Ready for a very cold open… Are you afraid of death? If not your own, how about loved ones? Teachers in various meditative traditions have implied that mindfulness is the only true way a person can ever come to grips with death. As I understand the logic, unless you spend a good deal of time training to be in the present moment, you run the risk of kicking, screaming, and gnashing teeth on your deathbed because you didn’t meditate while you were alive. Hmmmm.
I’m not convinced it’s the only way. I have personally witnessed many family members face death with grace, courage, and certainty that was totally absent of even the faintest understanding of mindfulness. They seemed to do just fine in their final hours having spent zero minutes on a meditation cushion. My grandfather was startlingly content and serene just hours before his death in the faith that he would soon reunite with my grandmother, and he was no Dalai Lama. When I foolishly suggested that he would recover, that this was not the end for him, he turned his head and 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.
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 perspective, I, and most investment analysts, 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.
Personally, I’d be quite okay with some final teeth-gnashing in exchange for all that saved meditation time. So the question remains: is there a benefit to the meditative approach to death and grief that cannot be found in other practices and philosophies? I learned this lesson first-hand the day my sister died. She was 48-years-old… a wife and mother of two high school boys… and daughter to two loving parents just eight days from their 50th wedding anniversary.
Laura passed away unexpectedly from very 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 taught me a thing or two about what decades of intensive mindfulness training can do for a person at such times. When I received the final news by phone, racing from the city to a Long Island hospital, a curious wave of stillness cascaded over me. Something inside knew that the welfare of others would depend on me, 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 scary voices peeked in, but soon dissipated in the steady flow of mindful breathing.
My awareness marveled in awe at the brilliant fireworks show of thoughts and emotions exploding in a midnight sky. A desperate impulse to call someone, anyone, as my four-door Impala floated down the Grand Central Parkway with three empty seats. But also, a refusal to pierce the sacredness of the moment with words. The meditation training kicked in. Awareness was awake. It would be my lifeline throughout the brutally raw hospital scene, with shocked family members whispering love to a corpse. It stayed for memorial services and countless moments of gut-level grief. Through it all, awareness was awake.
Occasionally I gaze back at the urn in my living room that now holds the ashes of my big sister and remember that nothing in this world is ultimately solid, satisfying, or lasting. And awareness is awake. And a little bit of my resistance lets go with an exhale. Years ago, in a moment of self-doubt, I confessed to questioning the benefit of a meditation retreat I was about to attend, and how weird it probably looked from the outside. Without hesitation, my sister jumped right into the rescue: “Who cares what anyone thinks. That is the single best thing you could do for yourself!” At her service my nephew Jordan shared the following: “Every time you go on retreat Uncle Brian, my Mom says, “He’s talking to the trees again!” Even at her funeral, Laura made me laugh.
This essay originally appeared as a recorded talk on the Ten Percent Happier meditation app.
Reprinted by permission.