Looking in the Mirror of Death

An article by Kirsten DeLeo on the topic of her event at Lerab Ling in November 2015

KirstenDeleo BlogWhen we realize our days are finite, everything, absolutely everything–suddenly, shockingly–comes into a sharp, piercingly clear focus. Life, relationships, priorities, meaning.

“You know what,“ a close friend told me a while ago, “this isn’t so bad after all. It could be worse!” Seriously? She must have registered the surprise written on my face. She just had been told that she had incurable cancer. “I finally have to stop running away from life, and this is,” she continued with a warm smile, ”such a relief!” Facing death, you turn towards life? This seems quite surprising, when you first come to think of it. At a closer look, however, it makes complete sense.

 Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying shared in one of his teachings that death is actually all about life. “Coming to terms with death is coming to terms with life.” In a society still ill at ease with the realities of dying and death, it is no wonder that we keep death at bay. It is the last thing we want to think about. Death is something that happens to other people, not us. When we do eventually muster the courage to acknowledge our mortality, there is the danger that we simply shrug it off. A great Buddhist master who died a few years ago warned, “People often make the mistake of being frivolous about death and think, ‘Oh well, death happens to everybody. It's not a big deal, it's natural. I'll be fine.’  That's a nice theory until one is dying.”

Death is real. We all will die, we just don’t know when and how. Though we may understand this truth intellectually, it is infinitely more difficult to relate to it personally, to connect it with a sense of reality for ourselves. Even after years of accompanying friends and patients at the end-of-life, I still catch myself thinking “if I die” not “when I die”. Denial runs deep.

Death in modern society, is almost always associated with loss, particularly the loss of hope. During seminars and retreats on this challenging and always personal topic, I have often heard people say that they thought looking at death would be morbid, depressing, just too painful or even hasten their actual demise. To their surprise, they experienced the complete opposite: contemplating the reality of death can actually be very inspiring, even joyful.

It is tremendously helpful to shed light on our fears and beliefs, however ‘irrational’ they may turn out to be. Through examining our assumptions and getting in touch with our deeply held beliefs, they will slowly lose their firm hold on us, and we can begin to see the real situation. 

The avoidance of our own mortality and fears so often prevent us from feeling at ease within ourselves, from making a genuine connection with others, to live life fully. Yes, coming to terms with death or losing a loved one, naturally there are feelings of deep sadness and heartbreak. But, as our heart breaks, it can break open to the incredible beauty, love and richness around us. We become present, open and aware – fully awake.

According to the Buddhist teachings, “Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.” Sogyal Rinpoche, “If we can learn how to face death, then we will have learned the most important lesson of life: how to face ourselves, and so come to terms with ourselves, in the deepest possible sense, as human beings.” “Impermanence is,” he wrote, “like some of the people we met in life—difficult and disturbing at first, but on a deeper acquaintance far friendlier and less unnerving than we could have imagined.”

Death is about life. And, as those I sat with as they were dying have shown me, it is about love. Love freed from fear, attachments and expectations. A young woman describes her experience dying of cancer:

"I would never have chosen this journey. Nonetheless, I find myself filled with gratitude for the clarity and freedom embracing it has brought me. It’s heartbreaking, now, to see so clearly how we get in the way of our own happiness when death is just some distant possibility for us. We try so hard to maintain and defend ourselves, spending so much of our energy and missing so much of life trying to hide from the fact that death is real. Until we are fortunate enough to awaken to this truth, we tenaciously live in denial of the one thing that, if embraced, brings us real freedom. As I look around with new eyes it seems to be a common experience most of us share . . . I invite everyone to start practicing with impermanence. Take the reality of death to heart. Let it pierce you. If you can open and surrender to your own mortality and vulnerability, you will discover a fundamental, unconditional source of strength and confidence.”

We don’t have to wait to be told that our life is ‘terminal’ to come to terms with death and start living life fully. What are we waiting for?

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