I was just lately telling you that I was within sight of old age. I am now afraid that I have left old age behind me. For some other word would now apply to my years, or at any rate to my body; since old age means a time of life that is weary rather than crushed. You may rate me in the worn-out class, – of those who are nearing the end.
Nevertheless, I offer thanks to myself, with you as witness; for I feel that age has done no damage to my mind, though I feel its effects on my constitution. Only my vices, and the outward aids to these vices, have reached senility; my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body. It has laid aside the greater part of its load. It is alert; it takes issue with me on the subject of old age; it declares that old age is its time of bloom. Let me take it at its word, and let it make the most of the advantages it possesses. The mind bids me do some thinking and consider how much of this peace of spirit and moderation of character I owe to wisdom and how much to my time of life; it bids me distinguish carefully what I cannot do and what I do not want to do. . . . For why should one complain or regard it as a disadvantage, if powers which ought to come to an end have failed? “But,” you say, “it is the greatest possible disadvantage to be worn out and to die off, or rather, if I may speak literally, to melt away! For we are not suddenly smitten and laid low; we are worn away, and every day reduces our powers to a certain extent.”
But is there any better end to it all than to glide off to one’s proper haven, when nature slips the cable? Not that there is anything painful in a shock and a sudden departure from existence; it is merely because this other way of departure is easy, – a gradual withdrawal. I, at any rate, as if the test were at hand and the day were come which is to pronounce its decision concerning all the years of my life, watch over myself and commune thus with myself: “The showing which we have made up to the present time, in word or deed, counts for nothing. All this is but a trifling and deceitful pledge of our spirit, and is wrapped in much charlatanism. I shall leave it to Death to determine what progress I have made. Therefore with no faint heart I am making ready for the day when, putting aside all stage artifice and actor’s rouge, I am to pass judgment upon myself, – whether I am merely declaiming brave sentiments, or whether I really feel them; whether all the bold threats I have uttered against fortune are a pretense and a farce. Put aside the opinion of the world; it is always wavering and always takes both sides. Put aside the studies which you have pursued throughout your life; Death will deliver the final judgment in your case. This is what I mean: your debates and learned talks, your maxims gathered from the teachings of the wise, your cultured conversation, – all these afford no proof of the real strength of your soul. Even the most timid man can deliver a bold speech. What you have done in the past will be manifest only at the time when you draw your last breath. I accept the terms; I do not shrink from the decision.” This is what I say to myself, but I would have you think that I have said it to you also. You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.
I was just intending to stop, and my hand was making ready for the closing sentence; but the rites are still to be performed and the traveling money for the letter disbursed. And just assume that I am not telling where I intend to borrow the necessary sum; you know upon whose coffers I depend. Wait for me but a moment, and I will pay you from my own account; meanwhile, Epicurus will oblige me with these words: “Think on death,” or rather, if you prefer the phrase, on “migration to heaven.” The meaning is clear, – that it is a wonderful thing to learn thoroughly how to die. You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing. When we can never prove whether we really know a thing, we must always be learning it. “Think on death.” In saying this, he bids us think on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery; he is above any external power, or, at any rate, he is beyond it. What terrors have prisons and bonds and bars for him? His way out is clear. There is only one chain which binds us to life, and that is the love of life. The chain may not be cast off, but it may be rubbed away, so that, when necessity shall demand, nothing may retard or hinder us from being ready to do at once that which at some time we are bound to do. Farewell.
[Seneca, Epistles 26]
Death and dying is a subject that evokes such deep and disturbing emotions that we usually try to live in denial of death. Yet we could die tomorrow, completely unprepared and helpless. The time of death is uncertain but the truth of death is not. All who are born will certainly die.
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.”
This is a nice theory until one is dying. Then experience and theory differ. Then one is powerless and everything familiar is lost. One is overwhelmed by a great turbulence of fear, disorientation, and confusion. For this reason it is essential to prepare well in advance for the moment when the mind and body separate.
There are many methods, extraordinary and ordinary, to prepare for the transformation of death. The greatest of these results in enlightenment in one’s lifetime. In enlightenment, death has no relevance to one’s state of being. Enlightened realization is deathless, but it requires flawless meditative practice.
If deathless enlightenment is not accomplished during one’s lifetime, the transition of death itself offers another supreme opportunity to attain enlightenment. But again, realizing the potential of this opportunity depends on having mastered certain meditative skills.
Enlightenment is the highest attainment of the death transition, but it is not the only one. If meditative realization is incomplete yet one has developed the power of prayer, there can be liberation into an environment of perfect bliss, free of suffering, by invoking the blessings of enlightened wisdom beings.
To accomplish the meditative skills and power needed to direct our mind at death, we must learn about the relationship of life and death, about the process of dying, and about the transitions from the moment of death until rebirth. In this way we become familiar with death and are not caught by surprise as the process begins to unfold.
[Life In Relationship To Death, Chagdud Khadro]