Everywhere I look nowadays I see images of death - graveyards and skeletons, ghouls and ghosts, obviously It’s almost Halloween. While Halloween is usually seen as a fun time for a fall festival and for kids to “trick or Treat, on a deeper level, this is also a season for looking directly at death and dying without pretending that death doesn’t exist.
Except for Halloween, many people are not only afraid of death, they are even afraid of talking about or thinking about their ultimate death. And yet, interestingly enough, monks, sages and teachers of most of the world-wide spiritual traditions actively and intentionally look at “death” every day of their lives. Rather than serving as a warning of an ultimate end, death is seen as an icon of how to live this life here and now. In fact, the “contemplation of one’s death” is prized as an essential discipline to be practiced every day on the spiritual journey.
Most Buddhist monks engage in a “corpse meditation.” Gazing upon images of skeletons and dead bodies, they imagine that the body before them is their own dead body in the not-too distant future. In a similar fashion, Benedictine monks of the Christian tradition are taught to keep the image of their own death always before them as they live their ordinary lives and engage in their everyday work and prayer.
While this emphasis upon the “contemplation of death” may seem odd and macabre to many people in a society in which the idea of death is avoided at all costs (except perhaps at Halloween), monks and sages understand that “death” is the ultimate spiritual state and learning how to die is perhaps the perfect icon for vital living in this life.
I just read an article by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who explains why the active “contemplation of death” is so important for any spiritual practice.
We are born as individuals and we become persons, laboriously so.
We become persons through our relationships with others, and
interrelationship is what defines you as a person.
In very real sense, the core of the spiritual life is the practice of moving from being a separated individual into becoming an authentic person. On a spiritual path we give up our ego-dominated desire to control who we are and what we desire in life and we surrender ourselves over to our “true nature” – interrelationship.
Death is the ultimate giving up of the individual ego and an ultimate surrender to a cosmic relationship with everything and everyone that ever was, is, or yet will be. In death we become a complete person. And so, in a very real sense the entire spiritual life is all about learning how to die and that’s why the “contemplation of our death” is so essential for our life.
Every time we give up and give away our selfish needs, every time we give our self away for the welfare others, every time we fall in love, we are learning how to die and practicing the discipline of dying.
Far from being something to fear or avoid, death and dying is the icon of how to live a life that’s full.
I am reminded of something author and spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle, once said:
Death is the stripping away of all that is not authentically you.
The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’
and find there is no death.