“My body is fragile and vulnerable,” I said to myself. “Death will come to me whether I’m prepared or not.”
I was walking along a suburban, Florida sidewalk with my trusty mini-Schnauzer, Sgt. Pepper. I breathed out gently through my mouth and looked at a beautiful magnolia tree. Then, a Muscovy duck, with its strange, red head, waddled across the sidewalk. Sgt. Pepper bristled at the duck but didn’t bark.
I smiled. “Good dog,” I said, praising him for his restraint. Then my little rescue pup fell into stride with me and I felt the warmth growing in my heart. I love this little guy so much…
Then I resumed my Death Meditation practice: “Death will come to my dog whether I’m prepared or not,” I said to myself.
Really? Death Meditation? Now?!?
When I first learned about Death Meditation, it sounded crazy to me. Maybe it sounds crazy to you too. Especially now.
At the time, I had just won a battle against major depression and for the first time in years, I was no longer having suicidal thoughts. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to thinking about death.
Let me be clear that Death Meditation is not the same as having suicidal thoughts.
However, this technique can be uncomfortable to practice for some people. It’s not as fun as most other qigong techniques.
So I ignored it for years. And maybe the timing isn’t right for you either.
If you’re currently in crisis, if you’re having thoughts about harming yourself, then please skip this 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!
- Go through my the free qigong program that I released to support people through the pandemic.
- You might also want to read an old article of mine called: Here’s a Method That Is Helping Depressives Get through the Winter
What is Death Meditation?
The word Maranasati means “mindfulness of death”. It’s a 2500-year-old Zen technique that traces back to the Buddha.
One of my readers, who happens to a qigong and kung fu teacher in India, 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! How cool is it that the internet can connect two Sifus from opposite sides of the planet?!? Amazing!)
Western culture has had similar practices to Maranasati. For example, the ancient Greeks had the Stoic tradition of Memento Mori. Here’s a quote from the most famous Stoic of all time that sums it up:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Maranasati 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.
Why on earth would someone do such a thing? Why would someone want to imagine dying? Or worse — their beloved dog dying?!?
Short answer: Because meditating on death makes you feel more alive.
Now for the longer answer…
When You Feel Helpless…
Normally, my morning routine consists of qigong, coffee, writing, and walking the dog. I specifically avoid reading the news.
But lately, that’s been hard for me. The news is so crazy — every single morning — that I can’t help but peek.
It’s always a mistake. It stresses me out. The news makes me feel incredibly helpless. I don’t know about you, but I HATE feeling helpless.
Maybe that’s why I love qigong so much — because it’s so empowering. I know from experience that when I’m feeling helpless, I need to take action, to do SOMETHING.
Maybe you’re thinking that I should’ve gone and done some qigong instead of meditating on death?
Duh. Of course. I do my qigong every day!
But on some mornings, I need extra-strength medicine. That’s when I reach into my Zen toolbox for the Death Meditation.
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 that weird.
I believe that meditating on death is one of the sanest things that we can do.
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.
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.
The 9 Contemplations of Master Atisha
There are many ways to “look” at death, but the 11th century Buddhist master Atisha gave us some nice tips. [source]
- All of us will die sooner or later.
- Your lifespan is decreasing continuously.
- Death will come whether you are prepared or not.
- Your life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed.
- Death has many causes.
- Your body is fragile and vulnerable.
- Your loved ones cannot keep you from death.
- At the moment of your death, your material resources are of no use to you.
- 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!
How to Practice
It’s best to choose one of Atisha’s contemplations and just practice that for a day or a week.
You can practice while sitting, standing, or walking. It’s the essence of the technique that matters most, not the form.
If you already know qigong, then I recommend that you practice this technique during your walk before or after your regular practice session. Instead of walking for 1 minute, walk for 5-10 minutes and use one of the contemplations.
If you don’t know qigong — then my book is the most affordable way to get started. It comes with a free online course, and thousands have already benefitted.
Then experiment with Maranasati, and see what works for you. Does it work better if you practice it before your qigong session? Or is it better afterward?
If you have questions, please 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’ve 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.
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. (You know, for like 2 hours or so.)
I practice Maranasati a lot these days because I desperately need it. Perhaps the current events will spur you to try the technique for the same reasons.
I’ve gotten to a point where I feel like I’m done looking away from death. 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 after a brush with death:
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, my friends is an amazing thing.
How do you feel about Maranasati? Does it seem useful to you? Would you like more on the subject? Let me know in the comments below.