The Nine Contemplations of Death - a Guided Meditation
February 3, 2024

Thank you for joining me for this 22-minute Contemplating Death meditation. Let’s turn down the volume in our mind, body, and environment and turn inward today.

There is so much we do not know about death, that we cannot know until we experience this transition ourselves. It is only natural then, that we may greet the unknown with fear and anxiety.

Thankfully, there are a variety of wisdom teachings that can provide refuge as we approach our human condition.

The lineage for today’s Nine Contemplations of Death comes from Atisha, an 11th century Tibetan Buddhist scholar, and contemporary scholar, teacher, and social activist Joan Halifax.

These contemplations have been passed down for many generations because they are full of truth and insight. When practiced regularly, they can help us explore the inevitability of our deaths and allow us to center what is truly important to us, while we are still alive.

When you’re ready, I invite you to settle into today’s practice, finding a comfortable seat or perhaps lying down in Savasana, or corpse pose. Feel the earth’s gravity hugging your physical body towards your seat or whatever surface you are resting on. Close your eyes or lower your gaze, and if it feels supportive, place one hand on your heart, the other hand resting under your diaphragm on your low belly, grounding and signaling to your nervous system that you are safe now and can relax. You are supported here and are joining a long line of ancestors by affinity, who have practiced death contemplation for hundreds of years before this moment. Honoring this connection, take notice of your breath, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling, present and rooted.

And from this place of safety and relaxation, I invite you to please consider these truths.

1.    The first contemplation of death: All of us will die sooner or later. Death is inevitable, no one is exempt.

The most noble person who ever lived, the wealthiest human alive, and the humblest human alive will also die. Death is an inescapable outcome of life. No one can avoid this fate. Reflect on the profound equality that death bestows upon all, rendering meaningless all distinctions of wealth, status, and relationships.

Do not lose the opportunity to be with this simple fact. I, too, will die. Watch what the mind tries to do to avoid being present with the inevitability of death. Can I face this truth?

Death is inevitable, this is the first contemplation.

2.    The second contemplation: Our life span is decreasing continuously.

Each breath brings us closer to death. Our movement towards death never stops.

Consider the relentless passage of time, and the brevity of life, in the grand scheme of our universe. We are living “in the dash,” somewhere in between our birth dates and the day we will die.

How might I live more fully today, in this moment, and in every moment, amidst this truth?

Our life span is decreasing continuously. This is the second contemplation of death.

3.    The third contemplation: Death will indeed come, whether or not we are prepared.

We may spend time contemplating death and preparing for our spiritual needs, the needs of our logical minds, physical bodies, our dependents, and our belongings. Or we may not. Death does not discriminate and will come regardless of whether our affairs are in order.

It is wise to be mindful of death, and to use time, energy, and resources to prepare for this inevitability. When we are not in active crisis mode, we can make decisions with authenticity and integrity rather than panic and fear. What do I need now to feel prepared for my inevitable death? What do I seek now, to find peace with the spontaneity of death?

Death will indeed come, whether or not we are prepared. This is the third contemplation of death.

4.    The fourth contemplation: Our life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed.

Human life expectancy is uncertain. Death can come at any time moment, sleeping or waking, while we are healthy or in pain.  

Think of the 116 people who die every minute on this planet, the nearly 7000 people who die every hour, and the 166,000 people who die every day. Approximately 8people have died in the 4 seconds since I started sharing this contemplation. How many of these humans really thought they were going to die today?

When it is time for me to die, it will happen in an ordinary, human moment, just like this one. How much time do I have left?

Our life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed. This is the fourth contemplation of death.

5.    The fifth contemplation: Death has many causes.

Contemplate the infinite ways in which death can manifest. From accidents to illnesses, conditions inherited from family and inherit in being a modern human, heartache, heart disease, and the latest plague - there are endless causes that can lead to death.

Allow the mind to consider these possibilities without avoidance. One way or another, whether I have spent precious energy worrying about a potential condition or never saw it coming at all, I will still have the same end result. How may lack knowledge the unknown and release any hold on preferences for my death?

There is a vast spectrum of conditions that can end a life.

Death has many causes. This is the fifth contemplation of death.

6.    The sixth contemplation: Our human body is fragile and vulnerable.

One breath. One moment. One mistake can bring life to a surprising and rapid end.

Life is precarious and requires many interwoven systems functioning with precision to continue. At any time, for any reason and sometimes for no reason at all, these systems may fail.

Attending to my inhalation, I deepen my appreciation for everything that has functioned adequately and allowed me to make it to today. Bringing awareness to my exhalations, I acknowledge that death is not a failure, but an inevitability for my fallible physical form. 

Our human body is fragile and vulnerable. This is the sixth contemplation of death.

7.    The seventh contemplation: My loved ones cannot keep me from death.

I came into this world alone, and I must face death alone.

I may turn to loved ones in time of hardship, but even if they are doctors, witches, or spiritual gurus, they are ultimately powerless in preventing death.There are limitations to our attachments, and clinging to them in sorrow may actually make dying more difficult.

The inevitability of death cannot be altered by even the strongest bonds. I will not burden my loved ones with this expectation.

Holding this thought in mind, I exercise non-grasping. I ask myself – what will actually help me at the moment of my death?

My loved ones cannot keep me from death. This is the seventh contemplation of death. 

8.    The eighth contemplation: At the moment of death, material resources will be of no use to me.

My cherished belongings, potent medicines, and stores of money must all be left behind. As the ancient tombs of Egyptian royalty have proven, I can take nothing with me. No matter how much I have accumulated, and how carefully my belongings have been preserved, no-thing will help me avoid my inevitable death.

Furthermore, my possessions must be redistributed after my death. I will have to let go of everything.

With this in mind, I contemplate how I may release attachment to my possessions now.What do I wish to invest in, for the remainder of my days? How might I leave a lighter footprint, when I am gone?

At the moment of death, material resources will be of no use to me.

This is the eighth contemplation of death.

9.    The ninth contemplation: My own body cannot help me at the time of death.

Despite the care and attention invested into the body, it too will be lost at the moment of death. All the exercise and rest, nourishment and abuse, self-love and burnout will come to an end at death.

My most intimate companion, the vehicle through which I have traveled this lifetime, from conception to death, must ultimately be left behind.

I am dependent upon my body now, as it allows me to breathe and exist in this present moment. And yet, I will join every human ancestor before me in letting go of this vessel.

How might I better prepare for this departure? What can I do to strengthen my awareness and capacity to surrender to death? 

Inhaling, I find refuge in my earthly body. Exhaling, I practice letting go.

My own body cannot help me at the time of death. This is the ninth contemplation of death. 

The nine contemplations of death allow us to confront our inevitable end. Now that we have discussed them all, I invite you to notice which contemplations are challenging for you, and which you can approach with ease.

These are the nine contemplations: Death is inevitable. My life span is decreasing continuously. Death will come regardless of whether I am prepared for it. My life span is not fixed. Death has many causes. My human body is fragile and vulnerable. My loved ones cannot keep me from death. My material resources cannot help at the moment of death. And my own body cannot help me at the time of death.

Consider these truths deeply. Allow these contemplations to invite a profound awakening to the existential realities of life and death. May they guide you towards amore mindful existence.

Honoring the connection to all humans who have died and have contemplated death before you, I invite you to wiggle your fingers and toes, connect with your life-giving breath, and when you’re ready – open your eyes.

Thank you for practicing with me. You are a good grief doula.

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