A Practical Guide to Death and Dying – part 3

John White – USA

Medley APG 2 to Death and Dying


[A Practical Guide to Death and Dying was originally published by QUEST books in 1980. This particular version was previously published in the Theosophical Digest, y1992 v4 i2-p90.] 

Meditation –The World’s Best Fear Remover.

Death has been of central consideration in all the, world’s major religious and spiritual paths, and each has worked out a variety of ways with which to eliminate fear of dying. Meditation is the principal method they use. It has been called “the craft of dying.”

Meditation is a means of personal and transpersonal growth. It is a time-honored technique – probably humanity’s oldest spiritual discipline – for helping people release their potential for expanded con­sciousness and fuller living. Also a technique for assisting in the en­lightenment process of directly knowing God or ultimate reality, meditation appears in some form in nearly every major religious tradition. The entranced yogi in a lotus posture, the Zen Buddhist sitting in zazen, the Christian con­templative kneeling in adoration of Jesus, the Sufi dervish whirling in an ecstasy-inducing state – all can be properly described as practicing meditation. Although the cultural or religious trappings may vary, meditation’s core experience is an altered state of consciousness in which your ordinary sense of “I” –  the ego – is diminished, while a larger sense of self-existence- merged-with-the-cosmos comes into awareness.

When your self-centered consciousness is dissolved, your true identity shines through. This is en­lightenment, cosmic consciousness, union with God. The experience is transforming. Your life changes because you realize the essential truth of what spiritual teachers, sages, and saints have said: Death as nonexistence is an illusion, there is nothing to fear, and it is only your petty little ego that generates the fear, along with the sorrow, greed, jealousy, pride, lust, and all the other sins, vices, and unfulfilling desires that make life miserable for you and for others.

Remember what Freud said: In the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of our immortality. Spiritual traditions reply to Freud: We are unconsciously convinced because, in truth, we really are deathless. The true self cannot die, being one with God, Brahman, the Tao, the all-creative Void. The true self is universal, cosmically conscious. There are no limits to it except the illusory one we create, called ego the false idea, which we nevertheless believe, that a separate, independent self is the essential “me” and “you.” Thatself – the ego – is indeed mortal because it has identified with a perishable body.

Meditation is a powerful means of exploring mind and spirit – the most powerful, in fact. The aim of meditation is clarity of consciousness.It helps you to be aware of reality fullyso that your thoughts, feelings, and behavior are free and appropriate, not programmed by anxiety, desire, hatred, prejudice, social conventions and so forth. It does this by deautomatizing and deconditioning you.

How does meditation do this? It creates a sort of mental distance between you and your mind’s activity in which you can observe it with detachment. Meditation also extends your awareness so that you can actually begin to see thoughts and feelings come into existence. It shows you deeper aspects of mind than you are ordinarily aware of. Thus, the experience of meditation allows you to disidentify with your thoughts and feelings. You havethem, but you are notthem, just as you have a car but are not your car.

“Five-Breath Meditation.” 

We’ll begin meditating with a very short, simple exercise. It was first suggested by Stanley Keleman.

The Five-Breath Meditation involves taking successively shorter breaths, as if the fifth one were your last and you die at that moment. The first breath is of normal duration. The second breath should be shortened to about half of the first. The third breath is even shorter – about half as long as the second. The fourth is only half that of the third. Thus, each breath is shorter in time and reduced in oxygen. As you breathe, you should mentally set the context of the experience – a context that says, “I’m dying and about to take my final breath.” On the fifth breath, breathe out and hold it. Keep about of your lungs until you feel uncomfortable. Then begin normal respiration.

While holding the fifth breath and imagining it your last, mentally observe what thoughts and feelings come to mind. Many people have surprising emotional surges. That is unguided fantasy, however, not meditation. The meditation consists in observingthose emotions and thoughts. You watch yourself die but don’t become entangled in the drama, keeping your consciousness clear even while powerful feelings and perhaps horrifying images pop up. When it’s over, you will have seen more deeply into your own mind and its operations. If you don’t like what you see, you are then free to begin transforming it.

A Mantra Meditation. 

The following meditation exercise can be quite helpful to the transformation.

Meditation eliminates the obstacles of mind that prevent clarity of consciousness and full perception of reality. Mindfulness, not mindlessness, is the mark of proper meditation. You expand awareness, not eliminate it. You extinguish egotism, revealing your true self which is one with God and is therefore deathless.

I must make two brief comments about when it’s best notto meditate. First, do not meditate after a meal because most likely you’ll only fall asleep. Second, don’t try to meditate just before going to sleep. You may stay up half the night because meditation can leave you feeling wide awake and charged with energy.

To do this meditation, sit down on a chair or couch. Sit up straight but not rigid. Your hands can be folded or resting in your lap – whatever feels comfortable to you.

Sit quietly with your eyes open for a few moments, without trying to think, and then close your eyes. F or perhaps a minute just sit quietly without attempting to say the mantra. Then silently say to yourself, “Thine.” You can say it at whatever speed you want, and you will probably find that you experiment a bit. Try coordinating it with your breathing and say “Thine” as you breathe out. Just keep saying “Thine” silently in your mind over and over. If your attention wanders away from saying your mantra – which it’s almost certain to do – that’s all right. That’s part of the meditation process. But as soon as you become aware that you have stopped saying your mantra you should gently and effortlessly come back to it. Start repeating, “Thine, Thine, Thine.”

