What can death teach us about living? How does it contribute to a deeper and more meaningful life? How can death make us live our lives more compassionately and lovingly?
Based on his experience of accompanying 1,000 people to death, Buddhist teacher and author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Frank Ostaseski, gives five lessons of death. He acknowledges that “too many people die in distress, guilt, and fear.”
Still, “many people, ordinary people, develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation near the end of their lives. One through which they emerge as someone larger, more expansive, more essential and real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be.”
Writing in Spirituality and Health, Ostaseski affirms that death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. “Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment.” So, he invites us to “sit down with death now, to have a cup of tea with her, to let her guide you toward living a more meaningful and loving life.”
The first lesson death teaches us is not to wait. When people are dying, it is easy for them to recognise that every minute, every breath counts. But the truth is, death is always with us. Everything is constantly changing. Nothing is permanent. Yet, Ostaseski holds that “embracing the truth of life’s precariousness helps us to appreciate its preciousness.” We can learn to live more compassionately now itself.
The second lesson is: welcome everything; push away nothing. In welcoming everything, we don’t have to like what’s arising or necessarily agree with it, but we need to be willing to meet it, to learn from it. The word welcome confronts us; it asks us to temporarily suspend our usual rush to judgment and to be open, to what is showing up at our front door. To receive it in the spirit of hospitality.
The third lesson is: bring your whole self to the experience. In experiencing life, we need to bring the whole of ourselves. To be whole, we need to include and connect all parts of ourselves. Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means no part left out.
The fourth lesson: find a place of rest in the middle of things. We often think of rest as something that will come to us when everything else in our lives is complete: At the end of the day, when we take a bath; once we go on holiday or get through all our to-do lists. We imagine that we can only find rest by changing our circumstances. We need to discover rest in the midst of hectic activities.
The last lesson: cultivate ‘don’t know’ mind. This describes a mind that’s open and receptive. It is not limited by agendas, roles, and expectations. It is free to discover. When we are filled with knowing, when our mind is made up, it narrows our vision and limits our capacity to act. We only see what our knowing allows us to see. We don’t abandon our knowledge — it’s always there in the background should we need it — but we let go of fixed ideas. We let go of control.
Thus, death is not something that will happen to us. It is part of our present, helping us to live our lives better. The well-known novelist RA Salvatore is right: “I have come to know that it [death] is an important thing to keep in mind - not to complain or to make melancholy, but simply because only with the honest knowledge that one day I will die can I ever truly begin to live.”
(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)