Awareness of our mortality is not something we commonly contemplate in today’s modern society. We tend to steer clear of this difficult yet important topic for reasons that are understandable. Contemplating death can spark feelings of fear or anxiety, which can be quite uncomfortable. However, mindfulness of death is a powerful practice that, when explored with care, can actually help us to live life more fully.
In this comprehensive guide to mindfulness of death, we will explore:
What Mindfulness of Death Is and Isn’t
To be aware of our own mortality and the mortality of everything around us is to be aware of the reality of death. On one level, we are all aware of this reality, and yet still, we often avoid thinking about it. Practicing mindfulness of death is about sitting with this awareness in meditation or quiet contemplation. It is about turning towards rather than away from this often uncomfortable reality.
Mindfulness of death is not grim, negative, morbid, or alarmist. In its true essence, awareness of the inevitability of death is about facing the nature of reality. It involves acknowledging the impermanence of all things and sitting with this awareness.
“On each branch of the trees in my garden
Hang clusters of fruit, swelling and ripe.
In the end, not one piece will remain.
My mind turns to thoughts of my death.”
- Seventh Dalai Lama-
Mindfulness of Death and Buddhism
Buddhism also makes note of five contemplations, or five remembrances. Death makes its appearance here, too. The five contemplations are:
“I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that I will fall heir.”
This awareness of our impermanence is fundamental to Buddhist teachings. While these teachings can be startling to many, they are worthy of consideration when we feel ready for them. However, each one of us is on a different path and should explore these concepts in ways that are supportive and encouraging. This is why care is crucial when we are exploring mindfulness of death meditation.
“Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”
- The Buddha-
The Importance of Being Aware of Mortality
Awareness of our mortality is a core teaching of Buddhism, but why should we practice it? What are the benefits of being aware of the reality of death?
When we first begin exploring this subject, it can feel heavy, depressing, and unsettling. For some, mindfulness of death can be psychologically disturbing, which is why exploring it with care is of utmost importance.
However, if we feel the call to explore this type of practice and do so in gentle ways, it will eventually lead us to greater life acceptance. We will start to see that life and death are two sides of our existence. In this acceptance, we discover deeper peace and contentment with the natural flow of things.
“When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
- Mary Oliver, from When Death Comes-
How to Practice Mindfulness of Death With Care
When practicing mindfulness of death meditation, it is helpful to start gently. We do not want to overwhelm or disturb ourselves in such a way that leads to us running from the subject all together. To practice this form of mindfulness with care, you might consider one of the following practices:
Spend some time in the natural world, perhaps walking through a calming forest. Find a plant that speaks to you, whether it is a tiny seedling or a well-rooted tree. Consider the beauty and wonder of this plant – the fact that it started as a tiny seed and blossomed into this miraculous life form. Then, consider the fact that this plant will one day die. When it does, it will shift into another form, becoming nourishment for the soil and the next generation of plants.
Come into a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes and ground into this practice for a few minutes of mindful breathing. Once you feel settled in your environment, consider the fact that any breath could be your last one. Savour each breath as if it were your last, harnessing appreciation for the gift of each full breath cycle.
Life and Death Contemplation
You can also meditate on death through direct contemplation on impermanence. Take your time to settle into a comfortable seated position and when you feel grounded, begin to consider that everything comes and goes. Consider the fact that change is the only thing constant about life. It is not something we can outwit or outrun. Explore this contemplation with care, grounding through your breath again and again. You can use this worksheet on life and death as a guide.
As you practice any of these meditations or the ones to follow, you might encounter strong and difficult emotions. If fear and anxiety arises, you can practice mindfulness for death anxiety by releasing the contemplation and tuning into your body. Notice where you feel the emotion and send it your loving kindness. You can do this by:
6 Mindfulness of Death Meditations
If you feel drawn to deepen your awareness of death, you can consider the following six mindfulness exercises to guide your inquiry. As you explore these, remember to take your time. The key is finding a balance between nurturing our psychological wellbeing while also pushing ourselves to venture into uncomfortable territory for personal growth.
1. Acceptance of Death and Meaning of Life – Alan Watts
Philosopher, writer, and speaker Alan Watts explores the natural cycle of life and death. The natural cycle of plants is just as natural as the cycle that we humans go through. This talk invites us to shift our perception of death and to realize that it is an inevitable part of life.
2. Death As An Advisor To Life – Ram Dass
This video is a talk on death as being an advisor to life. From Wisdom 2.0 2016 in San Francisco, it offers wisdom from Roshi Joan Halifax, Frank Ostaseski, and Ram Dass. In the words of Ram Dass, “How you spend your life in each moment is the rehearsal for death. It’s called, ‘Be Here Now’.”
3. Nachiketa and the Lord of Death – Jack Kornfield
Jack Kornfield tells the story of Nachiketa and his journey to meet with the Lord of Death. This talk offers wisdom in its examination of Nachiketa’s journey. What can we take away from this ancient story?
4. On Death – Ajahn Amaro
Ajahn Amaro answers questions about death contemplation. He provides guidance as to how we can meditate on death using reflection, visualization, and other practices. Some of the practices highlighted in this talk are best suited for more advanced practitioners. Follow your intuition when choosing a practice to explore.
5. Meditation on Death – Bhikkhu Analayo
This guided meditation enhances our present moment awareness of the body before offering the reminder that this mind-body we experience will one day die. This is a more advanced practice so it is highly recommended that you first familiarize yourself with the more basic mindfulness of death meditations.
6. Beyond Coping – A Study Guide on Aging, Illness, Death, & Separation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
For those that prefer to learn through reading, this freely offered book is a study guide on aging, illness, death, and separation. It highlights passages from the Pali Canon and offers insight into how we can navigate these more difficult human experiences.
- 1Rosenberg, L. (1997). Death Awareness. Retrieved 10 February 2021, from https://tricycle.org/magazine/death-awareness/
- 2Rosenberg, L. (1994). Shining the Light of Death on Life: Maranasati Meditation (Part I). Retrieved 10 February 2021, from https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/shining-the-light-of-death-on-life-maranasati-meditation-part-i/
- 3Rosenberg, L. (2020). The Supreme Meditation. Retrieved 10 February 2021, from https://www.lionsroar.com/the-supreme-meditation/
- 4Bhikkhu, T. (1997). Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation. Retrieved 10 February 2021, from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html
- 5In Memoriam: Mary Oliver. (2019). Retrieved 10 February 2021, from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/blog/2019/01/17/in-memoriam-mary-oliver