When it comes down to it, mortality, and my inability to fathom it or wholly accept it, is one of the main reasons I study the Dharma. As a college English major, I often heard the cliché that all good literature is about sex and death. As humans, we are constantly manufacturing reality, both in our own minds, and in the world around us. We have a really hard time swallowing the idea that everything goes away: our problems, our creations, our names, our loved ones, our nation, even our planet.
After soaking up the idea that every day we are one day closer to death, I started to ask myself why I would want to watch a film that makes me feel like crying. After all, not everybody wants to watch a movie that reminds them of their mortality, especially not in American culture, where we are taught to run away from morbid thoughts.
I realized that meditation - especially my practice of contemplating impermanence and suffering - has made me slightly less afraid of death. I won’t say that I’m ready to rush to my end like some noble Samurai serving honor and nation, but at least I have developed enough courage to be curious about my own death and the death of the people I love.The curiosity is not so much about death itself, but my relationship with death, my fear of it, trying to understand what it means.
With that curiosity, I am able to appreciate people more. I know that the ones I love will be gone one day sooner than I want. And the people out in the world that I feel relatively neutral about are facing the same fear and uncertainty about their mortality and the mortality of their loved ones. In a sense, we are all in the same boat. We are in the same boat even with those that hope aggression, money, or fame will help them escape death. At some point we must face the fact that we won’t have enough time to answer every question, see every movie, give every hug and have every conversation that we want to. We can face that fact with dignity and courage, or we can face it with our tails between our legs. We can build the courage to face reality head on, or we can keep trying to escape it.
I once heard Noah Levine tell a story about the Buddha and his followers. The story goes that the Buddha asks his students how often they think about death. The first monk says, “I think about death every day.” The Buddha says, “that’s not enough.” So the second monk says, “I think about death with every bite of food I eat,” but again the Buddha says, “that is not enough.” Finally, the third monk says, “I think about death with every breath I take in and every breath I let out.” And the Buddha replies, “… perfect.”
I’m not saying that we all need to paint our fingernails black and pretend like its Halloween every day. I’m also not saying that the Dharma is a bummer. What I am saying is that meditation and the study of dharma is largely about developing courage by not escaping, but rather grounding yourself in reality.
Death is perhaps the most extreme and difficult bit of truth we can contemplate. Contemplating impermanence could be as simple as contemplating a relationship you once had that has changed, or contemplating a material object you once owned and lost.
I don’t really know how I will react when I am faced with the nearness of my own death or the death of someone I love. What I do know is that at least one of these scenarios is inevitable. Therefore, I want to learn how to appreciate everything and everyone as much as I can, while they are still here. Out of an appreciation for impermanence, comes an appreciation for life. And out of that appreciation for life, comes joy. Out of that joy, maybe we can empower ourselves to live life the way we want to live it.
If you want an opportunity to deeply contemplate impermanence, I highly recommend watching Never Let Me Go and then sitting quietly for a while after the movie ends. Soak it up, cry if you have to, but appreciate the fact that you have a human heart to feel things with. Life is beautiful, and this is all part of it.