A Not So Common Thought: Contemplating Death In Order to Live Well

Looking at death in the eye isn’t a favorite pass time for most anyone, but considering that we will all have to face death, I thought it might be helpful to look at what it means to die well from the different perspectives of the world’s major religions. These findings below are brief, and not necessarily representative of the major thought in those religions, but they give a variety of insights. The thing that stands out for me in these various perspectives is how each one finds contemplating death a valuable thing to do in order to live meaningfully.

Hinduism: From Sadhguru, Huffington Post

If you are afraid of death, you will only avoid life. You cannot avoid death. And it is not that beyond a certain age you should look at it; every day of your life you need to be aware that you are mortal. There are certain meditations that are conducted where everything that you consider as “myself” will become nothing; it is as if you die. Again, when you open your eyes, it is all there. If these methods are practiced consciously, when the time to die actually comes, it will no longer be a big issue.

The process that you refer to as life is something that can be constantly improved upon. It is a project that will never be over; that is the beauty of it. Not everybody is living with the same quality. Whether in doing simple physical things or in how people are keeping themselves, in everything, not everybody is living at the same level of understanding and gracefulness.

If you remind yourself every day that you will also die, you will naturally move towards knowing higher dimensions of perception. If you are aware of the mortal nature of your life, is there time to get angry with somebody? Is there time to quarrel with somebody? Is there time to do anything stupid in life? Once you come to terms with death and you are conscious that you will die, you will want to make every moment of your life as beautiful as possible. Only people who believe they are immortal can fight, and fight to the death. Those who are constantly aware of the mortal and fragile nature of existence do not want to miss a single moment; they will naturally be aware. They cannot take anything for granted; they will live very purposefully. This is a simple way of becoming aware.

Buddhism: At the April Conference in Lusanne, Switzerland, the Dalai Llama said the following about death: “Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.

Also, the Dalai Llama has said in his book, Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life” by Dalai Lama, and posted on DailyOM: It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained. It is meaningful since, based on it, important effects can be accomplished.
Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime during which you can perform many important practices. Rather than being frightened, you need to reflect that when death comes, you will lose this good opportunity for practice. In this way contemplation of death will bring more energy to your practice.
However, if you do not wait until the end for the knowledge that you will die to sink in, and you realistically assess your situation now, you will not be overwhelmed by superficial, temporary purposes. You will not neglect what matters in the long run. It is better to decide from the very beginning that you will die and investigate what is worthwhile. If you keep in mind how quickly this life disappears, you will value your time and do what is valuable. With a strong sense of the imminence of death, you will feel the need to engage in spiritual practice, improving your mind, and will not waste your time in various distractions ranging from eating and drinking to endless talk about war, romance, and gossip.

Copyright © 2002 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

For further insights from a Buddhist perspective on how to be with a dying person, the article :

How to be with someone who is dying:

Sogyal Rinpoche describes how he would be with someone who is dying in his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “I would have sat by his side, held his hand and let him talk. I have been amazed again and again by how, if you just let people talk, giving them your complete and compassionate attention, they will say things of a surprising spiritual depth, even when they think they don’t have any spiritual beliefs. I have been very moved by how you can help people help themselves by helping them discover their own truth, a truth whose richness, sweetness, and profundity they may have never suspected”…“Bereavement can force you to look at your life directly, compelling you to find a purpose in it where there may not have been one before.”

Qualities Rinpoche says are invaluable at a deathbed are: a sense of humor, and the ability to not take things personally when/if the person dying expresses anger, which he says can be quite common. Additionally, emphasizes the importance of expressing unconditional love, and telling the truth with love. “To be able to deal effectively with the dying person’s fears, it is important to introspect and be aware of one’s own fears about death,” Rinpoche says. Also, “The dying person must be given permission to die with the assurance that his loved one(s) will be taken care of in the aftermath,” and he advises that those left behind be open to grief and try and learn from it, rather than try and repress it.

You can read more of his thoughts in his article, “Insights into living and dying”, by Dr. E.S. Krishnamoorthy and Niranjana Bennet.

Christianity: Henri Nowen on Dying Well

We will all die one day. That is one of the few things we can be sure of. But will
we die well? That is less certain. Dying well means dying for others, making our
lives fruitful for those we leave behind. The big question, therefore, is not “What
can I still do in the years I have left to live?” but “How can I prepare myself
for my death so that my life can continue to bear fruit in the generations that
will follow me?”

Jesus died well because through dying he sent his Spirit of Love to his friends,
who with that Holy Spirit could live better lives. Can we also send the Spirit
of Love to our friends when we leave them? Or are we too worried about what we can
still do? Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well.

Judaism

Surviving after death, we hope, is surviving as a thought of God…Death is not understood as the end of being but rather at the end of doing… Humanity without death would be arrogance without end.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)*

The sunset, the bird’s song, the baby’s smile…the dreams of the heart, and my own being, dear to me as every man’s is to him, all these I can well trust to Him who made them. There is poignancy and regret about giving them up, but no anxiety. When they slip from my hands they will pass to hands better, stronger, and wiser than mine.
— Milton Steinberg (1903-1950) “To Hold with Open Arms”*

Islam

Say: “Behold, my prayer, and [all] my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God [alone], the Sustainer of all the worlds.”
— Qur’an 6:162

Say: “Behold, the death from which you are fleeing is bound to overtake you – and then you will be brought back unto Him who knows all that is beyond the reach of a created being’s perception as well as all that can be witnessed by a creature’s senses or mind, whereupon He will make you truly understand all that you were doing [in life].”
— Qur’an 62:8

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