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Gillian Florence

Mindfulness of death - from Sean's community practice April 29th

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I watched the replay of the most recent community practice (April 29th) and was really impacted by Sean's final reflection upon or invitation to explore mindfulness of death. This idea that any breath could be my last really stuck with me and I overwhelming had this feeling of falling in love with life. It wasn't consciously connected, though I think subconsciously it was this recognition that led me to calling both my mom and my dad living on the other side of the ocean. Being mindful of our death can leave us so much more appreciative of life and of what makes life meaningful.

Does anyone else have any reflections they'd like to share about being mindful of death or mortality?

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Hi Gillian. I am a person who really struggles with the reality of death.

Whilst I love the thought of past life and an afterlife the reality is that we only really know one life - the one we're in right now. So we've got to really make the most of the one we've got, right?  That's my mission at least.

I have been fortunate to not yet experienced the passing of someone really close to me yet, so I cannot fully appreciate the depths of bereavement. However, literally in the last week someone reached out to me for support relating to the bereavement of their father.

She hasn't ever been able to move on and get over it. I'd love to help her with some guided meditation so if you have any tips or can point me in the direction of resources you are aware of that can help her, I would be grateful.

Stay safe and well in the meantime

 

Paul

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Hi Paul,

Nice to connect with you! Death is such a challenging experience, partially I think because we haven't developed a way of mindfully discussing, experiencing, and relating to it in our modern culture (of course loss is also a very real source of grief, but it is made harder I believe when we don't hold it in our awareness as a collective).

I have listened to a few Alan Watts meditations on the idea of death, which have been very powerful for me. However, it is hard to say if that is the right sort of thing that would be well suited for your friend. Depending on this persons present state and experience with mindfulness and meditation, I think anything from simple breath awareness to mindfulness of emotions to talks on death (such as Alan Watts offers) could be of benefit. Without knowing the person, it is hard to say what is most appropriate.

I do like this one by Alan Watts, though cannot say that this is the best option for someone in the midst of grief. It could be interesting for you to listen to though.

I also find Tara Brach's meditations and teachings to be incredibly soothing. Not necessarily related to death, however, but she has a wonderful way of compassionately creating space for the human experience: https://mindfulnessexercises.com/teacher/tara-brach/

Now, this is not a meditation, and I haven't actually read the book, but I have heard wonderful things about this book by Pema Chödrön:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/687278.When_Things_Fall_Apart

 

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I haven’t found Sean’s talk on death yet. Looking forward to it. Death and dying are central issues in my work with students / clients and I’ve noticed that these subjects are surfacing more frequently as we rapidly head toward a 4 C temperature increase, as the sixth mass extinction event is picking up speed and as humans begin to realize that covid is going to be with us for a very long time. Here’s a presentation and practice that I use with them with good results. It gets them talking about aging, sickness, dying and death without it getting too personal for them to deal with, and gives them a task (recitation), which gives them a chance to make friends with these realities without falling into a pit of unresolved emotions unprepared. It lets them sneak up on dying and death.

 - - - - - - - 

Exercise 2.3: It’s a Moving Thing … 

 

He who binds to himself a joy

Doeth the winged life destroy.

He who kisses a joy as it flies

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

 

—WILLIAM BLAKE

 

Nowhere is our unconscious and reactive grabbing at and pushing away more apparent in modern society than in our relationship with dying and death. In modern society, the inevitability and evidence of these stages of our existence are kept hidden in the shadows. These natural stages of life are whispered and joked about or not talked about at all. They are referred to indirectly and euphemistically, and frequently portrayed in terms of terror and tragedy. Dead bodies are made to look “lifelike” in the coffin or quickly whisked away for burial or cremation. Grieving people are too quickly, often insensitively, encouraged to rapidly “heal and move on”—well-intended advice that frequently masks a fear and aversion of death and an inability to consciously grieve held by those doing the advising. Our medical model has pathologized dying, and society characterizes death both as an enemy and as failure, rather than understanding these experiences as natural stages of life, and being curious about and attentive to them. Most of us go our entire lives without reflecting on or preparing for what will be one of the most significant events of our life. We do violence to these natural transitional stages at the end of our life to protect our mad fictions of solid, separate, and certain.

With this exercise, we’re reminding ourselves of essential information about how life and all of existence really works. Of all the exercises I introduce people to in classes and private sessions, this one is met with the most initial resistance. However, it is the most valued by those who set aside their resistance and practice it consistently. It’s difficult for modern people to understand how contemplating our own aging, sickness, dying and death can have any benefit, and it is also difficult to release the internalized taboo against making friends with these inevitable experiences of life. The proof is in  ultimate in releasing barriers that block contentment and happiness. What have you got to lose?

