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Death and happiness – a paradigm shift for the west

In Insight and Experience, Meditation and Mindfulness by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Happiness certainly doesn’t seem to be in any way connected with death.

Death, the unwelcome, uninvited guest – here again, when all we want to explore is how we can be happy. We’re clear about that.

Happiness matters. It’s a buzz issue – even the Financial Review is publishing articles about happiness. And the British investment banking firm Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein has taken time out from the stock exchange to work out for us that 25,000 pounds is sufficient to buy everything we need to be happy. Happiness is fashionable, but death is not.

Well, actual real death is not. Remote death certainly surrounds us every day. We live with violent images of death in various disaster zones and the many contemporary theatres of war, gruesome death in thrillers and action movies. But close death, the daily reality of people around us dying is suppressed, denied and sanitised. Far away death is OK. But here we don’t want to know, like children closing their eyes hoping to become invisible. A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud broke one of society’s most uncomfortable taboos by writing about human sexuality. This was viewed with enormous suspicion and scandal by the chattering classes of the day. How times have changed. Talk about sex at length and to various degrees of detail at any dinner party and no one will bat an eyelid. Talk about death and people will fall silent. Death is a real conversation stopper.

So why mention death in connection with happiness? Why is it so essential not only to take death out of the ghetto, but even invite him as a friend into our daily lives?

Perhaps it’s because the denial of death does not seem to make us any happier. Even though death certainly seems to happen only to other people, deep down there is a nagging suspicion that it might happen to us, too, some time.

To us, in this achievement-driven, object-cluttered world of affluence, death is like an obscenity, a dirty secret: the impossibility of possibility, the end of all choice and potential. It is fearsome to know that everything that matters to us will come to an end, and we try to disguise our fear and loathing through euphemism and ritual. This is not a new phenomenon. A new variant is how we mawkishly sentimentalise the death of celebrities, as though it’s their final attempt to win an Oscar. We place teddy bears as if to placate an unpredictable deity with child-like gifts.

But death is so normal. It will happen, and has happened, even to the most exalted beings who ever lived – the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad. They all died. If we see death as a personalised entity, it is an undeniably voracious one: an estimated 200,000 people die worldwide every day, often more when wars and catastrophes happen. Death is all around us.

Our statistics guarantee us an ever increasing life span, and we rejoice that we are so much healthier and long living than previous generations. We exercise and fuss, but every hour in the gym means we are an hour closer to death. Statistics are meaningless, since we don’t know the exact time of our own death. Even youth is no defence – death can and does happen at any stage.

And that changes everything.

Oblivious of this, we bask in our assumed immortality. We spend our days mistaking pleasure for happiness, and numbing consumption for satisfaction. Of course, pleasure itself is not wrong, but our customary reaction to it is. Our craving for more and more makes us deeply unsatisfied, and the more choice we have, the more saturated and bored we become.

We think that nothing is happening while everything is happening. It is called our life. As we fritter away our days, our life span runs out inescapably, like a river rushing over a cliff. The Tibetan master Lama Tsong Khapa described it thus 700 years ago: “Engaging in meaningless activities is like putting on jewellery on the way to the execution”.

Very few people know when they are going to die, usually those on death row waiting for the literal execution. Lama Zopa Rinpoche has given specific teachings to people on death row with whom the great nun Robina Courtin is working in America. Lama Zopa tells us that it’s a blessing to know the time of death, so that one can prepare for it.

We do not think so, because we insist that we are not on death row ourselves. We have plans for October, we know what we are going to do next Christmas, we plan to lose ten kilos by August. Well, we might die fat.

The terrible truth that the time of our death is uncertain, means that we cannot even guarantee that we will see tonight. We think it’s likely, and for all our sakes I hope it will be so, but guarantee it we cannot.

Death as the end of all choice, the end of power, sex and possessions, in short the end of all shopping. And what is left at the point of death? Surely only our mind, the way we face death as it rears up in front of us like an assassin. This needs work, and a lot of us find methods to prepare our mind in the various spiritual traditions of the great religions, or in philosophy. Heraclitus for example, reminded us 3,000 years ago of the ephemeral nature of life by stating that we never step into the same river twice.

We have learned that the mind is the only source of true happiness, and that it has to be subdued in its childish cravings which form the immediate cause of unhappiness. We also have to question the validity of how we perceive ourselves as an independent and solid self, and how this delusion adds to our unhappiness. Gaining insight and wisdom in this way makes us fearless, and provides us with spiritual shoes that enable us to go anywhere.

Meditation on the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of death, sharpens our understanding. We realise increasingly the value of restraint, simplicity and moderation, alongside with kindness, tolerance and compassion. Making death meditation part of our lives, reminds us of what is important and what is not. That each day might be our last, that instead of millions of breaths, we may only have a few hundred left. That everything, simply everything is meaningful against this reality.

Paradoxically, this enhances our enjoyment rather than making us gloomy and morbid. It adds to our happiness as we enjoy the moment without clinging to it, as we bite into a peach knowing that it might be the last we taste, as we hold our child, knowing that this moment will pass too. That we will lose everything and everyone eventually.

Then what importance Vuitton luggage, A or B list, or Rio Tinto shares?

Contemplating death on a daily basis cuts our boredom and neurotic self-pity. It adds to our happiness.

We know from experience that this is true when we have the privilege of working with the dying. Facing death in its real manifestation puts everything in perspective. We notice that people who work with the dying are not depressed, that they experience their work as highly nourishing, and well, yes, happy making.

So let’s briefly look at what we can offer the dying to make them happy in their last hours, and gaining happiness for ourselves in the manner that HH Dalai Lama has described as ‘wise selfishness’. First and foremost we must become the ‘empty rice bowl’. Its function is to receive, to be filled. In the same way we need to put aside our own needs and expectations. Our main task is to listen and be present. We need to touch and hold, and we need to give up any idea of changing and superimposing our own beliefs. It is too late for psychoanalysis. It is not helpful to impose our own religious beliefs, unless specifically asked.

On the contrary, we need to arrange whatever or whoever is requested by the dying person – priests, imams, rabbis or Tibetan lamas. A picture of Jesus and his bleeding heart of compassion. A candle. Beethoven’s last quartets. Silence or laughter.

We are the ‘empty rice bowl’, tolerating anger, nastiness, lack of gratitude, fear and despair if need be. We stay and we are present. We become wise in how to show our love without being selfish. It is an occasion for utmost happiness.

Renate Ogilvie is a registered psychotherapist trained in the UK and currently practising in Sydney. Renate has taught Tibetan Buddhism for over 15 years; she is an inspirational teacher, who uses both western psychological approaches and Tibetan Buddhist traditions to provide a unique synthesis for the modern, enquiring mind. Renate is a senior western teacher at Vajrayana Institute. This article was adapted from a speech delivered at the ‘Happiness & Its Causes’ conference in April 2006.

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