Two-thousand eighteen was already looking to be one of the most memorable years of my life with the upcoming birth of my son in June, and in addition the universe conspired to add tragedy to this year ensuring that 2018 will forever be tattooed onto my heart. On February 7th at 3:49pm EST my father, Bob Kukan, passed away in a Pittsburgh hospital surrounded by his children and siblings. No one saw this coming, and it was only a little more than a month ago that we all got together along with his closest friends to celebrate his 70th birthday.
This is one event in my life that I could never have prepared for. Similarly to becoming a parent (so I hear), the feelings associated with losing a parent are only understood once you experience it, and now that I’ve experienced the latter I’m even more curious to experience the former.
You can listen to other people’s stories and read up on grieving the loss of a parent, but until you’ve gone through it, it’s all a mental exercise. The emotional and physical pains that were present for me were overwhelming at times and still tend to come and go, and from what I hear they will continue to come and go for a long time.
Through this loss however, I see a silver lining. I am reminded of the fragility of this precious human life that we have and the finite quality of it.
The truth is that we are all going to die one day, and we must not turn away from that truth. Many of us fear it and never want to talk or think about it which prevents us from ever truly accepting and embracing it. By doing so we may be holding ourselves back from saying the things we want to say and doing the things we want to do with the expectation that we will live another day and get to do those things sometime in the future. Without exploring and accepting this truth how can we ever truly live our life to its fullest potential?
The first time I contemplated death was in one of the first Buddhist meditation classes that I was attending. During the lesson one day we were asked to contemplate the fact that accidents happen every day and that there is no guarantee that we will live to see tomorrow. But instead of getting sad about it or using it to fuel depressing thoughts like “if I’m going to die anyway, what’s the point of living?” we were taught to use it as motivation.
If today is the only chance you get to live, why are you holding yourself back from doing anything you’ve been wanting to do with your life?
If you are not guaranteed another day, then why wait? Today is the day. It’s never to late to take a first step. If you want to learn something or accomplish a goal, make a first step in that direction today. Stop holding yourself back. You want to learn to play guitar; go to a music store and see if they give lessons. You always wanted to go to Paris. Start planning a vacation. Pick a date. Search flights and hotels. Do something!
“Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
Whether you believe that you only have one life to live or you believe in samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth), all that is certain is that you are alive right now. What are you going to do with this present moment?
The practice of contemplating death helps you determine the things that are most important to you and separates them from the things that are distractions. In a meditation on death you will notice that certain people and activities come up more often in your thoughts, and you will also notice that you have emotional responses to some of them. Through this awareness you can discover those that are most important to you by differentiating the emotions that are attached to them, and through that discovery you can choose which ones are to be included in your life every day.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” ~ Pablo Picasso
When you take a moment to think if you will regret doing or not doing something before you die and realize that there is a possibility that you may die before the end of the day, then it becomes very clear what you are to do with your life today and it can help you sustain a more satisfied and happy life.
In the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan the people are expected to contemplate death 5 times a day, and the country is known around the world for its level of happiness. That’s because they measure it. The government of Bhutan makes the happiness of their people one of the top priorities and has been measuring it since the early 1970’s when the king declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” Ever since then the small mountainous nation has used Gross National Happiness (GNH) to influence its social and economic policy. It is believed that the regular practice of meditating on death helps boost and maintain the level happiness in the Bhutanese people. (Read the BBC’s article on “Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness” here.)
Another reason to contemplate death is to prepare to make it as smooth as possible when the time comes. I imagine that as we enter the experience of death the neurons in our brain will be firing wildly, and we may be confronted with all of the thoughts and memories stored in there. If there are any disturbing images or unsettling thoughts that get triggered by this neural activity the transition may get very scary.
This view on the process of dying greatly influences the choices I make every day. I am very mindful of the images and thoughts that I feed my brain through the many screens that deliver them to me, i.e. phones, computers, tv’s, etc., because I know they will be influencing my way of viewing the world and they could either make my death experience pleasant or disturbing.
I already have plenty of horrific images in my brain from all of the scary movies I watched when I was growing up. That was a favorite past time I shared with my dad. We would rent all sorts of movies from the horror section of Kit Kat Video, often on the Monday 2-for-1 nights, and watch them together during the week. We watched some terrible B-horror movies with each other in the 80’s.
If any of those images get triggered as I am dying that means I might have to face some of the monsters from those movies in my mind and in my confused mental state I may think that is my reality. That would create a hell-like vision and experience as I am pulling away from this life. Not an ideal experience especially since death is not an ideal experience anyway.
With all of those monsters from my childhood already in my memories I don’t need to add any more uneasy thoughts to that by feeding my brain more disturbing images. I’d prefer my death to be more peaceful, and although I don’t have much control in how I’m going to die, I am preparing for my death by controlling the thoughts and visions I digest.
There’s one more reason to meditate on death that I saw mentioned in an article in the New York Times titled, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death.”
“…there is some evidence that contemplating death makes you funnier.”
The article was referring to research that was published where they subliminally primed people to contemplate pain or death and then write captions for cartoons. The captions from the group that contemplated death were rated funnier than the group focusing on pain. (Link to the research report here.)
If you decide to try a meditation on death, the NYT article suggests using the last-year test. Ask yourself if 2018 were your last year, how would you choose to spend the next hour? Would you use that time to write a nasty comment on Facebook or YouTube or would you use it to call a family member or friend to see how they are doing?
No one really knows what happens after we die even though there are many beliefs and philosophies about it throughout the world. But if we can get to a place of acceptance with it and overcome the fear of it, perhaps we can truly live a happier and more fulfilled life…today.