, and put it as far outside our perception as possible, coddled by comforting articles about how everyone will live to one hundred, and cryogenic freezing will make it possible for us all to live forever.
When someone dies, or something comes to an end, we often remark on what a ‘shock’ it is. But given the statistical certainty of it, how shocking can it be? Really, the truly shocking, miraculous thing is to wake up every morning and discover that anything is still here –that anything still vaguely possesses the same form! That is the miracle! That is the fragile delight we should celebrate and be amazed by!
Instead of ignoring death, the Buddhist approach is to embrace death and impermanence, and to factor that awareness into everything we experience. However lovely or painful something is, we remind ourselves that it too will pass, and so we cherish and appreciate it, whilst not making things more difficult for ourselves by foolishly clinging onto it, thinking it will last forever.
In this sense, meditation is very much like practising for death.
In meditation, we rest our attention in nothingness, and dissolve all our senses and perceptions into one. Unlike in our day to day activities, when our mind is usually focused on a set of specific sensory experiences, in meditation our consciousness rests nowhere in particular.
Because our consciousness rests in emptiness, it is experientially closer to death. This is why The Tibetan Book of the Dead is praised as a manual for both living and dying. By teaching us to prepare for and experience death whilst still living, it fundamentally enriches our sensitivity to life.
With enough experience, death and life no longer appear to be starkly contrasted poles, but instead a seamless continuity. We see death in life and life in death. We are aware that we are already dead whilst living, because we were never truly born to begin with.
When such an awareness becomes crystalline and informs our daily life, death truly loses its sting, and becomes something to rejoice in.