During the time your attention is off the mantra, all sorts of interesting thoughts, feelings, and images may come into your field of awareness. That’s all right, too. Don’t try to stop them forcefully. Carefully hut casually observe them, without becoming entangled in them or attached to them. Whatever it may be, however, when you become aware that you’re not saying the mantra, gently let those thoughts go and begin to repeat the mantra again.

When you’ve decided to end your meditation, simply stop saying the mantra and sit quietly for about two minutes with your eyes closed. Let your physical senses gradually restore themselves. Then slowly begin to open your eyes. Take the full two minutes to do so, counting breaths if necessary to time it.

Meditating on Death – The Eastern Craft of Dying. 

There is much more to be said about meditation as a means of removing death-fear. I simply want to describe to you a bit more about two great Eastern spiritual traditions, Buddhism and Hinduism, and how they develop a tranquil mindfulness of death.

In Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, special ceremonial cups can be seen which are made from the upper portion of the skull of a deceased monk. There are also trumpets made from human thighbones which were likewise taken from the skeleton of a brother monk who died. Over doorways there may be other human bones. These skeletal remains are, from the Buddhist perspective, neither ghoulish nor foolish. They are part of a tradition which aims at cultivating awareness of death in such a way that the monks are eventually serene about the idea of their own death. The skull cups, thighbone trumpets and doorway ornaments are well-meant reminders that reinforce the monks’ consciousness a familiarity and acceptance of mortality.

The principal means by which the monks gain that familiarity and acceptance is meditation – specifical­ly, death meditation. The tradition originated with Buddha, who taught that the only permanent state is nirvana. All else is transitory, though it may take eons to pass away.

Death meditation has two main forms in the Buddhist tradition. One involves contemplation of the inevitability of death. Thus, the meditator may be instructed to imagine himself as facing an executioner or to reflect on the death of others and then infer his own mortality. The second form of death meditation may sound even more unpleasant to you, but it has already been mentioned: meditations on corpses. This is used much less than the first form but, nevertheless, it is a tradition within Buddhism for people – primarily monks – to seat themselves near corpses in various states of decay and begin to reflect upon the nature of embodiment.

This wisdom has been distilled in a centuries-old Tibetan text intended for lay people as well as monks, the Bardo Thodol(or Bardo Thotrol),commonly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And although the book is ostensibly written for the dead, knowledgeable commentators such as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Choygam Trungpa, recently- deceased head of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, tell us that the book is in fact about life and for the living.

First translated into English in the 1920s, The Tibetan Book of the Dead’sfundamental teaching, Trungpa comments in his version, is “the recognition of one’s projections and the dissolutions of the sense of self in the light of reality.” Insofar as the book is for use with the dying, the instructions are to be read to them in order to help them maintain the calm, clear meditative state of awareness they cultivated throughout life, and thus to merge with the universe (samad-hi),becoming one with the luminosity of the void of space from which all existence springs. Ideally, however, The Tibetan Book of the Deadis a manual to be studied and memorized throughout life as a means of attaining enlightenment while embodied. Such a person would, at death, recite it to himself and literally dissolve his personal consciousness into the Clear Light of the Void, never again to be born or to die. 

The Bhagavad Gita,which is a holy scripture for Hindus, contains instruction on how to die. These instructions, like The Tibetan Book of the Dead,encourage the listener to cultivate a state of mind absorbed in ultimate reality, which Hindus call Brahman,

Here, two excerpts: 

“Whatever being a man thinks of at the last moment when he leaves his body, that alone does he attain, being ever absorbed in the thought thereof.”

The verse immediately preceding this declares:

“And whoever, at the time of death, leaving the body, goes forth remembering Me alone, he attains My being, there is no doubt about this.”

By thus closing “the doors of the senses” through yogic meditation, the mediator/dying person fixes his consciousness upon the Universal Self, his true identity, and thus enters into a state of spiritual and physical liberation (mokska). Like The Tibetan Book of the Dead,the Bhagavad Gita declares that the frame of mind in which you put yourself at the moment of death will determine the state into which you enter at death. The proper frame of mind is not attained magically, however. Rather, it is cultivated during your life through meditation and pious behavior.

Interestingly, this same view of death and dying is to be found in the medieval Christian volume Ars Moriendior The Craft of Dying.It, too, urged that spiritual practices be made a part of the daily life of all who sought to be “at peace with their Maker” or in union with God.

Meditation in its highest form is not simply an exercise of mind which one performs in a disciplined way for a certain period of time each day. Rather, it is continuous mindful actionin the midst of daily life. Learning and living become integrated in spontaneous practice that is actually no different from whatever you do daily, except for the state of mind with which you perform it. This is meditation in action. The meditator has so completely mastered the lessons of meditation that his entire life is a demonstration of higher consciousness which can be experienced if sincerely sought.

To be continued

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