A Buddhist Perspective on Living Fully and Preparing to Die
Many years ago, I took care of a dying woman who repeatedly cried out, “What’s to become of me?” As a young nurse early in my career, I offered her compassionate presence but I felt challenged to support her through those deep explorations. Her heartfelt cry of fear and confusion was painful to watch and difficult to console. We can meet the dying with compassionate presence to ease their transition, yet many face death unprepared and clinging to the life they have known. How can we live our life fully and when our time comes, bring peace and love to our dying?
Regardless of one’s religion or belief, we all want to die a peaceful death. Often, difficult deaths happen because of too much clinging. We cling to our self identity, our loved ones, our fame and possessions. At death we leave empty handed, taking nothing of this life with us. It is the clinging and resistance to letting go that makes death difficult and dying painful.
The teachings on bardo in Buddhism offer a helpful guide on how to live more fully and prepare for a peaceful death. Bardo refers to any time of transition when we are at the end of one event or moment and the beginning of the next. These in-between times may be life-changing — as in the death of a loved one, beginning of a relationship or end of one’s career and beginning retirement. They can also refer to the passing of one moment and the arising of the next that we experience continually.
These transitions are great opportunities for personal transformation. They challenge us to move out of our comfort zones and fixed ideas. The beauty of the bardo teachings is that we can become familiar with the continuous process of living and dying every day and even every moment. Bardo teachings then become an invaluable guide for how to live our life fully every day and let go into a peaceful death.
Meditation practice, as a bardo teaching, develops our ability to become familiar with our mind, giving us direct experience on how to relate to changes in life, impermanence, death and re-birth of each moment. Just as we experience the natural arising and subsiding of our breath, the ebb and flow of the ocean and the changing seasons, through regular practice we observe the natural arising of our thoughts and emotions and how easily we cling to them. As we practice relaxing and letting go with each new thought and reaction, to our amazement the movements of our mind dissolves.
As we observe the natural arising and dissolution of each moment this practice becomes our guide to living our life with joyful ease and resilience in the face of difficulties and will help us at our death.
Throughout the years of my nursing career, my patients and particularly the dying have taught me about the need to prepare for the end of my own life’s journey. Through applying the wisdom teachings of the bardo, we can enjoying our life fully while being better prepared when death happens. Our life is eased as we meet the challenges of life with resilience, equanimity and joy.