A couple of weeks ago, I posted this challenge on death and dying from Joan Halifax Roshi, along with the promise that I would return to steps two and three in the process she proposed. As a reminder, the first challenge was a meditation on this question: "What is your worst-case scenario of how you will die?" I offered my own worst-case scenario, and received several others in return.
I've had plenty of opportunity to ruminate on death and dying in the past week: the history that abounds in Savannah and Charleston almost demands it. In touring the houses of the one-time wealthy, the visitor can't help but sense the ghosts of those who lived and died there--both the wealthy and the enslaved peoples whom they owned. Death, the greatest of all equalizers, visited them all regardless of wealth or color, social standing or religious conviction. Those who were abominably unequal in their lifetimes suffered equally at the approach of death. I've heard that the Civil War, fought in these territories, brought dreadful ends to more Americans than any other war, before or since. And the epidemics of yellow fever and malaria took the lives of many thousands more before their time. Life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, and much that has been learned about medicine, personal hygiene and health care was unknown to these earlier Americans.
So, yes, I could not prevent myself from thinking how it might be to die of yellow fever, in one of those spacious bedrooms in a rice plantation mansion--or in one of the bleak cabins deemed fit for slaves. I could not prevent myself from imagining myself wounded, fatally, by some stray bullet in the chaos of battle. The spirits of those who died in these ways, so many years ago, seemed awfully close to me. It seems entirely imaginable that those whose lives were taken from them before they reached completion would find it hard to consent to the finality of death.
But back to Joan Roshi's challenge, part the second, her next topic for meditation. Here it is: after meditating on your worst-case fears, "How do you really want to die?"
Some, I know, envy those who slip away quietly in their sleep. I don't know about you, but my own great wish is to die conscious, at home, in my own bed. To still be fully in command of all my senses and bodily functions, to be alert in mind and aware of each stage of the process, surrounded by those I love--and those who love me. To be strong enough to keep sending out loving-kindness to all living beings. To be so fully conscious and to have reached a state of such equanimity that I have no fear, and can simply watch and treasure my presence in those very last moments here on earth. My heroes are those monks reputed to have died sitting up, in the meditation posture, conscious to the end; and perhaps, who knows, beyond, through every one of the bardos described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead--though I don't wish this for myself.
The challenge, then, is to meditate on those last moments as one would wish to experience them--a much more pleasant prospect, I think you will agree, than the preceding one. If you're up for it, I'd certainly be interested to hear how it works for you.