You might not know this about me, but I contemplate death a lot. From a Buddhist perspective, this is healthy and good. In fact, it’s one of the “Four Reminders.” Pema Chödrön describes them this way:
The traditional four reminders are basic reminders of why one might make a continual effort to return to the present moment. In your daily life, try to:
1. Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life. Beginning to realize how precious life is becomes one of your most powerful tools. It’s like gratitude … once you have this feeling of gratitude for your own life and the preciousness of human birth, then it takes you into any realm.
2. Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone. Life is very brief. If you realize that you don’t have that many more years to live and if you live your life as if you actually had only a day left, then the sense of impermanence heightens that feeling of preciousness and gratitude.
3. Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; what comes around, goes around. The law of karma is that we sow the seeds and we reap the fruit. So when you find yourself in a dark place … you can think, “Maybe it’s time to get a little golden spade and dig myself out of this place.”
4. Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will suffer. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote about the Four Reminders this way:
Joyful to have
Such a human birth,
Difficult to find,
Free and well-favored.
But death is real,
Comes without warning.
Will be a corpse.
Are the laws of karma;
Cause and effect
Cannot be escaped.
Is an ocean of suffering,
Some things I know to be true about death (life?):
1. Truth: Grief is love unbound. When the form that we love is no longer with us, we don’t know what to do with all the love we feel. With no forehead to kiss, no ear to whisper into, no hand to grasp, nothing to hold, we are adrift, lost, maybe even angry and afraid. The lovely Courtney Putnam recently shared this quote on her blog, The Healing Nest, in a really great post, “Continuing to Love“:
We give our love to someone or something or someplace. We are attached to that love. And suddenly (or slowly) that object is gone from our sight. Where do we put the love then? We have this love with no place to put it. Grief becomes our experience of not having our love received, of not having anywhere to put our love. Healing our grief means continuing to love in the face of loss. ~ Deborah Morris Coryell, Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss
I had never thought about grief in this way before, but this feels so true.
2. Truth: Form leaves us, love doesn’t. We may find ourselves with nothing physical to direct our love to, but it’s still there. I can no longer have a bodily experience of those I’ve lost in the past few years. I will never again smell the musky stink of Obi’s neck or touch the soft hair of his belly. I will never hear Kelly laugh or be able to hug her. And that is devastating, heartbreaking each and every time I think of it–but the love remains.
3. Truth: Faith is believing in something you can’t prove, and I have faith in Love. I can’t even explain what love is exactly. I would say that reality is anything you can experience through your five senses, and that means that our thoughts and emotions aren’t technically real, but rather a fabrication of our minds. And yet, what does that mean about love? I’m not even sure if I’d say it’s an emotion or a belief, or defined by actions, I just know that it is, and it’s the most powerful force in the universe. Love is everything.
One Wish: That you know love, even that which is unbound from form, even grief. Our life is precious, death will come, karma is real, and we will suffer–but if throughout all of that, we can know love, we can practice love, it will all be worth it.