Spending time with death

On the topic of death, there are 2 things that I find fascinating. The first is that from what I’ve heard, the vast majority of us humans (myself included) are scared of death and dying.

The second thing is that I’ve learnt an important way to overcome our fear is to face and acknowledge it, in order to overcome it. And yet, the topic of death is a very rarely talked about one, as far as I know.

Having 1 and 2 happen at the same time, doesn’t feel like a combination. To avoid facing something that almost everyone is scared of doesn’t seem to solve a problem very well.

Instead I recently started to think that maybe I should spend more time with death, in order to get more comfortable with it. After all, that seems to be one of the most recommended ways of to get comfortable and less scared about something, which is to be intimate with it.

In researching on this and reflecting on what others had told me, here are some ideas on how I might approach spending more time with death:

Ricardo Semler: Practicing dying

A first interesting approach to spending more time with death comes from Ricardo Semler:

On Mondays and Thursdays, I learn how to die. I call them my terminal days. My wife Fernanda doesn’t like the term, but a lot of people in my family died of melanoma cancer and my parents and grandparents had it. And I kept thinking, one day I could be sitting in front of a doctor who looks at my exams and says, “Ricardo, things don’t look very good. You have six months or a year to live.”

And you start thinking about what you would do with this time. And you say, “I’m going to spend more time with the kids. I’m going to visit these places, I’m going to go up and down mountains and placesand I’m going to do all the things I didn’t do when I had the time.” But of course, we all know these are very bittersweet memories we’re going to have. It’s very difficult to do. You spend a good part of the time crying, probably. So I said, I’m going to do something else.

Every Monday and Thursday, I’m going use my terminal days. And I will do, during those days, whatever it is I was going to do if I had received that piece of news.

I love this from the perspective of not feeling like you’ve missed certain things you wanted to do. I think it still doesn’t quite bring us closer to the actual experience of death, which is the thing I’m personally most scared about.

The Samurai: meditating on death

The Samurai have been known to have practiced spending time with death through lengthy meditations on it, multiple times a day. This seems to have helped them stay calm in almost any circumstance and deal with anything that’s thrown at them. Here is an excerpt from the “Code of the Samurai”:

One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.

This is also something I’ve read about multiple times in various books on meditation, reflecting on our own fleeting and ever changing nature. Imagining how we will get older and eventually die and integrate with other parts of the world as our bodies burned or in a grave. Going through a thought pattern like this is surprisingly calming I’ve found and it helps me be less concerned about small things that made me angry or occupy my hide. It makes everything a bit less serious and that alone makes it a great practice.

Talking About Death Over Dinner

Another thing I recently discovered is an amazing project called “Death over Dinner“. I read it described like this:

“Let’s try to have a really thoughtful structured conversation about the ultimate opponent, he says. “To confront death on its own’s terms and see if we can score a few points it against it.”

Another quote from “The book of the Samurai” states:

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.

And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

Another quote from Miyamoto Musashi:

Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.

While thinking about this topic I’ve mentioned this to a few friends and while I’ve talked with them about the idea of spending more time with death, I haven’t actually spent time exploring my own thoughts about death with them itself. I think that would be a wonderful opportunity to sit with something I’m uncomfortable with and open up my thoughts completely, letting them wander on the topic and observe what might emerge.

This feels like a very actionable thing to do and I’m looking forward to experimenting with this.

Experiencing 1,400 people die

Every Tuesday, I’m attending a weekly Zen session here in San Francisco called “Young Urban Zen” (“YUZ”). A few weeks ago, one of the topics was about spending time with things that are challenging for us. And the speaker told a fascinating story about a woman that knew her husband was in the late stages of cancer and going to pass away soon. This woman, as part of working in a hospice had also seen over 1,400 people die. He explained that, even though it was a painful experience for her to see her husband die, he was amazed by the way that she was present with him and the experience of death. He described the grace and comfort with the process of dying as something that the woman was so skilled at, that it astounded him.

This somehow was another amazing reminder for me as to what happens when we spend time with a certain process very intimately, even with something as seemingly scary as dying: we get comfortable and skilled with it. Volunteering at a hospice seems like a wonderful opportunity to provide both support to those in need and experience one of the scariest things we know – to die. I’d love to explore this.

These are just a few short reflections and still don’t have many answers on how to approach this, but I thought I’d open up this conversation for myself and others who might be reading it. That in itself, feels like it’s making the prospect of dying a little easier already.

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