The Buddha said: If we keep death in front of us, if we are aware of it, we will live better lives.
Last fall, in preparation for a session of walking meditation that our sangha hosted at a local cemetery, I fashioned together a card-sized collage of pictures of friends and family members who’ve passed away, whether recently or many years ago. I continue to use this collage card as a bookmark in my spiral-bound notebook journal, which I write personal account entries in a few times a month. Encountering this bookmark of collaged pictures affords me the ability to practice staying in touch with the preciousness of life, by keeping death in front of me.
At the time of putting the collage together, I also saw fit to include three people who were still alive but nearing the end of their currently held life-cycle: my grandmother Claire, who’s since passed away, and my grandmother Mary and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who are both still very much alive. I included these individuals as a practice of deepening my sense of gratitude and also further developing my ever-growing understanding of impermanence.
It’s easy to think that calling to mind our loved ones that have passed away will be too painful. It’s easy to avoid connecting with the memories of our dearly departed friends and family members and to occupy our minds with a cascade of other matters. But when we develop a way to actively practice staying in relationship with those who’ve passed away – with the nature and reality of death itself – the initial pain that will likely crop up for us will have the opportunity to become transformed into a furthering opening of the heart.
At first, and for a little while, it was uncomfortable for me to look at the collage card I put together. To connect with the images and memories of so many loved ones who’ve passed away was rather startling and unsettling. But, once again, everything takes practice. Truly. Now that I’ve been encountering this card – one side collage and one side a picture of my friends David and Alison from their joint memorial service last summer – on a regular, ongoing basis, I’m finding that the discomfort has largely dissipated.
Now when I see the collage card, what I experience is a softening of my heart-space. An opening into the fragile and fertile space that exists in between all the moments of forgetfulness of how simply amazing and wondrous this life really is.
Let us not keep death at bay for fear of it being too painful to ponder. Let us not tow it behind us like a silent anchor on our soul. Instead, may we find ways to keep it gently in front of us, as a guide leading us forward with grace and gratitude.
(this picture is from the memorial service of my friends David & Alison, who both passed away in short order of each other last summer)