On my first trip to India in 1971, a yogi friend took me to the funeral pyres near the river Ganges. He told me that cremation is common in India and that some yogis make a meditation practice of watching the fires and the burning bodies, which he suggested we do.
We sat by the sacred river and watched a body, crackling and charring, disappear into its essence of dust and light. It melted into a film of ash and floated downstream.
As I watched the body burn on a pile of logs, my revulsion slowly began to subside. I felt sadness and joy, ending and beginning. My heart began to soften and open, and I saw deeper into both life and death through the doorway of flames.
My own birth, death, sense of mortality, and the presence and departure of loved ones flashed through my consciousness. I felt the brevity of a lifetime, the importance of relationships, and the potency of moments of clarity.
An extraordinary stillness and beauty filled the evening, as a pink glow appeared against the blue sky, reflecting and bringing attention to the delicate spring grasses lining the hills. Slowly the light, and with it the beauty, faded, and I almost began to mourn its departure, as we do the inevitable loss of things dear. But the moonlight arrived and began to light the skies, trees, and clouds. Beauty began revealing itself, reborn again in new ways.
In Western culture we don’t like to think about death, and we usually push the idea of our own end into the distant future. But death is ever present, all around us—plants, insects, and living things of all kinds, even stars and galaxies, are always dying and being born. Death teaches us that separation is unavoidable and that all things must pass—not just living things but also experiences and relationships. We can either mourn and resist the loss of the past, or we can keep our eyes on the ever-present, constantly changing dance of dissolution and creation that is the true nature of the material realm we live in. Ending is inevitable, as is the birth of the new. Meditation on endings can open our hearts and fill us with love and compassion and teach us about letting go.
Awaken to Your True Nature
Meditation on death can be done by remembering and invoking the loss of loved ones or by being totally present with the sick or dying. It can be done at a funeral, or by simply sitting, breathing quietly, and invoking the reality and presence of death in our lives.
To our Western mindset, the idea of a death meditation practice may seem macabre, even diabolical. We’re conditioned to fear death and mask its reality with beliefs and hopes. But in the East, the death meditation is often seen as a way of awakening us to our ephemeral nature and opening our hearts to love.
The philosophical concept of learning from death goes back millennia in India, at least to the Upanishads, wherein a sacrificed boy, Nachiketas, confronts the god of death and elicits a conversation. The Buddha was isolated in youth from exposure to sickness, old age, and death. When he got older and saw these things for the first time, he was thrust powerfully into the death meditation, which eventually led him to his own awakening.
Modern figures, too, practiced the death meditation. In his youth, the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi witnessed his father’s cremation and, a few years later, lay down and simulated his own death, to which he credited his awakening. The spiritual teacher and philosopher J. Krishnamurti often wrote and spoke of the importance of feeling and looking at our own death, and of letting our contemplation lead us to love and compassion.
Into the Light
About 15 years ago, I telephoned my then- 85-year-old father, who was normally a bit distant and self-absorbed. On this day, I found him unusually open and caring. He asked many questions about how my life was going. Sensing how differently he was behaving, I asked him if anything unusual or important had happened. He said no. Then I asked about his week. He told me that he had visited my mother’s grave at the cemetery and was looking over arrangements for his own burial plot next to hers. I realized that my father had been doing a form of the death meditation and that it had opened his heart.
When we visit a grave, come face-to-face with the dying, or attend the funeral of a loved one, we usually come away with a full heart, more sensitive to others and more caring. These reminders of death can awaken us, help us feel the potency of the moment, and remind us to cherish our life and all our relations.
In 2005 I lost three people close to me—my father, George E. White; my stepmother of 35 years, Doris White; and my student and dear friend, Frank White. Several friends, relatives, students, and I held a fire ceremony at the White Lotus retreat center in Santa Barbara, California, for their passing—three Whites into the light. We sat outside around a raging fire and chanted, offering some of the cremated ashes to the flames. We meditated on the dancing flames and the circle of life from birth to death. We passed a talking stick and shared insights into our own living and dying and into the ways these three beings had enriched our lives.
As each person around the circle spoke, we shared stories about the three individuals we had known, loved, and lost. It struck me that these people had taught each of us different things. The words revealed new facets of someone now gone, but born anew through every person.
You too Shall Pass
Another form of meditation on death involves sitting with an intention to project and experience ourselves in old age, near the end of life. The meditator visualizes him or herself with diminished capacities, such as less energy, mobility, and eyesight, and imagines the other unpleasant qualities of old age.
Why do such a seemingly depressing exercise? Because it is a common folly of youth to feel that such things will never happen to us. In our naiveté, we feel we will overcome the problems of sickness and old age. We will practice yoga, eat properly, and learn to heal ourselves. Fortunately, we can preserve our vitality to a great extent, but all bodies do wear out, age, and ultimately die. This contemplation on death, aging, and loss should not be approached with fear; it is meant to be the seed of something positive and illuminating.
The realization that these things will happen to each one of us offers us a source of wisdom and awareness that can inform our life, infusing it with appreciation, care, attention, and an awareness of life’s preciousness. This meditation helps us avoid becoming numb and mechanical and instills value into the present moment. Although it might seem counterintuitive, meditation on death is meant to awaken us to the miracle and beauty of life and love—here and now.