I meditate on death and little but death. In every face, I see the eyes of a corpse, but it’s also my own corpse that I see. My body becomes cold and rigid, my skin bloodless and waxy. My eyes glaze and liquefy. My back mottles with coagulated blood. I stink and bloat until I burst. Nowhere in the universe does there exist the being that was me. After a few years, it’s as if I never lived.
I tell myself: “Death is the way of things, and is only fearful for thinking it so. Besides, death has its advantages. No more wiping my ass, going to the dentist, catching colds, cleaning dog vomit out of carpets, or a thousand other chores and maladies. And then there are the big things that death transcends, things like war, crime, cancer, accidents.”
At sixteen, death seemed mysterious and exotic, a merging of God, sex, Satan, angels, heroism, white marble, moldy crypts, dying kisses, and last words. When I was even younger, my inability to imagine my own death led me to believe I would never die. When I asked myself why others and not me, I concluded that I was the sine qua non of reality. In essence, I was God. At 63, I no longer see my death as one link in an endless chain of experiences but as a dissolution of the chain into insensate matter and insensate energy.
We are all made according to the same shabby design. Likewise, we all came from the same cold ground, and it is to this ground that we all return. That which is euphemistically called faith when the word is applied to religion is but a person’s terror of death subtracted from the ignorance and pretense needed to assuage that terror. The maintenance of this ignorance and pretense is why the suppression of dissent is characteristic of religion.
Hell would be to lie on my deathbed and look back at a life that was mean, petty, or mercenary. How odd that, given the brevity of life, our species places so much importance upon wealth, fame, power, and sensuous experiences, all things that are ultimately meaningless. What, then, can give us the strength to face death with equanimity? I believe that the best way—if not the only way other than delusion—is to practice equanimity in every situation, that and to live a life devoted to honesty, kindness, courage, wisdom, and rationality. I fail continually in all of these things, yet they remain my only salvation.
I tried to push thoughts of death away, but resistance made the nightmare stronger. Now, I say to death, “I can’t fight you. I can’t even make my body stop hurting. The ugly brown spots on my upper body continue to multiply, as do the white spots on my legs. My teeth, my vision, my hearing, my memory, my strength, my attractiveness, my ability to sleep, and a hundred other things are dying by inches even while my physical pain increases. Truly, you reign supreme.”
*from “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.