Being ready to die

‘Die on the cushion’ is a pithy Zen meditation instruction quoted by Jack Kornfield; deliberately unelaborated on to prevent the practitioner attempting to push themselves towards an imagined state, rather than exploring what cessation means for themselves.

The Theravada, as usual, gives more specific instructions that incline the mind towards this kind of consciousness- mindfulness of death, asking what life would be like if you knew you were dying in a day, in an hour, in a minute, in the next breath, right now. It’s a theme that pops up in my practice of itself every now and then. As cessation in the non-dual sense is not conceivable by the concrete part of me that deals with getting what I want and avoiding what I don’t, it’s unsurprising that it gets conceived of more along the nihilistic lines of death panic. When I’m in a period of contraction, the Dark Night, whatever you would like to call it, it seems like God is asking for everything back.

Gravestone of Patrick Caulfield, Highgate Cemetery, London, England. Photo by the author.
Gravestone of Patrick Caulfield, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Sometimes I seem to go through every part of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief in a thirty minute meditation. First there is denial as the mind tries to slip away to other places, including simple dullness. Then there is anger, whether spun out into complex stories of retribution and victimisation, or as is more common for me now to simply flash up in vague images of damage and twinges of emotion that cause kriyas. This is followed by bargaining classically, and it’s not surprising it comes up in a prayerful fashion for me; asking God what to do, asking for help, simple feelings of desperation. When nothing changes depression sets in, feelings of guilt, sadness, regret, a wish for something to cling to, rationalisation. God’s mind doesn’t change.

If I get stuck in that wish for stability and indulge it – or rather, if it indulges itself, given the lack of control over the process – then I just stay in that rather self-indulgent misery. But sometimes there is a dropping of the narratives and a flash of insight that reminds me that the holding on is the problem. Perspective turns itself inside out; there is sudden gratitude, and a desire to give thanks for what is rather than the vast, vaguely defined and definitely non-existent tranches of what is not. The wish to fortify my position and the tacit participation in an ignoble tearing away changes to a desire to willingly give away with a little dignity – turns into a simple forgetting of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ and a participation in the interplay of now.

It’s immensely practical in that, conventionally, that holding on never really gets me anywhere except looking like an entitled child, and that giving away at least has the intention to use whatever God-given gifts I have for some good purpose, even if I’m muddling my way along. Less conventionally, it’s dropping into the unconditional where gain and loss no longer apply. Turning it to the death panic that remains part of my makeup, that’s never going to be fully resolved at least from my current viewpoint. But the bittersweet feelings become a source of tenderness and the desire to unconditionally help everyone else who is going through this fundamentally intolerable journey towards death. Deeper than that, there is the recognition that what I am is continually dying, there is no real continuity despite this deep-seated feeling, and the wish to kiss the joy as it flies. There’s a sudden freshness that breezes through places that started to get musty, being locked up so long.

To live like this all the time requires two things; love and meaning. It isn’t selfish to feel very lonely in this vulnerable place, and as I start to get hints of the immense love that God holds – as well as my potential to accept the very real love of others – this seems very sustaining in the face of losing everything. The other pole is that others need this love too, and that an unselfish motivation is the perfect place to start; and that need to at least do something is what can give some meaning.