Originally published on August 16, 2017
“This could all be gone,” I thought to myself.
I breathed out gently through my mouth as I walked…
I looked at the magnolia tree, no longer blooming but still so beautiful and majestic…
…the crow sitting patiently on the neighbor’s fence;
…our two pups, Ziggy and Pepper, zooming around the property with endless enthusiasm and energy.
I live on a small, 5-acre ranch with my wife. It’s a beautiful piece of land, and we’re in love with the open spaces, the hummingbirds, the roses.
“Gone,” I thought to myself. “All of it — gone in a flash of energy and radiation.”
This thought did not feel good, not by a long shot. But I breathed and continued anyway.
Then I thought of my beautiful wife, 10 miles away, helping patients at her acupuncture clinic.
“Gone,” I thought.
This thought was even more uncomfortable than the last one, but I persisted, relaxed, and breathed.
I should probably mention that all this happened last week when North Korea was flexing its nuclear muscles and the POTUS responded with a dangerous game of rhetoric.
Maybe you saw the news? Yes, of course you did.
Normally, my morning routine consists of qigong, coffee, writing, and walking. I specifically avoid reading the news.
But the news from the previous evening was so dire, so terrible, so frightening that I couldn’t help but take a peek that morning.
It was a mistake. By the time I went for my morning walk, I was feeling incredibly stressed out, angry, scared…
When you feel helpless…
I also felt incredibly helpless.
While I was walking, it suddenly hit me that two world leaders with questionable mental stability had the power to kill millions if not billions of sentient beings…and there was nothing I could do about it!
I don’t know about you, but I HATE feeling helpless.
Maybe that’s what I love qigong so much, because it’s so empowering.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s when the cold war was still on.
In the 1980s, I walked a mile to school with my Sony Walkman in my pocket. (Yes, the original one!)
One of my favorite songs, which I listened to over and over, was called “Russians” by Sting.
If you’ve never heard the 1985 song, here are some of the lyrics:
…there’s a growing feeling of hysteria.
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.
Mister Krushchev said, “We will bury you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.
How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence.
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too“
I was 13 when the song came out.
I remember writing an essay for school about armageddon, about how, for the first time in history, humans had the ability to destroy the entire planet.
“I’m only 13 and I have more sense than them!” I told my teacher. She nodded, and that almost made it worse.
I remember being angry at the injustice of it all. It was a terrible feeling for a teenager.
I wanted to fix things, to shake the world leaders and wake them into sanity.
I was young, and I wanted to save the world.
Now I have a different approach.
I still want to save the world, but I focus on shaking myself awake instead.
Should you call your representatives?
I felt absolutely terrible last week. I’m guessing that you can probably relate.
My depression is well-managed thanks to qigong, but news like that can sometimes send me into a downward spiral where everything feels hopeless.
I know from experience that when I’m feeling hopeless, I need to take action, to do SOMETHING.
Normally, I just do my qigong. But last week, I was desperate for a technique that would not only make me feel better, but also help me to put out the wildfire of helplessness in my mind.
I know what some of you are probably thinking. “You should call your representatives!”
Been there. Done that. If you haven’t, then yes, you should. (Here’s a cool tool for contacting them through Facebook)
Or maybe you’re thinking that I should’ve gone and done some qigong?
Duh. Of course. I do it every day!
But on that terrible morning, I needed some extra-strength medicine.
And so I reached into my meditative medicine cabinet and pulled out a 2500-year-old Buddhist technique called Maranasati.
Maranasati means “mindfulness of death”.
In this article, I hope to you how this Maranasati technique can help you not only in today’s scary political climate, but in your everyday life as well.
How do you pronounce “maranasati”?
One of my readers, who happens to a Sifu in India, was inspired by this post. He sent me a short audio file with the proper pronunciation of “maranasati”. Check it out below.
Many thanks to Sifu. N. Gowri Shankar of India for this recording!
As an aside, how cool is it that the internet can connect two Sifus from opposite sides of the planet?!? Amazing!
Really? You want me to be mindful of death?!?
When I first learned about Maranasati, it sounded crazy to me.
At the time, I had just won a battle against major depression, and for the first time in years, I was no longer suicidal.
