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What is it like to contemplate death on a birthday?

I start my 41st year today. I’m reading “The Book of Joy” with my MBSR graduate group. One of the obstacles they describe to experiencing joy is fear of death. I’ve also read on many occasions that it’s a very common spiritual practice to contemplate our own death. So, this morning I decided there’s no better day to contemplate my own impermanence than the anniversary of my birth….so here goes.

There is a profound teaching by an ancient Tibetan Buddhist master:

“The true measure of spiritual development is how one confronts one’s own mortality. The best way is when one is able to approach death with joy; next best way is without fear; third best way is at least not to have regret.” (The Book of Joy pg. 166.)

This unusual approach to death really got me, so I’ve been rolling it around in my head for a while. I took some time today to contemplate how I’m living my life: Am I working on leaving this place better than I found it? Where, how and with whom am I spending my energy? How am I relating to my kids so that I model kindness, compassion, equality, and embrace non-perfection…not just talk the talk? Am I, at the very least, not creating more harm and problems for those I leave behind? I’m not sure if I could ever get to facing death without fear, let alone with joy; but there is room to face it at least with no regrets.

Pema Chodron wrote, in her exquisite book, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”…I’ll paraphrase: ”All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death. We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides it from us. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment and things not working out. We experience it through things always being in the process of change. When the day ends, the second ends, when we breathe out…experiencing everything that we don’t want is a kind of death in everyday life.”

I noticed a death of sorts this morning; something unwanted…my first born is 12 ½ and in a simple and seemingly small way (he had no idea his actions left such a pit in my stomach), he displayed that he’s just not interested in spending time with his mom. (I asked if he would spend some time with just me this weekend as a birthday gift, and he flat out said, “No.” …Ouch.) I knew someday it would happen that I’m not cool anymore, and I’ve been watching him slowly pull away and becoming his own person for the last couple years, but today it seemed more final for some reason and I got teary about it afterward, which always makes me perk up and pay attention, to dig deeper.

I know every parent goes through this to some degree, and multiple times throughout the lifespan. It is the nature of a tween turning into a teen after all. However, we don’t fully understand the hurt and aching in the heart until it actually happens to us.  I liken it to childbirth…every mom says how horrible and beautiful it is all at once, but it’s not fully KNOWN until we live through it and see what it’s like on the other side.

So, I’ll be making myself a homemade chocolate cake, and probably eating and extra large piece…to celebrate that I woke up today, and that I don’t have to look far and pay lots of money for spiritual teachings…I simply get to turn to my kids, like my own personal Zen Buddhist masters.


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