6 Quotes to Bring Death to the Forefront of Your Mind

Illustration by Nicolás Olivares

COVID-19 is bringing me face to face with death like never before.

“Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.” — Lucius Seneca

A woman, Kisa Gotami once came to Buddha in great grief after losing her only child. Her sorrow was so great that she was losing her mind. To help her Buddha promised to bring the child back if she could get a white mustard seed from a family where no one had died.

Going desperately from house to house, she couldn’t find a place free from mortality. And thus, she understood the inevitability of death and found solace in its acceptance. On her return, Buddha preached to her the truth and she experienced the first stage of enlightenment.

There’s no quote that describes the current situation better than Seneca’s. Here in India, as I write this, the second wave of COVID has taken the lives of countless people. There’s no family I know who hasn’t been affected by the virus or has lost a loved one.

One of my friends lost seven members of his family (near or distant) in a week. Being at the receiving end of such calls surely wakes you up to the ephemeral nature of life. (Just as I was editing this piece, I received a message from my friend whose grandfather passed away last night.)

Wealthy politicians, businessmen, bodybuilders, and all those people who thought death is far away couldn’t stand in front of the virus. When death comes, nothing in this world can save you. Your riches, connections, access to advanced healthcare and all the modern biohacking tools are useless.

I’m 22. I got COVID but fortunately recovered without trouble. Yet, a few months ago, one of my friends passed away just by falling from the stairs! Millions of youngsters die every day. No one is safe from death no matter your age.

Death is the great equalizer — it doesn’t discriminate nor does it show any mercy on your circumstances. As Seneca says, it’s mankind’s only fair law. A law that we all should contemplate, every moment we get to live.

Here are a few quotes that got me thinking deeply about the ephemeral nature of life. I hope they do the same for you.

Revealing What’s Truly Important

“If we’re not reflecting on the impermanent nature of life, then there are a lot of unimportant things that seem important.” — Allison Choying Zangmo

Death is what gives value to life. If you had infinite time, there would hardly be any motivation to do strive for anything. Jobs was right — death is the single greatest invention.

When we lose sight of our impermanence, we lose sight of our priorities. We squander our lives in petty distractions and bad habits, resolving to quit them the next day but never doing so.

When we’re not aware of death, the new Netflix show, partying on Saturday night, drinking after work instead of spending time with family, getting just “5 more minutes” of sleep, and countless other things seem important.

“Why do I have to be so hard on myself? Surely I can waste some time” is what we all think. I too am guilty of the same thought, for dealing with the mind is tricky business.

On one hand, it’s only natural to think this way — because the thought of death is not on our minds. But when we keep that thought at the forefront of our consciousness, suddenly each moment gets its worth back.

We start spending more time on things that matter and less on things that don’t. We finally have a strong incentive to give up our bad habits and live life to our full potential. We can move on from petty issues and negativity in life because life is (literally) too short for that.

Dying Peacefully

“When we die, we go alone — no one, not even our closest, dearest loved one, can accompany us. And being unable to accept this and let go of our attachment to our loved ones will cause our mind to be in turmoil and make it very difficult to have a peaceful death.” — Sangye Khadr

The main issue with death is its denial. We deny that death can come to us perhaps because we haven’t experienced it in this life. That fear of death makes it impossible to have a peaceful departure from this world.

Look at people who have a near-death experience — almost invariably, their outlook on life changes completely. They’re born again with a second chance that, this time, they’re determined not to waste.

Imagine yourself on your deathbed and thinking about nothing but how you’ll miss this world. This attachment to the physical world is painful for your soul. There’s neither peace nor solace in that thought.

The more attachments we have, the more we are imprisoned by the fear of death. The more we detach from life, the more freedom we experience. To detach doesn’t mean to not love — it means to not condition your love and happiness to a handful of people, objects, or experiences.

Life’s a (Lovely) Circus

“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t.” — Charles Bukowski

We’re all going to die, yet we still spend years in hatred, anger, and in projecting negative emotions on others. When we die, we take nothing with ourselves but our heart’s feelings.

Dying with a consciousness of hate is painful — for us and for the person we hate. Thanissaro Bhikkhu tells the story of an old man who came to say farewell to their spiritual teacher before he went home and died of cancer.

The teacher urged him to stay because his nieces at home will fight for the inheritance. That vibration of anger and greed will lead to mental unrest at the time of his death.

He instead spent his last moments in the monastery, with his daughter singing his favorite chants and meditation instructions in his ear. When he passed, he seemed calm and fully aware.