The last thing I wanted to do was go back to thinking about death.
Let me be clear that Maranasati is not the same thing as having suicidal thoughts.
However, Maranasati can be uncomfortable to practice. It’s not as fun as most other qigong or meditation techniques.
So I ignored it for years.
Note: if you’re currently in crisis, if you’re having thoughts about harming yourself, then please skip the Maransati technique for now. Here are some helpful alternatives for you:
- If you’re in crisis and having dark thoughts about harming yourself, then please call 1-800-273-8255, or click here: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Seriously. These people can help you even if you have no idea how that’s possible.
If you’re not in crisis, but you need to talk to someone right now, then visit the 7 Cups of Tea website. You can chat live with a trained active listener 24 hours a day. It’s a cool site. Check it out!
If you’re not in crisis, then you can also try this free audio meditation here. It’s a wonderful technique for depressives to practice.
- You might also want to read an old article of mine called: Here’s a Method That Is Helping Depressives Get through the Winter
Okay, but WHY meditate on death?
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that meditating on death is not morbid. Nor is it crazy. Nor is it even weird.
I believe that meditating on death is one of the sanest things that we can do.
Because death unites us all.
We’re so busy rushing around that we forget that none of us are getting out of this thing alive.
If you don’t believe me, perhaps this article from The Onion will convince you. (If I were the type to use emojis, a winky face would go right here.)
See, we’re okay with cracking jokes about death, but otherwise, we prefer to ignore it.
We don’t talk about it. We don’t look at it. We don’t think about it.
In forgetting to feel our mortality, we lose something precious — the feeling of being fully alive.
And that’s exactly why we need to practice Maranasati.
So how does it work exactly?
What is this technique? What does it involve?
The technique is ancient and likely traces all the way back to the Buddha in 500 BC, so there are many variations.
Many Western cultures have had similar practices too. The ancient Greeks had the Stoic tradition of Memento Mori, which has the same flavor. Here’s a quote from a famous Stoic that sums it up:
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.“ – Marcus Aurelius
The Manaranasati technique can be summed up as follows:
Breathe gently as if taking your last few breaths. Look at death instead of looking away. Feel the truth of it, the inevitability of it, the fact that you too, will one day die.
The 9 Contemplations of Atisha
There are many ways to “look” at death, but the 11th century Buddhist master Atisha gave us some nice tips. [source]
1. All of us will die sooner or later.
2. Your lifespan is decreasing continuously.
3. Death will come whether you are prepared or not.
4. Your life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed.
5. Death has many causes.
6. Your body is fragile and vulnerable.
7. Your loved ones cannot keep you from death.
8. At the moment of your death, your material resources are of no use to you.
9. Your own body cannot help you at the time of your death.
Wow. So this Atisha guy wasn’t messing around! Those are some serious contemplations!
You can practice these contemplations while sitting, standing, or walking. Or you can come up with your own. It’s the essence of the technique that matters most.
Experiment, and see what works for you. Or if you have questions, post them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to help you.
Why I stopped looking away
I have a tendency to look away from death. I get scared, and so I looked away for a long time.
I’m sure you’ve looked away too. I don’t blame you. I know what it feels like.
I practiced Maranasati last week because I desperately needed it. And maybe the current events will spur you to try the technique for the same reasons.
But as I get older, I find that I’m practicing it more and more often, even if there’s nothing crazy happening in the news.
I’ve gotten to a point where I feel like I’m done looking away from death.
We live in an age where nuclear armageddon is a distinct possibility, so I might as well look. This shadowy vision is already there, lurking in the back of my mind. I can’t ignore it or wish it away.
Feeling fully alive…
But more than that, I find that this Maranasati technique enriches my life.
Have you ever had a close call, maybe while driving? Or maybe you had a health scare that later turned out to be negative?
After your close call, you suddenly felt your aliveness. You really FELT it for a change.
I know that feeling too.
Here’s something that I wrote and posted to Facebook a few years ago. My wife is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and at the time, we were dealing with a health scare and undergoing some terrifying diagnostic tests.
That’s when I wrote the following:
This is what Maranasati does for us. It’s a beautiful technique that wakes you up and reminds you that — right now, right here — you are alive.
And that is an amazing thing. Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.