The other day we were getting a ride from a friend when the topic of tomorrow’s online retreat came up, “Recollection of Death”. It starts at 6am EDT on Zoom and will run through the day. It’s easy for monastics to forget the sturdy taboo around this subject, as this is something that’s the bread and butter of our contemplative life whether its Halloween or not. So I was caught a little flat-footed when our companion said, “That’s too much for me! I don’t think I’m up for a whole day thinking about death.”
I thought about the statement a lot during the ride and the days that followed. It hasn’t just been on account of the upcoming retreat — there have also been a lot of memorials, so death has been on our minds. It’s been interesting to see the ups and downs as I’ve approached the topic at different times, and explored a variety of facets. Reflection on death isn’t just one thing. It doesn’t have just one emotion, nor are there any right answers. Death is a sort of puzzle for us; it’s a great unknown that humbles us and forces us to get outside of ourselves.
But this is something that goes for any contemplation. As we find out early in our attempts at meditation: the mind doesn’t like being told what to do. We can bring up the subject of death, but that’s about the extent of our control. The mind will resonate like a gong that’s been struck and then it will go where it will go. For me, this is the joy of being a spiritual practitioner. There are no predetermined answers. Each of us has a different past and will walk a different path to freedom because of it. We bring up the topics that need to be faced, and then we get to see what is waiting for us.
There’s a room with a seat where our deeper truths and reality awaits us. The greatest struggle of all is to just go there and sit.
For some the mere mention of death will bring up sadness and grief, and that’s okay. It may be that this retreat or some portion of it will serve as permission to let this come to the surface of the mind. For others the idea of death is more theoretical and they will find themselves grappling with questions and speculation. What does it mean? When will it happen? What will it feel like? That’s okay too. Maybe it’s all we can do just to imagine Death as a cloaked figure waiting behind us. If we can sustain that image, all the better. We can watch how it will change how much desire we feel and how attached we are to things. The recollection of death is meant to bring us out of our fantasies and delusions and into this moment, whatever this moment contains.
The thing about death is that it is stable. “Death is certain, life is uncertain. All people die, but not all people live.” Our mortality is a truth, a Noble truth, one that doesn’t move or change or cease. Ultimately the emotions, thoughts, and patterns of the mind around the topic are to be moved through until we can abide with the knowledge of our mortality at all times, when it is as natural as breathing. This doesn’t demand that the experience of reflecting on death be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. Merely that however it feels, we are aware and accustomed to our response to it. We’re not just coming to know death. We’re coming to know ourselves in relation to the death. And in knowing, to become free.