We don’t know when our last moment comes. If we’re not watchful, we’ll leave this life with feelings of hatred, regret, anger, and attachment. Do you really want to spend your last moments filled with those emotions? If not, then start working on yourself from this moment.

Life Is a Flash of Lightning

“Your body is like a dew-drop on the morning grass, your life is as brief as a flash of lightning. Momentary and vain, it is lost in a moment. (From ‘Fukan zazengi’).”
― Dōgen Zenji

In the movie Zen, Dogen says that we take nothing out of this life but our past actions. The companies we build, the books we write, the people we love, the experiences we have will be dust. In a rare case, your work may continue for a few hundred years but even that will soon die.

Our lives really are as brief as a flash of lightning. But it doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. It’s only important to teach us the right attitudes and actions so we may perfect ourselves and attain Absolute Bliss.

The soul has only that purpose and nothing else. All this is a mere dream or a drama staged for us to learn our lessons. The scenes in the drama are vain and momentary — but the lessons we learn with the actions we take are immortal.

The Buddha too preached the same when he said,

“Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.”

The deeds you do and the qualities you develop help your soul’s evolution. Everything else is dust.

Live Well to Handle Death Well

“Even though we don’t like to think about it, death is going to come no matter what, so we should learn how to stare it down. Remember that a death well handled is one of the surest signs of a life well lived.” — Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Fearing the inevitable is stupid. Learning to accept it is the path to freedom. Sadly, people only start thinking about it when faced with a terminal illness which leaves little time to prepare for death.

If we wait too long to think of our immortality, we’ll make unwise decisions which, in all probability, we’ll regret on our last day. A person who handles death effectively has lived a virtuous life. He alone has prepared his mind rigorously to be calm in the face of death.

And he alone will have a peaceful death — for he’s led a peaceful life.

Confront the Monster in the Closet

“What is death? A scary mask. Take it off — see, it doesn’t bite. Eventually, body and soul will have to separate, just as they existed separately before we were born. So why be upset if it happens now? If it isn’t now, it’s later.”

— Epictetus

You’ve been dead for years before this birth and will be dead again for years. Do you remember facing any pain or inconvenience from it? Then why be afraid of it?

Paramahansa Yogananda said that when a person dies, the heart stops beating which leads to a momentary pain of 1–3 seconds. This pain is the reason why we’re afraid of death.

No, we haven’t experienced this pain in this life. But we bring it from past lives — as I said, we’ve experienced death before but don’t remember it. The memory of that temporary pain however is alive in our mind.

Death itself, apart from that momentary pain, is not painful. Further, if you die in an accident or due to some unnatural reason, you might not experience any pain.

Yogananda said,

“At death, you forget all the limitations of the physical body and realize how free you are. For the first few seconds there is a sense of fear — fear of the unknown, of something unfamiliar to the consciousness. But after that comes a great realization: the soul feels a joyous sense of relief and freedom. You know that you exist apart from the mortal body.”

Just as we don’t fear sleep, we shouldn’t fear death — which is a thousand times deeper than the deepest sleep you’ve had. This is why death is often called ‘Mahanidra’ or the ‘Great Sleep’.

In sleep, all our troubles vanish. The unpaid bills, heated arguments, and the sick body don’t matter when you sleep. With death too, our mortal tortures cease. The only reason we fear death is its unfamiliarity.

Call Out the Elephant in the Room

Most of what I wrote has a singular purpose — to get you to think about your own mortality.

The thought isn’t morbid if you hold it close to your face and contemplate deeply. The denial of death makes us think we’re immortal. Or at least, we’ll live longer than everyone else around us.

That’s what J. I. Rodale, the founder of Rodale Publishing, which now owns Men’s Health, thought. Without a doubt, he told comedian Dick Cavett

“I’m in such good health [he was 72] that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way.” I’ve decided to live to be a hundred.”

Just as those words came out of his mouth, his heart stopped. Right on Dick’s show. Gods and their sense of humor, I tell you!

Speaking of humor, Chrysippus, the famous Stoic, died because he laughed too hard at a donkey eating figs in his front yard.

I’ve been a practitioner of Memento Mori (remember you will die) for a long time. But COVID has bought this to the top of my mind. And that’s how I want it to be always.

There’s no reason to bury the hush-hush topic of death under the carpet. It’s the elephant in the room. And the only way to get rid of the elephant is to call it out.

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Written on May 26, 2021