From the day that you are born the one thing you can know for sure about your life is that it will end. You don't know about your love life, fortune or health, but you can be certain that sooner or later you will die. Everybody else's life has come to that same conclusion, no matter how rich, good-looking, famous or successful they were; all heads of state, movie stars and billionaires have eventually died, as have all the meditation masters and spiritual teachers that have ever lived. So it seems likely that you will not be the one exception in all of history!
The Dharma is about paying attention to the way things are and realizing this on a deeper level so that you live your life in accordance with it. Death is one of the more obvious aspects of the way things are, but it is still something that most of us ignore or block out of our consciousness on a regular basis. We carry on with an assumption about how long we will live, but the truth is that we do not know when or how our life, or others' lives, will end. If we did, we might live in a different way.
Recently, a friend of mine died suddenly at age 43. He seemed perfectly healthy and happy, but one day he complained about feeling cold and a little dizzy, so he put on a jacket and went to bed, never to wake up again. It was a shock for many of us, but also a reminder about this constant companion of death. Because none of us had expected him to die at this time, some people had regrets about things they had said or done (or neglected to say or do) while he was alive. How would they have acted differently if they had known the last time they saw him would really be the last time they would ever see him?
In San Francisco the real estate market is crazy. A friend and I went to look at an apartment once that was in an industrial warehouse building with refurbished lofts. The apartment was expensive, touted on the flyer as having all sorts of modern features like special countertops, appliances and fixtures. When we entered the small apartment, we saw people looking at all these things, but we also saw a large decorative screen on rollers in the living room. Out of curiosity we slid it aside and saw that it was covering the only window in the place, the view from which was the double decker entrance/exit ramp to the Bay Bridge, just three feet away! Traffic was whizzing by, with no possibility of natural light ever reaching the apartment.
The truth of that apartment was that this window view was the one unchangeable thing about it. The fixtures and flooring could all be renovated, but if you lived there you would be stuck with the freeway ramps as your only vista and traffic as the constant background. It was hilarious and poignant how everyone was busy oohing and ahhing over the light fixtures while ignoring this glaringly important feature! A truthful real estate flyer might have listed this fact at the top in large letters as the headline.
Similarly, a truthful flyer about your life would include the headline "You Are Going To Die". Perhaps in smaller font it would add "And You Don't Know When Or How". Everything else could be further down in the story; all the other things we focus on are like the temporary and changeable appliances. But we spend most of our energy paying attention to this minor stuff, ignoring the giant truth that is there to be seen behind the screen of our delusion.
How do we roll this screen back when our culture is steeped in denial of death? In Dharma practice it is recommended that we spend time everyday reflecting on death to help us to remember. This is not to be gruesome or to scare us, but to help us live our lives in a thoughtful way, and to help us realize the truth of the body. Take time every morning to reflect, "My body will surely die sometime, but I don't know when." Or "I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death." Say this in your own words and really let it sink in. You can also reflect on this truth towards others who you see, that their life is also certainly going to end.
We are all fragile creatures whose time on the planet is limited and unknown. Perhaps doing this practice will help us be more forgiving and grateful. We can connect with the poignancy and beauty of our lives, spend our precious limited time wisely, and treat people in ways that we will not later regret. So make death your headline, in order to spend your life living fully with integrity and presence.
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