Sitting here now, in my body, feeling its weight and the solidity of my feet flat on the floor, mind calm – enjoying the present moment. It is a well-earned! For over 2 hours I have given the mind and body the attention it enjoys, starting with 20 minutes cardio and strength building on the rebounder, then 1 hour of Qi Gong practice in the garden and finishing with about half an hour of meditation. For the latter I chose to do a contemplation on dying with Joan Halifax guiding the Nine Contemplations of Atisha, an eleventh-century Tibetan Buddhist scholar. Joan Halifax is a Zen Buddhist priest, well known for her compassionate work with the dying.
The Nine Contemplations offer a way to explore the inevitability of death and what is important to us in the light of our mortality. The practice asks us to question what we are doing in our life at this very moment and to see what is important for us to do in order to prepare for death.
We none of us know the time of our death, even if we have a terminal diagnosis, we don’t know that this is what will be the cause of our death. We are all terminal, and this is the reality of our birth. Contemplating death and dying helps liberate us from the numerous distractions we can so easily get lost in so that we can live our lives more fully and vitally. Contemplating the possibility of dying this afternoon or this evening I feel a sharp pain in my chest. When I first started, over a year ago, contemplating mortality on the Year to Live course, lots of thoughts and feelings arose concerning attachments, unhealed relationships, regrets, unfulfilled desires…. It is a good study for observing deeply and beginning to heal.
A story I initially found helpful with this – and I can’t remember where I read it – imagine when you are born you are given a bag of pearls. You don’t know how many pearls are in the bag but each day, a pearl is spent. How would you live your life differently, not knowing if this day is your last? This may seem a morbid contemplation but, in my experience, it has the exact opposite effect. It focuses the mind on what is important to do right now. When this Covid-19 messenger came, my gut feeling was that I don’t want to die not having experienced again being fully alive. The contemplation is about life, about embracing life and relating from it rather than reacting to it. This quote from Stephen Levine perfectly captures what I knew deep inside but that needed revealing and it took the practices and support of the group to see:
It was clear that though I was exploring the fear of death,
it was the fear of life
that needed to be investigated first.
From a Year to Live