Sit in a cross-legged upright position or on a straight-backed chair, with the numbered statements below placed before you so that you can comfortably read them. You may want to type them and print them out, or write them on cards. Inhale fully and deeply, then exhale fully and gently. You’ll be saying these five statements to yourself. Pause for a moment between each of the statements. If you find yourself breathing faster or holding the breath as you proceed, then pause and again inhale fully and slowly, exhale slowly, bring yourself back to center, and continue with the exercise. 

1. Tell yourself:

 

Dying and death are natural seasons of life. 

Every human being dies. 

This cherished body and mind that I see as “mine,” and everyone I know and love, will dissolve away in their season.

There’s no way of knowing when. 

 

Silently pause. Breathe in—receiving; breathe out—releasing.

 

2. Tell yourself: 

 

Dying and death are natural seasons of life. 

Every living system dies. 

Every town, city, civilization, and all of their achievements, knowledge, language, and infrastructure will dissolve away in their season. 

There’s no way of knowing when. 

 

Silently pause. Breathe in—receiving; breathe out—releasing.

 

3. Tell yourself: 

 

Dying and death are natural seasons of life. 

Every living being dies. 

Every tiny organism, plant, animal, fish, bird, and insect will dissolve away in its season. Every species will dissolve away in their season. 

There’s no way of knowing when.

 

Silently pause. Breathe in—receiving; breathe out—releasing.

 

4. Tell yourself: 

 

Dying and death are natural seasons of life. 

Everything in Earth ends. 

Every river, ocean, mountain, valley, fertile plain, and continent will dissolve away in their season. 

There’s no way of knowing when. 

 

Silently pause. Breathe in—receiving; breathe out—releasing.

 

5. Tell yourself: 

 

Dying and death are natural seasons of life.

Everything in existence ends. 

Every star and sun, planet and planetary system, galaxy and black hole, and the endless multiplicity of universes will dissolve away in their season. 

There’s no way of knowing when. 

 

Silently pause. Breathe in—receiving; breathe out—releasing.

 

After you’ve spoken these five statements to yourself, sit quietly and calmly, and acknowledge these truths for a moment before proceeding. Feel each breath as it enters and leaves the body. Sense how this stream of life-sustaining breath connects our internal space with all of external space. Note the pause between the peak of the life-giving breath and the dying breath. Note the pause after the dying breath, before the next life-giving breath enters the body. Feel how natural it is to experience this little death between the inhalations and exhalations of life. Feel the pulse of existence, rising and falling, entering and leaving. 

Close this exercise with the following statements, speaking directly to that part of you that deeply recognizes, values, and honors truth (there’s no need to get dramatic or make a production of it). 

 

Life is uncertain and temporary. 

Dying and death are a natural and inevitable part of life. 

Acknowledging dying and death is sanity. 

I will hold everything lightly, releasing what is no longer essential, beneficial, or accurate. 

I will move easily with the seasons of existence.

 

Quick Version of “It’s a Moving Thing”

 

Every day, take a moment or two to observe your reflection in the Mirror of Truth. Most people in modern society have this mirror hanging on the wall in the bathroom, but few gaze deeply into it. For a few moments each day, instead of using this reflector of truth to push, paint, or shape your appearance into something that meets media-fueled images of eternal youth and expectations of presentable and attractive …  just for a moment, observe the image in the mirror carefully, without telling stories.

As you approach the mirror, inhale fully, exhale slowly, and return the breathing to normal. Now just receive the image without distorting it with mental static, habitual reassurance, or emotional reaction. Observe the hairline, and the texture and perhaps graying of the hair. Note gravity’s effect on the body. Let the face’s mask fall and note the expression that naturally shapes the face. Linger for a moment in the eyes. Over the months and years, neutrally note the changes that come with aging, by degrees, in their season. Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself: 

 

This body and mind are aging. 

This body and mind will decline. 

This body and mind will dissolve away. 

This is just a reflection of organic reality. 

I acknowledge this, and I let this river flow.

 

Then give yourself a wink and a smile and get on with life. The extreme fear and rejection of aging, sickness, dying, and death in our culture is the result of deluding stories and narratives of everlasting life and invulnerability that we tell ourselves and that we’re told by those who gain from our relentless, machine-like pursuit of generation and expansion. There’s nothing morbid or innately scary about acknowledging and incorporating into our consciousness these uncertain seasons of life and existence—quite the opposite. It is our habitual resistance to acknowledging and accepting these avoided and rejected seasons that’s abnormal, unhealthy, and dangerous to society. This pattern of rejecting these inevitable seasons of our existence consistently undermines the quality of life for all living beings in planet Earth. It undermines our own attempts to be contented and happy. This rejection prevents us from fully experiencing the myriad benefits and countless joys that accompany a conscious awareness of mortality. 

