Thinking about death and dying

Thinking about death and dying

I turned 68 a couple of months ago. That’s just two years short of 70, which to my ears sounds seriously elderly. If I conform to statistical norms, then I can expect somewhere between 10 and 15 more years of life. But statistics are of course just statistics. My father lived to over 90. On the other hand, I can easily bring to mind friends, relatives and acquaintances who died at ages considerably younger than I am now.

Buddhist teachings, like those of other religions and philosophies, remind us to frequently recall the fact that death is inevitable and can come to us at any moment. Like most practitioners I suppose, I have done meditations on death, but it is hard to say how fully I really have accepted the inevitability, if not the imminence, of my own death. I did have a bit of a scare a few years ago when I was found to have a tumour in the bladder. I was certainly anxious at that time, but I don’t recall feeling any great dread or panic. However, the tumour, though malignant, was small and easily removed thanks to modern surgical techniques, and I chose to believe the doctor’s prognosis that there was a good chance that it would not recur in a more virulent form, which so far has proved to be the case. But I wonder how I would have reacted had I been told that the tumour was inoperable and that I had only weeks or days to live.

I have been trying to think through exactly what it is about death and dying that is most worrying or fear provoking. The immediate process of dying itself doesn’t seem to be anything to fear, at least according to accounts of so-called ‘near death experiences’. These are cases in which people technically died, but were resuscitated and subsequently had memories that seemed to be of the moments just before they died and of the time during which they were supposedly dead. Very few accounts of such experiences that I have read report anything terrifying or painful.

What is a little scary for me, and I am sure for a lot of other people, is the possibility of a relatively long period of suffering before the final process of actually dying begins. This may be compounded by the loss of control we are likely to experience as we become more and more dependent on others, as well as the likelihood that we may be whisked off to hospital to die away from familiar surroundings and people when somebody decides that our end is near.

I suppose the best we can do is to make some sensible preparations, including investigating as soon as possible what alternatives for care may be available and affordable when we are no longer able to take care of ourselves, as well as making a ‘living will’ specifying our preferences for end-of-life medical care, in case we are unable to communicate them at the time. I personally think it is also worth exploring what possibilities there may be for retaining the choice of the moment of our death in our own hands, although this is controversial both among Buddhists and non-Buddhists. But whatever preparations we make, we are probably going to have to accept that a certain amount of suffering is likely to come our way and it will be well to have already developed habitual strategies for dealing effectively with different kinds of suffering.

For many people, perhaps the most unsettling thing about death is that it means the end of our individual stories. We will cease to be. We will also have to say a final farewell to all those we love and to all our other attachments to the world. As Christopher Hitchens nicely put it, “I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence”. Religions have long played on this fear of personal dissolution by promising some kind of continuity of the self or ‘soul’ after death, though personally if I were a Christian or Moslem I wouldn’t be much reassured by the fact that not only is an eternity in heaven on the cards (which would be bad enough) but also an eternity in hell.

I suppose it is possible that there may be some Buddhists who take the doctrine of rebirth as a way of assuaging their fear of death, but as far as I am aware there are no good grounds for this. In Buddhism, (re)birth is the problem not the solution, as in the account of conditioned arising, in which birth is the condition upon which “aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be” (from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya). So although one may in the interim hope for a good rebirth, the ultimate purpose of Buddhist practice is to put an end to the constant round of birth and death, not to prolong it. In addition, the teachings make it clear that whatever may be reborn, it is not what we understand by ‘me’ or ‘I’ when we use these pronouns in everyday speech. According to the Buddha (and, I believe, also according to contemporary neuroscience), there are no grounds for believing that there is a Chief Executive – an essential self, soul or atman, controlling our behaviour and lurking somewhere in our bodies waiting to be reborn or carried off to heaven or hell. On this, I rather like the quote attributed to Chogyam Trumpa (though it seems that quotes are sometimes attributed to him that he may not actually have said).

I have some good news and bad news about reincarnation. The good news is that it happens. The bad news is that it never happens to you.

