When I returned from retreat in Nicaragua back in February, I wrote a blog post about my experience in retreat, and in that post I mentioned the Buddhist practice of the “three death contemplations.” Since that post, several people have written asking about “the three death contemplations,” so I thought I’d elaborate upon them a bit.
As we know, many spiritual traditions place a good deal of attention on death as a point of contemplation, as a pathway to living more fully. The Christian Bible says “Anyone who wants to save his life must lose it. Anyone who loses her life will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Most traditions of Buddhism speak of dying to the false self and taking refuge in our essential self. Meditation is often used as a practice in dying. Kathleen Dowling Singh calls this form of meditation a way to “relieve ourselves of all of our mistaken identifications, loosening our attachments to them, letting them go.” And in some sects of Hinduism, monks sit in the presence of bodies being cremated on platforms—a practice of becoming profoundly intimate with dying.
All of these practices are designed to teach us not to recoil from death, but to use it as a reminder of how we want to live in this moment. The traditional Buddhist practice of the “three death contemplations” poses three questions we can (and should) use every day to bring alertness and awareness into our lives.
1) Is death inevitable?
2) When will death come?
3) What will be meaningful to me when death does come?
I think it’s obvious that we move through the first two questions fairly quickly. Of course death is inevitable. And of course we never know when death will come. (Even though most of us act as if such an inevitability is way off in the future.) We have a keen array of defenses surrounding our fragility and mortality.
The third question, though, is disturbingly provocative, and not so easily addressed. And as it is phrased by Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, it instills a high degree of urgency: What is most important now? We have to ask this question (over and over) while we still have the capacity to thoughtfully make decisions and choices.
So here’s a common Buddhist teaching designed to help us address this last question without becoming overwhelmed by its enormity.
First, ask yourself, What do I care about above all else? Make a list of those things.
Next, ask yourself, What exactly am I giving priority to in practice in my daily life? Make another list. Be honest about the ways you spend your time, your money, and your energy.
If you find a striking mismatch between these two lists, you are not alone, and your work is cut out for you. If you find that the two lists look pretty much the same, you are well into sainthood.
Now you’re in a position to decide how to adjust your practices or your lifestyle or the company you keep so that these two lists align. What needs to change to allow you to live the life you say you want to live, and be committed to the ideas you say you want to be committed to?
No judgment allowed in this exercise. No denigrating yourself or others. Simply use the exercise to learn how your aspirations and your habits are aligned. Each day, we get to choose what we do and what we say and what we think. And if we do that daily, with care, devotion, and compassion, our final death contemplation will be much, much easier. It will be simply another practice.