“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”

—CHARLES BUKOWSKI

Here in planet Earth, a human being dies every second. Count to ten, right now. While you counted, ten people of all ages died. Even under the best of circumstances, nearly every one of the nearly 8 billion people currently living in Earth will have died over the course of the next century. Trillions upon trillions of organisms, plants, insects, animals, birds, and fish will likewise dissolve away. A healthy acknowledgement of aging, sickness, dying, and death as natural processes that all life participates in is necessary to be sane.

The result of pushing the declining seasons of life into the shadows to protect a manufactured illusion of a separate, solid, certain self is that we’ve become hardened to these seasons in other living beings, and blind to the beauty and fragility of life. And sadly, because they are unable to deal with uncertainty, far too many people live the last moments of their lives snared by the habits of a lifetime, desperately grabbing at the air for an inhalation that will never come, while frantically pushing away the birthright of peaceful release—in a state of confusion, anger, resentment, and unbounded panic—because a lifetime of grabbing at and pushing away has left them unprepared to engage gracefully with an inevitable natural process that clearly reflects the truth that we are not separate, not solid, not certain. By seeing through the illusion of a separate, solid, certain self, we prepare ourselves to recognize and acknowledge our final moments, to consciously and easily let go of everything, and to flow gracefully back into the elements out of which we formed, returning to the source, as do the seasons of the hour, the seasons of the day, the seasons of the year, and the seasons of life. We can prepare ourselves to gently dissolve away, contentedly and happily, vanishing like dew drops on a leaf. 

Consistent practice of these Release exercises normalizes what has been mystified, loosens our grip on what is held too tightly, and softens our experience of life. My work in a hospice setting showed me that the winner of the game of life is always the one who dies contentedly and happily, with an organic smile, no matter what the circumstances. This isn’t something we can just tell ourselves to experience when we near the end of our life … we can’t think it so. It is a way of being that we cultivate throughout our life. Why wait to practice? We don’t know when it will come to us. 

 - - - - - - - 

I’d love to hear what folks here think of it, pro and con.

 

 

 

 

 

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Thank you so much for this with us Jefferey! I love the Mirror of Truth idea. This sounds like a beautiful practice to open ourselves up to the flow of aging that eventually leads to death. There is so much resistance to aging in the world (literally, anti-aging), so a practice like this would help to unravel those limited narratives.

As for Sean's mention of mindfulness of death, you can find it at around the 1:56:00 mark (right near the very end) of this session: https://mindfulnessmastermind.com/4-29-20-community-mindfulness-practice-coaching-sharing-with-sean-fargo/

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The momento mori seems to have been lost in our contemporary cultures. 

A friend of mine was an artist and had Mr. Death in a lot of his art. He once made this pin which says, "Catch you later."

I always have it on my desk along with a brain cell pin and the Amor Fati coin.

I'm mostly a minimalist, but these physical reminders have been great for ongoing mindfulness practice.

mr-death.jpg

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I have actually been thinking about this myself recently - this sense that our modern cultures have lost touch with the inevitability of death. I was reflecting on this as I thought about North American Halloween as compared with Sweden's All Saint's Day traditions (I live in Stockholm). Perhaps, now that the world is largely influenced by distant cultures via social media and the news, some children here in Sweden trick-or-treat, but one thing I really love about the celebration at this time of year here in Sweden is the practice of remembering and honouring the dead. On the 31st, my partner and I will be going to a beautiful forest cemetery called Skogskyrkogården where thousands upon thousands of candles will be lit to honour those who have passed. It is truly a soul-touching experience. I will attach a photo of it from two years ago (though of course the photo does not nearly do it justice).

6ec0edcf-66f8-490d-b580-e575aec37379 2.JPG

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I would love to see this some day. Sweden is amazing.

I've only been there twice, but lived in Germany for nearly a decade. I have the impression that it's a bit more connected with this phase of life overall.

My own feeling since deepening with meditation took place in 2017 and my death anxiety seems to have disappeared, is that death does not actually exist.

Or rather, from a non dual perspective, the only place it exists is in the now - which means it is life or only in life can it be conceived or experienced. 

One would need to be very sensitive with such potentially triggering philosophical noodling, but it seems mathematically impossible for the state of no-thing to exist in the minds of individuals that are experiencing their own consciousness 100%... even if they're not paying attention.

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