Face Mortality – Reap More Joy

Nothing like a deadly pandemic to remind us that “death comes for all” actually applies to us, too!

Buddhists get a bad rap about death – lots of people think we’re morbid or depressed because we think about it a lot.  But it’s really the opposite – we bring our minds back to mortality so that we can defuse our fear and thus open to life more.  

Many in the West run in terror from death, as if it were some kind of monster that’s out to get us.  We’re so busy fleeing that we can’t stop and get to know what we’re running away from.  The meditative reaction to any fear is to slow down, “invite it over for tea,” and get friendly.  Make it familiar – and our reactions to it, too.  

Think – without death, there’d be about 100 billion people on the planet today – with over 141 million more each year!  Big trouble.  And animals – would they also be “free” from death?  I wonder how many feet deep we’d be in writhing critters by now.

But from a less ludicrous point of view, I think we’d have difficulty making sense of life it had no expiration date.  If we’re good at procrastinating now, what would we be like if we knew that we could put off until tomorrow forever?  Who cares if I’m in a car wreck? So what if my house burns down with me and my family in it?  If I don’t have the resources for food – big deal!  I think I’ll stay drunk for a hundred years – what’s the worst that could happen?  Nah, I haven’t talked to my sister in 30 years – we got time.

Many spiritual traditions – including Buddhism – encourage us to see death as a friendly presence that’s with us all the time.  It reminds us to appreciate our lives, which will not last forever.  Personally, I still haven’t seen an erupting volcano.  That’s been an unwavering life goal since I was a child.  Since I’m 70 freakin’ years old, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  I’m acutely aware that if I don’t turn that fantasy into a real adventure, I will miss it.  If I’m alive in a year – and if travel again becomes possible – I intend to make a Major Trip.  And I suspect I will gather great joy and awe.

But closer to home:  Is a meal just a refueling stop?  Or can I wake up a little and savor the tastes and aromas and textures?  Someday I’ll be dead, and the smoothness of an avocado will be gone.  One of these days, my partner or I will die, and the other will be left.  That fact of life need not be frightening – but it does remind me that I won’t be able to hold him forever.  So each hug is part of a dwindling supply.  That awareness can remind me to pay attention when I touch him – to enjoy him and remember that he’s precious. 

Scarcity is part of value in the human calculation:  if something’s rare, it’s more precious to us.  Mortality reminds us that our experiences are scarce.  Even a crappy day is filled with treasures – for most of us, each day has hearing, vision, physical mobility, thought processes, emotion.  Even if I’m depressed or angry, I can feel something!  That will not be true for all that long.  I’d best enjoy these things now.

We Buddhists have a saying:  One day, this body will be a corpse.  With the right mindset, it’s not an invitation to fear.  It’s a friendly goad to mindfulness:  I won’t always be here.  The joys and terrors of living will end.  None of this is disposable!  Wake up!  Savor!  Enjoy this precious life while you can!

People who work with the dying report that those who fear death often struggle terribly and die with pain and terror.  Those who accept that death is natural and not to be hated often die with peace and even joy.  In this pandemic, it’s worth our time to invite death in for tea – to befriend this inevitable companion.  We can still mourn the passing of those we love; we will miss them, and there will be a painful hole in our lives.  But a death can remind us that we are still here.  We retain this body that can experience such joys – both extraordinary, like my longed-for volcano, and mundane, like an avocado.

It seems like a silly admonition, but remember that you’re alive!  Look for the shower of delight and joy in each day – because those things are inherent in being alive.  The fact that we only occasionally notice doesn’t mean that the shower isn’t there.  But when we go through the day in a dulled-out trance, the joy may as well be absent, for all we know.

Imagine a young, struggling person buys a fixer-upper house.  They make it a home, however sparse their limited means allow.  For decades, they live a modest life there.  After a few decades, the wooden floors are shot – and the owner at last has enough resources to pull them up and replace them.  The owner finds, between the joists beneath the floorboards, rank upon rank of gold bricks, left there by the previous, miserly owner.  How odd that our no-longer-young homeowner has been fabulously wealthy since the day they moved in, but they lived a life of not-quite-poverty.  They’ve lived with riches but didn’t know it.  With the help of contemplating our mortality, we can “rip up the floorboards” right away.  The wealth is ours for the noticing.

So make friends with death – an ever-present reminder of what we each possess.