Buddhism often cites the annihilation of the fear of death as a primary benefit of meditation practice. Some teachings imply, and others outright state, that Buddhism is the only way a person can ever truly come to grips with the inevitability of death- our own and those we love. As I understand the logic, unless you intensively train in what are traditionally called the marks of existence- impermanence, suffering and non-self, you’re destined to kick, scream and gnash teeth on your deathbed in bitter remorse for having not meditated more while you were alive. There’s just one tiny problem with this idea in my opinion; it ain’t true.
As a lifelong Catholic, who has also practiced intensive daily meditation and studied Buddhism for many years, I have personally witnessed many family members face death with grace, courage and certainty- totally absent of even the faintest understanding of Buddhism, Buddha or the Dharma that he taught. They seemed to do just fine in their final hours having spent zero minutes on a zafu.
My grandfather was startlingly content and serene just hours before his death in the faith that he would soon reunite with my grandmother. When I foolishly suggested that he would recover, that this was not the end for him, he grimaced at me. This was a man looking forward to death, and visibly annoyed by my suggestion to the contrary. For him, not dying was a buzz kill.
Recently, I heard Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield explain that we will all resist death in the end, that the body itself will cling to life, which he learned from his own brush with death. The same idea was echoed by legendary spiritual author Ram Dass, based on his near death experience. Unfortunately, neither of these meditation masters knew Pop.
And even if meditation practice was the only true means of eliminating the fear of death, would it really justify the sustained, grueling lifetime effort of mindfulness practice for that benefit alone? From a sheer cost/benefit analysis, I, and most investment experts, would likely agree that it would not. Just weigh the thousands of tedious and often painful hours sitting on a buckwheat cushion against the final few hours, days, or worst case scenario, a solid month, of deathbed terror (most of which will be heavily sedated), and I think you’ll see my point. I’d personally be quite OK with some final teeth gnashing in exchange for all that saved meditation time. If my calculations are correct, you’re looking at roughly 9 weeklong Royal Caribbean Cruises, dozens of ski weekends, and an African Safari or two thrown in for good measure. Not a bad trade by my math.
And that’s not even factoring in the possibility of a Powerball death– the midnight, pain-free, windfall heart stoppage while sleeping in a warm bed death, that most people wish for, and many receive. Think Rose from Titanic. Instead of glorious images of horseback riding, barnstorming and all around ass kicking embroidering her deathbed, imagine if Rose’s life was instead painted with grim portraits of close-eyed, crossed-legged breath gazing. I imagine Jack Dawson’s first question in the afterlife reunion would have gone something like, “I gave up the floating door for THIS?”
Then there’s the question of how we cope with the death of loved ones. Does not meditating assure screaming, wailing and melting down to the core (even though there is no such thing as a solid core) when someone we love inevitably dies? Again, from personal experience, I think not.
So the question remains, is there a benefit to the meditative approach to death and grief that cannot be found in other faiths and philosophies?
For this, I don’t have to look very far. Last week my sister died.
She was 48 years old, a wife and mother of two high school boys, and daughter to two loving parents just 8 days from their 50th Wedding Anniversary, when my sister unexpectedly passed away from extremely rare complications due to double pneumonia, a few days before Christmas-our family’s favorite holiday. A perfect winter storm you might say.
Being thrust so quickly and violently into a boot camp of grief has taught me a thing or two about what many years of intensive mindfulness training can do for a person at such times. Maybe the loss is too recent and the pain too raw for a broader perspective to properly frame the topic. But the verdict has never been clearer to me, and the benefits of sharing what I now know in the strange, uncertain thick of this fleeting moment seem too potent to hold back.
When I received the final news by phone, racing from the city to a Long Island hospital, a curious wave of stillness and compassion cascaded over me. Something inside knew that the welfare of others would depend on my welfare, and so I instinctively put on my own oxygen mask first.
A deep well of sorrow and a highly charged, unnamed emotion swelled throughout my solar plexus and gut to the heart and throat, heating my face and head with numbing pin-pricks. Long forgotten childhood memories whizzed by with the traffic as a few frightening voices peeked in, but soon dissipated in the steady flow of mindful breathing. Awareness itself marveled in awe at the brilliant firework show of thoughts and emotions exploding in a midnight sky. A desperate impulse urged to call someone, anyone, as my four door Impala floated down the Grand Central Parkway with three empty seats. But there was a refusal to pierce the sacredness of the moment with words. A harsh landscape of grief was being mined for emotional riches, and there was no me to be found anywhere inside it. The training kicked in. Awareness was awake.
It would be my lifeline throughout the brutally raw hospital scene where shocked family members whispering love to a corpse awaited my arrival. It has stayed for memorial services, breakdowns and countless moments of gut-level grief. Through it all, awareness was awake.
As I sit here writing, on the dining room table my grandmother wished for me to own before she passed, I look back at the urn that now holds the ashes of her namesake, my sister, Laura. I’ve never understood cremation, seems unnecessarily morbid to me. I prefer remote burial sites, well beyond the safe boundaries of my own living room. But it reminds me that I’m not in control of her wishes. Of anything.
And so I occasionally stare at the death on a shelf behind me that used to be my big sister, and remember that nothing in this world is ultimately solid, satisfying or lasting. And awareness is awakened.
Had I never sat on a meditation cushion, or cultivated a mindfulness practice for the past 15 plus years, It’s fairly certain I would have survived this nightmare, just like everyone around me is doing, with brilliant courage and grace. But survival is not the point; never is. Cockroaches survive. Humans grow and thrive. That’s what this bizarre, cosmic episode is teaching me, whether I wanted the lesson or not.
That’s what mindfulness has trained me for, to use every landscape to develop wisdom and compassion, even the ones at the bottom of a poisoned swamp.
Buddhists use the image of a lotus flower to make this point. Christians use a cross. Not sure the symbol matters.
So long as awareness is awake.
I dedicate any benefit that is received from this writing to my sister’s journey, and request that everyone who reads it says a prayer, sends loving kindness, or takes a moment of silence to wish for her highest benefit.