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The Role of Death in Finding Meaning in Life

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"Whoever develops awareness of death by thinking, 'I'm following the dharma by considering mortality once a day or night, or during meals, are unmindful and inattentive; to follow the dharma one should be aware of death as one breaths in and out, chews and swallows. Train yourself to live in awareness of death." -- The Buddha, Mindfulness of death sutta

"Every lay practitioner and every one who has taken up robes should constantly reflect, 'I am subject to aging, illness, death; I will be separated from what is dear; my life is shaped by my actions." -- The Buddha, The Subjects for Contemplation Sutta, An 5.57

After even the briefest survey of the Buddha's teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon, it is clear that reflecting on death--maranasati, in pali--was considered an essential component of spiritual practice. The awareness of death was, after all, the principle recognition that triggered Gautama Buddha's search for liberation; it is taught that his spiritual journey started when, at age 28, he fully encountered the realities of old age, sickness and death while traveling through the busy city streets of Kapilavastu. Confrontation with mortality had a profound impact:

"Even though I was rich and surrounded by splendid objects and beautiful people, I realized that I was living in ignorance, for though I am mortal and not immune to death, when I saw a corpse I, like so many others, was horrified and disgusted, as if I was oblivious to the fact that I too would die. And if I would be so easily horrified and disgusted, I was living in an undignified way. And so my intoxication with material life died out, and I set forth to seek liberation." (Sukhamala Sutta)

All of us like to believe we live intelligent, authentic lives, in which we make wise choices free of deluded perspectives or ignorance. We defend our choices--ie. what kind of careers we choose, what we purchase, how much we consume, the manners in which we behave, the kinds of people we associate with--by listing the rationales that inform each decision. Yet from the standpoint of the Buddha's teachings on mindfulness of death, few of us make authentic choices: Yes, we may weigh the moral implications when we're making up our minds--for example, asking ourselves 'Am I causing harm? Am I helping others?--but the process isn't meaningful unless we're weighing each important decision against the very real possibility that we may have far less time available than we believe, that this choice may be our last, or even: When I look back on my life, will I feel grateful I made this choice?.

Those who might object that such considerations are needlessly extreme might consult Dr. Paul Kalanithi's amazing memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanthi, by the age of 36, attained an M.A. in literature at Stanford, a Master of Philosophy at Cambridge, graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine. Enough? No: He returns to Stanford for a residency in neurological surgery while also working on a fellowship in neuroscience; just as his training was reaching its end did he receive his terminal diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. He had never smoked. So much of his life--creative writing, for example--waited until the confirmation of his mortality.

"The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing.... You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process."
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

It's easy to believe we've considered death in a significant manner by simply acknowledging, once in a while, with perhaps a shudder or shiver running up the spine, that "Yes, that could happen to me." Then, having 'thought the thought' we may quickly shove the recognition--I will die; I do not know when that will happen--back into the recesses of the mind. Then we return to our mundane perspectives, without this crucial recollection being held in awareness (this is why the buddha said death should be known with every breath). When we ponder, for example. Should stay in this job or relationship, or leave, should I stay in this city or move? the recollection of death invites a deeper, more meaningful concerns: If, in a month from now I lie in a hospital bed, facing death, reviewing my life, how will I feel if I didn't pursue that activity?

Such concerns may sound grim, but if we want to live authentic lives, it's essential that we constantly project our choices against the finality of death. Our lives only have meaning because they have end. If our lives went on forever our choices would be without ramifications, utterly without meaning; life without death is meaningless.

It could even be said that the recollection of death is what makes human beings special, in that we carry around personal narratives, or inner language-based autobiographies, that we know will have an end (a cutting off that we won't be able narrate.) The end to our personal experience can arrive at any moment, so we live in the shadow cast by death's lingering presence. In the late-medieval wood prints of Hans Holbein, in a genre known as dance macabre, death is personified--generally a skeleton--as an ever present figure in daily life, standing amidst people of all walks of life, abruptly summoning someone to dance to the grave; often those summoned protest their lack of readiness, but they are drawn into the final dance nonetheless.

We are all somewhere in the dance of being born, helpless and vulnerable, requiring care, then growing up, acquiring skills, succeeding, failing, meeting degrees of success and disappointment, getting involved with peers, falling in and out of relationships, picking up responsibilities and obligations, growing older, losing our sense capabilities, declining, struggling, death. The details may vary, but this what we do, proceed from birth, become larger and stronger, then decline, wither and pass away. How much of this process will we fail to notice, without understanding its frailty and finality?

The repeated recollection of death, in my experience, need not lead to pessimism, gloom or a fatalistic surrender to immobility, but it does provoke a deep appreciation of life when practiced.* If, when waking, I remind myself: Here's the morning of another day, which could be my last one. Such a recognition imparts real presence; while its in mind I'm rescued from passing my hours in a blur of time, rushing from here to there; operating in a delusional certainty of there being more time. The recollection of mortality also brings about positive social reflections: In a review of survey responses made both before and after the events of 9/11/2001, notable increases in kindness, optimism, gratitude and teamwork were reported.**

Research shows that as our time runs out our priorities significantly shift: Older people are actually more present-time aware than those who are younger, and more likely to put effort into maintaining friendship, as well as practicing forgiveness.*** In a 2010 study called "Being Present in the Face of Existential Threat: The Role of Trait Mindfulness in Reducing Defensive Responses to Mortality Salience" people were found to more mindful and less defensive of their views and opinions after being reminded of death: sounds good to me.

It's easier to notice mortality in others: our parents, relatives, teachers, cultural icons, they're all getting older before our eyes; but how hard it is to maintain the awareness of death appearing in ourselves. Yet for death to have the required emotional impact to be properly weighed in our decisions, it must be felt, known in the heart as an emotional understanding, rather than an intellectual fact (facts can be forgotten easily, but emotional truths guide our behavior); death known through the loss of dear ones makes an impact, it may even change our priorities, but it is only through acknowledging my own death that my decisions fully attain weight. This predicament we're stumbling through; life quietly ticking away, the battery slowly drained of energy: Who wants to acknowledge that?

In Heidegger's classic text on the implications of death, Being and Time, he contrasts waiting with anticipation: waiting for death, like passing one's days in denial of mortality, is dismissed as fatalistic, pessimistic, a kind of giving up. Heidegger urges anticipation, which is not a kind of sitting around, mulling about, dwindling time until annihilation; anticipation of death employs our mortality as the single consideration that lifts us out of our immersion in the mundane details of daily life, freeing us to make bolder choices that embrace life, in all its ephemeral beauty.

So I suggest that practitioners do themselves a favor and repeat, as often as possible, the Buddha's five recollections, as if your life depended on it... because, in a way, it does.

"I am subject to aging, illness, death; I will be separated from what is dear; my life is shaped by my actions."


*Perhaps one underlying superstition that must be challenged if we are to practice reflecting on impermanence and cessation is the belief that 'thinking about one's death might bring it about sooner.' I must confess this bizarre idea at an earlier stage in life concerned me; I've heard other friends who work at hospices mention it as well. While I've given it my best shot, I've found no research that indicates that the recollection of death leads to any maladies, physical or mental.

** "Character Strengths Before and After September 11" by Christopher Peterson, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, and Martin E.P. Seligman, Professor of Psychology, Univesity of Pennsylvania and Princeton, President of the American Psychological Association, 1998. To see the research, click here.

***Taking time seriously. A theory of socioemotional selectivity. by LL Carstensen and DM Isaacowitz, American Psychology, March 1999.

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