Practice for Death as Well as for Life

Practice of the Week
Practice for Death as Well as for Life

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in each of these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guiding slogans to live by.

Spiritual practice in particular, and religion in general, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that we die, and we really don’t know how to understand, cope with, or digest this fact. So even though we do spiritual practice while we are alive and for our lives, really, we do it because we die and in order to understand and cope with death, grief, and loss.

In fact, it is artificial to separate life from death. In a very concrete and down-to-earth sense, there is no such thing as “life” or “death.” Some traditions speak of “birth-and-death” as being one phenomenon, and of course it is. Time passing is birth-and-death. Moments arise and then pass away: this is one action, one moment. Loss is constant and conditions our every thought, word, and deed.

When I train caregivers for the dying in spiritual hospice care, I always tell them that the work they do isn’t about death, it’s about life. You are alive as long as you are alive, and when you are not, you are not. It’s a mistake to think of a hospice patient as “dying.” The patient is alive as long as she is alive. Truly, she is no more dying than we are. For we are dying. That’s what living is: dying a little, moment after moment.

You could say that the whole point of spiritual practice is to prepare for death. A French writer, Charles Peguy, composed one of my favorite sayings:
“A person doesn’t die from this or that disease. He dies from his whole life.”
This is certainly true. The way we live is the way we die.

The preceding five practices (“Determination;” “Repetition;” “Owning Your Nobility;” “Reproaching Your Demons;” and “Aspiring to the Impossible”) are collectively known as “The Five Strengths.” This practice – “Practice for Life is Practice for Death” – is telling us that as much as we need to practice the Five Strengths for our lives, just as much do we need to practice them for our deaths – and specifically at the time of our death.

Many people become religious or spiritual as they near death. This makes a lot of sense. When you are in bed, maybe in pain and sensing your life is now short, you are not so concerned about how to live more successfully going forward. The imminence of death has a way of grabbing your attention and changing your priorities. Everybody pays attention to his or her inner life and to questions of meaning when death is coming close (unless, that is, the person were to deny that death is close, which some can do). Death is powerful, very immediate, and a great motivator. But if you wait till the time when death is close to begin your practice, it may well be too late. It is much better to spend time in your life working on your spiritual practice so at the time of death it will be there for you. With years of practice while you’re still more-or-less healthy, when you’re dying, instead of being subject to a mind full of confusion and dread, it will be possible for you to meditate on love and compassion. It might even be possible to experience death (if this phrase makes any sense – it might not) as a process of entering unlimited love and compassion. Certainly I would never suggest to someone who is close to the end of life, “Well, have you though of entering death as a field of unlimited love?” He may well answer me, “You’re full of crap. Get out of here. I’m dying.” But if we have spent time in our life cultivating our spiritual practice until we see our whole life as practice, then it may be possible that our death can be not a tragedy but something much more. I have seen this happen.

Even in the last moments of life, you can breathe in and you can breathe out. You can breathe in the suffering and breathe out healing and relief. And when your selfishness pops up with fear and despair, you can turn around and say to it: “Ah, there you are again. I’ve been telling you to get out of here for a long time, and this time I really mean it. I’m going back to breathing. I’m going back to my meditation on love and compassion, and you see that glass of water on my bedside? You come back one more time, I’m throwing it all over you!”

Practice now, and when death approaches you may be able to remember, as you breathe in and out, all the things that you have been practicing for many years. You can remember that life is like a dream, that it has only ever been things coming and going, insubstantially, mysteriously. And that whatever form your life will take from the time of death onward, it will move in the same rhythm in which it has always moved. Such experiences are actually possible. And if you are practicing with the “Five Strengths” perhaps your practice will be there for you at the time of your own death. You will then be able to bring your practice to the bedside of family members, loved ones, and friends when they are close to death. You will be able to bring a sense of confidence and peace to those most precious moments.

Breathe in; breathe out; be where you are. All the training and teachings of spiritual practice come down to just that. So simple – yet not so easy to do. We have so many complications.

Breathing in and breathing out is an unspeakably deep process. To be alive is immense and unknowable. It’s not accident that in Latin and Greek, and in Hebrew, English, and Spanish, and probably in many other languages, the word for spirit is breath.

For Journaling

Try this prompt for your next journal entry: "When death is close, I want to be . . . " Follow-up: "In order for me to be that sort of person when death is close, I now practice . . . "

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See also: Judith Lief, Lojong Slogan #18: "The Ejection of Consciousness" -- HERE

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