Even though we are flooded with movies, television drama and news programs, and video games that overwhelmingly show us death, we still favor keeping thoughts of our own process of dying at arm’s length. Some of us say, “please don’t let it hurt” or “I don’t want to know about it when it happens.” Also, many of us don’t particularly like being at the bedside of a dying person who is in our family or circle of close friends. Probably, that’s because it’s scary or reminds us of what our own death could be like, that it might cause us to feel hopeless, helpless, and hapless—not peaceful at all. However, if we took more time to consider dying, it might be that we would approach death with a different mentality, even one of feeling somewhat more prepared to experience it for ourselves when it’s our turn.
In general, death in our western culture used to be treated quite differently than it is now. At the beginning of the 20th century most people died before 50 years of age from things we didn't know how to treat. Like my sister has told me, "They just got sick and died." But they died in their own homes, with familiar caregivers and loved ones around them. (For instance, my Great-Great-Great Grandmother Cousins died at her home in 1902.) Also, after death they were bathed, watched over, and buried with the help of friends and community. Now people live much longer due to modern technology and drugs. They can be hooked up to a respirator in a vegetative or non-vegetative state for years. Second, following a good diet and taking diabetes pills and insulin injections let us live well up into our 80s or even more. Others live on with various treatments but sometimes with immense pain from which they would welcome death as a relief.
However, such radically different approaches in modern medicine have led to different ideas about what makes a good and peaceful death. For instance, there is the notion in the West, called scientific materialism, which believes it is good to die while unconscious to the fact that death is coming. It’s the idea that when loss of life is the linear end of material existence, why not soften the blow? If you die in your sleep, people frequently say, “Thank God, such a blessing” or “Well, at least she never knew what hit her.” Conversely, when the Judea-Christian influence dominated Western culture, not being aware of oncoming death was considered a disaster. Having time to prepare properly was believed critical to assuring a beneficent outcome. In my own family, mhy beloved Uncle Ernie died almost instantly in front of the hosptial admissions desk, whereas his first wife had died in her sleep next to him, only to be discovered stone-cold dead the next morning. Was the way they died a blessing or not? I have not way of knowing, so I'm just not sure. On the other hand, my niece's husband recently passed away, choosing to do so with his family's approval, with pneumonia that had resulted as a complication from another fatal illness. In this case, Dar's death seemed to be a blessing because he was prepared.
When we examine the Eastern approach to dying, we also see a tradition where preparing properly for death is believed critical to assuring a beneficent outcome, but different in several aspects. Philip Kapleau Roshi, a noted American Zen teacher, said, “Your mind at the time you draw your last breath is crucial, for upon this hinges the subsequent direction and embodiment of the life force.” Of course, this is based upon the idea that life continues after death—something also believed in Christianity—thus, it behooves one to be in the best possible mental state at the time of death. Jeffrey Hopkins, a noted author and Tibetan Buddhist scholar, says, “from the tantric perspective, the point of actual death is tied not to inhalation and exhalation but to the appearance of the mind of clear light.” This concept is different from the Western notion that life ends with the last exhalation and heartbeat, but not entirely different from the instruction given to dying people cared for by the hospice movement; that is, to go to the light. Dzogchen Ponlop, another Tibetan teacher and author of the esteemed book Mind Beyond Death, also relates that preparing the mind is keenly essential for a good journey through and clear of death.
Yet, if we examine the deaths of the majority of Westerners, we’ll find a noticeable absence of any kind of preparation of the mind for dying, but at least some have “gotten their external affairs in order.” According to a well-known Tibetan Buddhist author, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “It is such a terrible rejection, a fundamental rejection of love, that nobody is willing to help a dying person’s state of mind.” Perhaps, this is not true in the relative sense in all cases, i.e., ministers and priests may have spent hours in counseling and praying with dying people. However, their situations beg the question of skills in addition to faith and belief in a higher power; that is, concentration, attention, loving kindness, compassion—talents that would help the person to enter and flow through the dying process in peace.
Developing such a practice for our last undertaking of living in this existence should be the most important act we accomplish, not only for ourselves but for the people who will witness our dying. I, for one, want to be ready. I want to have the talent I need to leave my body in a state of compassion and unconditional love; to not remain attached to people, things, or goals left unaccomplished or lost in fears, thoughts, and visions, but to willfully open to the clear light while concentrated, mindful, smiling from a mind of loving kindness for self and others, and with complete faith in the divine presence of the absolute.
Truly, if we take the time to investigate death, especially how we can approach dying with more than a conventional mentality, we’ll find and develop the techniques that will prepare us for our final moment on this planet. We won’t want to sleep or be unconscious during the death process, but to take control of it, with a positive frame of mind, and see it clearly as the penultimate act of loving kindness for ourselves and others. Any mental suffering that arises from the fear of dying will be completely or largely absent, and in its place will be a level of confidence and peace of mind. The more we practice preparing for death as a daily affair, the more confident we become, accompanied by the realization of a stronger faith in a higher power, using the wisdom that so many others have followed.