Let’s assume that you’re going to die someday. Let’s further assume that you’re not a fully enlightened being, not a Tibetan monk nor a Zen master, and that you therefore haven’t died “with every moment” of your life. Just a regular human being. What then might dying look like? What do you imagine, deep in your subconscious imagination, hope and wish for should that day arrive. (I say “should” because of my belief that the majority of us mortals think, somehow, that death happens to other people, not to us.)
A couple of years ago, during training in end-of-life care at the Metta Institute, we were asked to visualise our last hours. My thoughts took me to lying in my bed on Galiano Island — where I lived at the time — with people quietly coming and going all day. I’m not sure of the cause of my imminent death, for the purpose of the exercise it didn’t seem to matter. I imagined dying a gentle death, one involving forethought and preparation and certainty. I noticed that a friend had arrived on the morning ferry, bringing her cello, playing Bach, Barber, and Elgar. Others brought food and wine, walked in the garden, saw friends they had heard about but never met. Candles and flowers all’round. Some tears and sobbing, laughter aplenty.
I appeared to be of no particular age and was fully aware that I’d be dying that night. No fear, no stress, only quiet anticipation. As evening came, someone began chanting Ohm, the sacred syllable from the Hindu tradition. Two monk-friends arrived from the monastery; we blessed each other; they began to recite the Heart Sutra, very slowly, one syllable at a time. Then silence.
One after another people came to sit with me in the alcove where I was lying: to touch, see each other once more, exchange words and reminiscences, or sit in pure silence. I remember offering words of encouragement, as in I know you’ll be sad when I’m gone, but please know that I’m happy.
Imbedded in this little story are several qualities I hold deeply: connection with others, community, community, sacred practices, intimacy, gentle parting, food, music, silence. As I write this, I’m less concerned with the ‘when’ of my death than the ways the imagined ‘how’ informs the way I live each day.
I invite you to do this exercise for yourself. Find a window of time. Sit in meditation for a while, then begin to imagine the day and the hour of your approaching death. Play music if it helps calm your mind, lie down, rest in the open air, or recline in a hot bath — do whatever is needed to put you in a care-free state of mind. Afterwards, make some notes: salient points — your heart’s wishes — will open themselves to your awareness, like a pure-white lotus blossom from muddy waters.
image: “Silent Pure and Wise,” oil on canvas, www.susanolmetti.com