Of the many spiritual traditions, Tibetan Buddhists seem to have the greatest, long-standing interest in death. Perhaps this is the case because our mortality seems to be one issue that causes us the greatest conscious and unconscious concern. It’s also a subject that few of us seem able to think and speak about with grace and ease.
Atisha Dipamkara was an Indian spiritual teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Much like the Buddha himself, Atisha renounced the wealth to which he was born and instead devoted his life to spreading wisdom teachings designed to help alleviate human suffering. Anxieties, fears and concerns about death headed the list of topics spiritual searchers of his day struggled most to come to grips with.
Neuroscientists too, are concerned about death, mostly about how to help the brain become better organized in order to put it off as long as possible. Some consider such pursuits sheer folly. But how many of them are facing imminent demise? They might have a change of heart when the end-of-life trajectory actually begins counting down their days. That said, here are Atisha’s teachings about death filtered through the lens of a social neuroscientist (me):
Death is happening outside all around us.
Even apart from terrorists using bombs and guns, and climate change using hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes to perpetrate aggravated assaults with extreme prejudice, death is going on all over the place all the time. A handful of the one million! spiders that live out here on our country acre are currently spinning their last web. Dying rhododendron blossoms are littering the ground all over the front yard. A junco fledgling, eating at the bird feeder outside my office, launches the wrong way into the window and breaks his neck. All it takes is an unflinching willingness to open our data ports (the five senses) and we will see, hear, taste, touch and smell life ending all around us all the time.
Death is happening all the time inside us.
Millions of brain and body cells die inside us every day. Some die by the natural process of apoptosis – programmed cell death. Others die by insult and injury leading to necrosis. Eventually, all of us – all our cells – will die one way or another. Best not to put up too much resistance, since, as many of us already know … resistance is futile.
Life energy is finite.
The average lifespan for someone my current age is 88.5 years. That works out to roughly 46 million, 515 thousand, 600 total life minutes. More of those minutes of my life have been spent than currently remain. The question is: how might I make the most of the little more than 10 million minutes I have left? Feel free to offer creative suggestions.
Our time of death is uncertain.
Because my remaining time is a general average, it’s best for me to make hay while the sun shines. I might only have 5 million minutes left. Or only one. Or it could be 20 million. Ideally, I’m able to spend each minute with as much intentional awareness as I can, doing generative things for myself and others that light up the pleasure centers and the hayfields of my heart and brain.
How we will die is also uncertain.
Right now I’m accompanying several friends whose life partners are in the midst of their end-of-life trajectories. We ourselves might be on such a trajectory as well and simply not realize it. We might want to honor that possibility by signing up a physicist to speak at our funeral. Or at least complete an Advanced Directive (q.v.)
The material world is of little use during the dying trajectory.
Good luck continuing to One-Click for all those consumer goods on Amazon.com.
Loved ones cannot keep us safe from death.
Many would if they could. The news is: they can’t. Is that news good or bad?
The amount of pain we experience while dying can be addressed.
Might the best time of life to become a drug addict be as the end-of-life trajectory begins to unfurl? Some think yes, some think no.
Embracing death can lead to living well.
In his book, The Undefeated Mind, professor of medicine Alex Lickerman writes:
“By willfully and directly confronting our fear of death we can increase our determination to live well; a finely honed awareness of death can help us avoid wasting time on pursuits for which we are ill-suited or in which we have no real interest but in which we participate out of a sense of obligation or guilt; that keeping our life’s end firmly in mind can help us focus on those things that the wise know will most likely bring happiness: our relationships and helping others….Though death itself may destroy us, the idea of death may save us.” (pg. 233)
Death will come whether we’re prepared or not.
Best is to be prepared, don’t you think? You’d make detailed preparations in advance of a trip to San Pedro Sula in Honduras, wouldn’t you? And a good thing, too, since it’s the most deadly city on earth. Some people prepare by learning about the most common regrets dying people have and working to insure they don’t repeat those scenarios. Your brain will appreciate any death work you elect to take on.