On Death Meditation

There’s a practice called “Death Meditation” in Tibetan monasteries. The idea you get in your mind when you hear this phrase is probably lying down on a cold piece of sidewalk somewhere and trying to imagine a lot of tubes up your nose, relatives crying at your side, and heart monitors going off with a beeping sound. But this is not the point at all. To put it simply, you just wake up in the morning a and stay there in bed, lying down, without opening your eyes. And you say to yourself: “I’m going to die tonight. What would be the best thing to do with the rest of my time?”

A couple of things will go through your mind right away. It would be like having a surprise day off, and since you’re going to die tonight well, then, maybe try something you always wanted to do that was a little off-the-wall or maybe even a bit dangerous but — what does it matter, if you’re going to die tonight? So I suppose you might get the urge to try skydiving that day, or maybe go sing in a karaoke bar, or get the most expensive tickets to a Broadway play (assuming there’s a matinee).

The Death Meditation practice has to be done on a regular basis, over an extended period of time — and that’s when it has its strongest effect. One result you’ll find comes pretty quickly is that you streamline your life: you cut out the things that you own or do that slow you down. This is the beginning of a new kind of freedom, both physically and mentally. How many pairs of shoes do you have? And where are the pictures of your old vacations, the ones that you don’t look at anymore? In your mind when you hear these questions you start picturing all the different shoes that you have: Your mind goes into your closet and looks at least at the ones you use most often. And then your mind goes to a cabinet or dresser somewhere and sees a few stacks of photo envelope; goes inside one or two; sees roughly what a couple of the photos are of.

All this proves that, somewhere, on some level, you are keeping a mental inventory of all the things you own. Which also means that some part of your mind space is taken up with these details; remember that the mind is like the hard drive of a compter — it only has so much space. You know how computers start acting when their hard drives get near to full: programs stop working, everything gets slower, systems crash. And you know ho fun it is to use a new computer with a lot of hard drive space — everything is flying. The idea of Death Meditation is to go from one to the other. A quick, dirty way to achieve this is to start throwing out things in your house that you don’t need or use. This can be up to about 75 percent of the things there — a good rule of thumb is, have I really used this thing in the last six months or so? If not, throw it out.

As you practice this meditation longer, you’ll start to do with your schedule what you’ve done with your things. If you were really going to die tonight, would you sit and read through the whole Sunday paper, or most of the magazines you subscribe to? Would you really surf around the TV looking desperately for anything for even minor interest? Would you still go out and spend an hour or two at lunch or dinner, gossiping about the other managers? Decide then: if not on the day I die, then not now either. Because, frankly, it may really be today.

— The Diamond Cutter, by Geshe Michael Roach, Lama‎

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