I may die today. This is a fierce truth from which there is no retreat. Death is the very essence of uncertainty; it is a primal form of outrageous loss and profound disappearance. We know that it waits patiently for our approach. It is natural to recoil from serious consideration of death; however, the most remarkable elements of life originate in our mindfulness of death. To say that “I may die today” is to consciously seek that which we value the most in life.
The Precious Nature of Life
Trying saying this out loud in this very moment, “I may die today.”
Death is the culmination of aging, but no one is guaranteed death by natural causes. Feel the energy of those words and let them resonate around you. What happens to your inner world? What images emerge in your mind? Do certain kinds of emotions or experiences predominate? Does the feeling of time suddenly become unfamiliar, uncertain and strange?
“I may die today.”
When I contemplate this phrase I become immediately reacquainted with a potent sense of fear and dread that provokes an overwhelming urge to retreat to safer ground. The idea of dying today is a frightening presence. And yet I know with certainty that it is inside the nucleus of my retreat, the source of my own fearful turning away, that a remarkable source of vitality awaits my attendance.
In other words, to declare “I may die today” is to mercifully expose the precious nature of life. The felt-meaning of time shifts toward the spiritual frontiers of life. We realize that time cannot really be managed; time is the very essence of our uncertainty.
We cannot know if we will die today.
The location of our death in time remains securely veiled by the future. Through death we reclaim our authenticity and clarify our true identity, that is to say, death clarifies the nature of our belonging to the natural world. Each one of us belongs to an uncertain amount of time.
In this sense, death is a gifted teacher, trusted advisor, and lifelong mentor. The things we value most in life are intimately connected with the face of death. Everything we claim ownership of must be relinquished. Every possession we strive to acquire must be abandoned.
Everything we acquire over the course of a lifetime must be given away.
The Sanitisation of Death
Our relationship with death has become distant and impersonal.
In the twentieth century, however, Western society became dominated by the concept of success. Death represented the failure of medical science… the pathos of the deathbed scene was removed; compassion was shown by denying to a person that death was imminent…
The scene shifted from the family home and familiar bedside to the sterility of a hospital in which medical science prolonged life to the point of ugliness… The medical profession, becoming so skilled in prolonging life, took over death and sanitized it with white coats and medical smells.
The individual no longer had the identity of his or her own death.
Death is not merely a medical event; it is not a failure of science. Our scientific advancements fossilize in the presence of the great forces of life.
We tend to outsource the difficulties of life, often to a form of external expertise or medication. Though we may feel we are avoiding painful situations in life, we are really outsourcing essential experiences that serve to deepen and transfigure the experience of being alive.
Medical science has unintentionally created the painful possibility of being kept alive too long. We can feel embarrassed and humiliated by death. We may neurotically view it as a kind of failure. These kinds of perspectives intensify our suffering because they are fundamentally deceptive.
Reclaiming Our Own Death
There is a growing movement toward reclaiming our own death.
The hospice-palliative care movement embraces death as a natural event that requires great sensitivity. Palliative care does not aim to cure; it is a holistic approach focused on the provision of a good death. In other words, death is embraced as a natural and normal consequence of life.
“The best place for death to happen is where the patient belongs, and that is the home environment. Most symptoms can be controlled and the relevance of home care cannot be overemphasized. Good communication skills are vital. The family needs to be convinced that unlike in mainstream acute care medical practice which is like mathematics, a problem to be solved, several incurable illnesses have to be regarded as an experience to be lived through.”
The Province of British Columbia in Canada has developed a Joint Protocol for Expected/Planned Deaths that is designed to “provide guidance to individuals at the end of their lives, families, and healthcare providers on how to have an expected/planned natural home death.” It is a progressive vision that helps to repair our relationship with death and dying.
One of the core disciplines of life is to prepare for death. It is in the space of this uncomfortable truth that we discover the deeper frontiers of identity, authenticity, meaning, purpose, and vitality.
How does the mindfulness of death inspire life?
According to Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyato the mindful consideration of death inspires a deeper reverence and appreciation for life: “I may die today is a non-deceptive thought because it originates in a universal truth.”
Deception is a pervasive form of malignancy within modern society. For example, a great deal of news media originates in a loathsome attempt to provoke fear, anxiety and a sense of panic. In other words, the news media is effectively a form of deception, manipulation, and exploitation.
Death does not deceive.
The possibility of dying today is truthful and offers no illusions. In this sense, to say “I may die today” is to seek equilibrium, solace, and sanctuary while working to survive in the tempest of modern living.
“Since our intellectual knowledge of death does not touch our hearts, each and every day we continue to think, ‘I shall not die today; I shall not die today…’ This mind that thinks every day ‘I shall not die today’ is deceptive – it leads us in the wrong direction and causes our human life to become empty.”
– Geshe Kilsang Gyato in Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom
In the aftermath of our death, we lose our relationship with the here and now. Our presence in life is transformed into a memory. In this sense, the contemplation of our own death is a pathway to embracing the immediacy of vitality and fulfillment in the here and now.
Geshe Kelsang Gyato identifies the contemplation of death as a core discipline of spiritual development. The felt-meaning of death and the wisdom it invites requires mindful cultivation. To say “I may die today” is to celebrate the fact that there is something to experience, rather than nothing at all.
Each day is precious because it always carries the possibility that it may be our last.
“I may die today” acknowledges the harsh reality that there may be no tomorrow.
I will die… one day
We exist in time. We are in constant motion. Change is inevitable.
Our biological relationship with time is aging. As a force of unavoidable change, aging is also a cause of death.
The physiological realities of senescence are the raw materials of our creativity. There is no meaningful spirituality in the absence of death. To seek authenticity and truth is to hold a courageous conversation with death.
When we lose our relationship with death we lose a fundamental source of personal enrichment, inspiration, and opportunity in life.
To continually transfigure the faces of your own death, ensures that, at the end of your life, your physical death will be no stranger, robbing you against your will of the life you have had; you will know its face intimately. Since you have overcome your fear, your death will be a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of your own nature.
– John O’Donohue in Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
To say “One day… I will die” is to end deception and embrace a fundamental truth. However, we live in an era in which words are easily divorced from practical application and direct personal experience. It is necessary to sit with this thought and give our attention and awareness over to it through mindfulness and meditation.
Death and wisdom are intimate companions.
In the absence of death, wisdom becomes petrified. The avoidance of death is the loss of integrity and creativity. When we lose touch with our own death we become strangers to ourselves and lead lives characterized by a ferocious busy-ness infused with a well-honed suicidal fervor.
Ultimately the statement “I may die today” is a means to reclaim “the deepest side of our own nature.” It helps us to become acquainted with the face of our own death, that is to say, the face we witness every time we glance in a mirror.