So for those whose fear of death is tied up with fear of personal cessation, there is not much comfort to be had from a belief in rebirth. Those who truly are able to live moment by moment from a deep, visceral (as opposed to merely intellectual) awareness of selflessness (and such people do seem to exist), then death as the cessation of something already perceived to be an illusion is hardly to be feared. And those who keenly feel the suffering intrinsic to samsara will be afraid only that they might be reborn. However, when it comes to me, I cannot deny that my impending absence from ‘the party’ is a little unsettling, although when I think about it, being condemned to party on for ever would be far worse. Nevertheless, I hope that when the time comes I will have enough equanimity to “go gentle into that good night” (assuming I am not put an end to suddenly by a large truck or bus). If there is rebirth, then I can only hope that whatever being inherits my unripened karma will not suffer too much. If there is no rebirth, then as a teacher once put it to me, “problem solved”.

Buddhist teachings emphasize that as death approaches it is important to arouse wholesome states of mind, such as the four ‘divine abidings’ of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, as well as non-attachment. There are also accounts that suggest that for some people such mind states may be much easier to arouse in the face of imminent death than at other times, especially if there is a wise teacher in attendance (I found Bhikkhu Anālayo’s recent book Mindfully Facing Disease and Death (Windhorse Publications 2016) very useful in understanding early Buddhist teachings on death). I do not doubt that this is the case. Nevertheless, friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity and non-attachment are, of course, worth cultivating for their beneficial effects on living here and now, and it seems to me that the main lesson I ought to be drawing from reflecting on death is that I shouldn’t waste a precious moment of whatever time I have left.

I recently heard Frank Ostaseski say something like this in a podcast with Sam Harris. Frank Ostaseski is a Zen Buddhist teacher and pioneer in the field of end-of -life care. He has also recently published a book called The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully (Flatiron books, 2017), which I am looking forward to reading. During the podcast, when asked about what wisdom he had learned from being with so many people as their lives were coming to an end, he said the following (my transcription).

It’s not just about how we prepare for our dying. It’s more about what we can learn from the wisdom of death that can help us live a full, meaningful, rich life [….] To imagine that at the time of our dying we will have the physical strength, the emotional strength, the mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime is a kind of a ridiculous gamble, so I suggest we don’t wait till that time, I suggest that we reflect on these issues and reflect on the fact of our life NOW, not so much so that we may have a good death, I’m not sure what that is anymore, but really so that we can get how actually precarious this life is, and when we understand something about that, we come into contact with how precious life is, then we don’t want to waste a moment.

‘Not wasting a moment’ is of course easier said than done, especially for someone as easily distracted as I am, but I have no doubt that this is what I should be striving to do, rather than worrying too much about how I should prepare for death itself. I can only keep going back to the simple meditation on death that I was given some time ago by Visu Teoh, although I think I may have adapted a bit over the years. I hope it continues to motivate me until I can truly put into practice the resolutions in the last line.

Life is uncertain. Death is certain
All who are born must also die.
My life is dwindling away moment by moment.
I could die at any moment.
And have to give up every relationship, every possession, every pleasure, every hope and every plan.
This is true of everyone I know and everyone I shall meet.
So I must try to live every moment with kindness, with compassion, with full awareness, with non-clinging and with equanimity.

  1. A very nice reflection on this important topic. I think preparation is indeed essential. When I started teaching large lectures in university, I found that the two most important points for a good lecture were preparation and relaxation, and it occurs to me now that this is true of dying as well. As you know, Graham, I have unwavering belief in rebirth as all of my Dharma teachers have taught it so I can’t agree with your comments on that, but very much appreciate your personal thoughts and conclusion on what is really important about death and dying – not doctrine, but being the finest person we can be and keeping in mind the fleeting nature of life. Many thanks!

    • Thank you for your comments, Roberta. I so agree with what you say. As for rebirth, I am still trying to keep an open mind, but my point is that even if rebirth is true it cannot be taken as a way of avoiding confronting the reality of our personal death.

  2. Graham, thank you for your thoughts. I found them very interesting and I enjoyed reading your essay. I agree with you that what’s important is how we live our life and reflection on death should (1) remind and stir us to live a meaningful and beautiful life so that when death comes we will have no or few regrets and (2) we are determined to meet our death as calmly, peacefully and cheerfully as possible.

What are your thoughts?