Sunday, July 11, 2021

a meditation on death

Death is something I used to be petrified of when I was a little kid. I realized early on that we are all mortal, and that at some point, we all have to die. The thought left me in tears when I was young, and it may well be the fear of death that later on motivated me to get a master's degree in religious studies. Now, by the time I was of age to do grad work, my fear of death had died down (ha!), and I had begun to see death as simply part of life. We all age; we all inevitably move forward in time, each of us on our own personal, unstoppable conveyor belt that will pitch us over the edge and into a dark chasm we-don't-know-when.

A lot of us live our lives either deliberately or blithely unmindful of the prospect of death, but for me, especially since I began studying Buddhism, death—and its companion, impermanence—has always been a subtextual part of my existence. Whatever I look at, whatever I experience, I know it can't last. For those of us who embrace the facts of death and impermanence, this is liberating, in a sense. We know there are limits to personal existence, and this makes every moment precious. It's very hard to be bored when every moment is precious. Only people who avoid thinking about or who refuse to think about death can claim to be bored at any given moment. 

Right now, there are tidal forces working rhythmically within you—your breathing is a tide; your heartbeat is a quicker tide, but a tide all the same. Even your thoughts, when you take the time to be aware of them, will often move in gentle waves. Same goes for your feelings. With enough awareness, you can feel all of this happening inside you. The knowledge of all these tides can connect you to the rhythm of the cosmos.

But it all ends. And one of the big questions for people who contemplate death is that of vanity: if I'm destined to die, no matter what heights or depths I attain, what was it all for? Was it all in vain? What's the point of life if, as the Nabokov quote goes, it's merely a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness?

Consider the possibility that believing life has a point might be a mistake. In the Zen way of thinking, all you have is this moment, this infinitesimally thin slice of time that is forever vanishing. Maybe, if we're stuck on the language of points, this moment is the point. How can it be otherwise if this moment is all there is? You can't change the past; you can't predict the future; all you have is now.

Rooted in this perspective, you can face the prospect of your own nonexistence with stoicism, knowing that life is about living, not about sitting around expecting death, as if death were an oncoming train, and you're tied to the tracks. What a sad, passive way to live, right? So whatever you do, experience it deeply, savor the details, be alive.

My recent stroke was minor; it didn't bring me close to death, although it did, for a time, make me ponder the notion of death a bit more explicitly. But even before the stroke happened, I'd already subscribed to the attitude described above. We all die; that fact is so obvious as to be trivial. Nothing physical is permanent, and anything physical composed of parts is subject to the universal law of change. Just accept this as a brute fact, and go about the business of living deeply, aware that nothing lasts, and that that's what makes life precious. And when the time comes to face the end of the conveyor belt, be happy in the knowledge that you approached life profoundly and had a good run.


John Mac said...

Well said. I'm not spending much time contemplating death or the meaning of life. When I do think of dying it is mostly in terms of how much time do I have left--probably ten or fifteen years if I'm lucky. But that doesn't really change anything. I have today and I will fill the hours doing what I do, however meaningless or trivial that may be. Tomorrow, when and if it comes, is another day to make the best of.

Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts and words on this subject. Perhaps growing older makes the inevitability of death easier to accept. There is comfort to be found in that.

John from Daejeon said...

I just read something that said over 40% of stroke victims suffered one or more of the effects of a mini stroke up to a week before their stroke foe 5 minutes to a few hours. Did you notice anything different in the week before your stroke, and are you taking aspirin?

Kevin Kim said...

Daejeon John,

Didn't notice anything before the event, no. They prescribed a small amount of aspirin as part of a suite of medications.

John from Daejeon said...

I've always seen that taking baby aspirin was recommended after 50 and only up to 70. I take regular 325mg per pill aspirin a couple times a week for headaches hoping that will help prevent strokes as a beneficial side effect/affect.

That new study about possible mini stroke symptoms foreshadowing a major stroke a week later showed up today from on my smart/spying-on-its-user phone.

Daniel said...

Well said. This got me thinking. My mother has been quite ill recently and is currently receiving treatment at Asan Medical Center. This led me to watch Netflix's end-of-life documentary feature End Game. A very moving piece and one that is well worth watching. When I was younger, I was indeed focused more on the living part of the equation, but as people around me begin to die and I myself stand on the cusp of middle age, I have come to appreciate the importance of a good death, as well as the contemplation of dying itself, an activity the Hindus call maranasati (I believe this may be a concept utilized in Buddhist meditation as well). And while it's all too easy to become mired in the details of medical care and treatment thanks to our industrial-medical complex, perhaps we should keep in mind that death is something much more mystical than simply a heart that stops beating. I'll leave you with a quote from Dr. B. J. Miller (who lost both of his legs and one arm in an accident prior to becoming a palliative care physician): "There's nothing inherently medical about dying. It's much larger than medicine. It's purely human. Part of that admission is to keep all of this couched in a full arc of humanity, kindness, total openness, vulnerability, and exchange." Lofty words indeed, but a goal we should all aim for when the time comes.