I tried death meditation – this is what it was like
I tried death meditation – this is what it was like
Last night I died. First, I was in hospital, helplessly clutching my husband’s hand, and then I was drifting like a ghost, watching my two sons moving through their days without me. I was ethereal, disembodied, yet still aware of tears soaking the neck of my T-shirt, the sound of sobbing, the distant bugle of someone blowing their nose.
Then psychologist Mary Hoang’s soothing voice summoned us back to life. “Breathe,” she urged. “Feel the seat beneath you … Feel the rhythm of your breath, feel the beating of your heart.”
Hoang had just led me, and about 100 others, through a death meditation. Cocooned in a dimly lit room and immersed in a stirring soundscape, we’d been gently guided to the edge of the abyss, and back again.
Death meditation. It sounds morbid. Yet much like the traditional Buddhist practice of maranasati, or death awareness, the point is to illuminate what matters most in life. Having confronted us with a high definition preview of our own demise, Hoang invited us to write down what we planned to do differently.
“We can’t keep living our lives as if they’re endless,” she said, as I scribbled furiously, filling the page. I was profoundly moved by the experience. Afterwards, I forgave the driver who cut me off in traffic, declared my undying love for my husband and children, and hummed contentedly as I loaded the dishwasher and folded the laundry. My elder son eyed me suspiciously. “Are you going to be like this for the next few days?”
Hoang says the effects of death meditation practice, and their duration, are different for everyone. People recommit to relationships. Start new ones. Leave jobs. Have difficult conversations.
She acknowledged that it’s easy to slide back into old patterns in time. “But death meditation and other practices are there to somewhat snap you out of that sleepwalking experience and bring you back to what’s really in front of us,” she says.
Logically, it shouldn’t be so impactful. Death is nothing new. The Latin proverb memento mori, meaning ‘remember that you die’, has inspired countless works of art and literature.
But following the high casualty rates of the Spanish flu, and the two World Wars, death became almost invisible, says health ethicist Sarah Winch, who wrote The best death: How to die well in 2017 after her husband died.
Winch says few people have seen a dead body and many lack understanding of terms like ‘prognosis’ and ‘palliative care’. According to the Groundswell Project, 70 per cent of Australians die in hospital, instead of at home. “Death fell out of view, and became something to be feared, and it’s feared greatly,” Winch explains.
There are sound evolutionary reasons why we’d rather not talk or even think about death. Individually, our survival instincts are at odds with the knowledge of certain death, so we suppress the latter. Collectively, we’re aided and abetted by death-denying culture.
But there are adaptive ways to face the final curtain. “The heart of the science, and the philosophy, is that facing difficult things actually leads to greater wisdom and knowledge and growth,” says Hoang. “The question is: Do we want to prepare ourselves for something that is inevitable? Or do we just want to get hit over the head with it when it actually happens?”
For many people, the pandemic forced that rude awakening. Even if we didn’t personally know someone who had fallen ill or died from COVID-19, media images depicting the digging of mass graves on New York’s Hart Island, or rows of burning funeral pyres in Delhi, served as visceral reminders that death stalks us all.
Zenith Virago is a Byron Bay-based ‘death walker’, who accompanies both the dying and bereaved on their respective journeys. She says that COVID-19 has “woken people up to death and mortality” just as travel restrictions and social distancing rules changed memorialisation practices. “Some people know they’re going to miss the death of their person, but they never, never expected to miss the funeral, and that’s been very, very difficult for people,” she says.
Roadside memorials marking fatality sites are another unavoidable feature of modern life. There’s one beside the highway to Ipswich which gets me in the guts every time. It’s a stark white cross, offset with flowers, and bold lettering simply stating, ‘BABY GIRL’.
Despite their ubiquity, Dr Vanessa Beanland, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Otago, says there is limited research on how these memorials affect driver behaviour.
In her own research published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, Beanland and a colleague found that drivers were slightly more likely to fixate on the memorials as opposed to other roadside objects like traffic cones, but there was no clear impact on ratings of risk or speed. “Having said that, several drivers spontaneously mentioned the memorials and a couple of them reported that the presence of these memorials was extremely distressing,” she says.
The last taboo
The distress that death evokes has turned it into the last conversational taboo. But that’s all changing. In the last four years, Hoang reckons she has guided around 4,000 people through her death meditation.
Some Buddhist centres also offer death meditations that lead participants through a detailed visualisation of bodily decomposition. Amsterdam-based Claudia Crobatia, a ‘deathfluencer’ who sells courses on overcoming death anxiety, boasts 13,000 Instagram followers.
Death Cafés, where people discuss death and dying over coffee and cake, are booming, with an estimated 12,588 events run in 78 countries over the past decade. Winch occasionally hosts the Queensland equivalent, dubbed Wine and Die. Podcasts like Anna Sale’s Death, Sex and Money and her recently released book Let’s Talk About Hard Things explicitly table death as a topic for discussion.
Death has its own conferences and calendar days. There’s even an app for it. As my impatience with the world reasserts itself a few days after the death meditation, I download WeCroak, inspired by the Bhutanese belief that one must contemplate death five times a day in order to be happy. (Bhutan invented the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index, a measure later adopted by the United Nations, so they must be onto something.)
WeCroak delivers five death reminders to your phone at random intervals throughout the day. I’m rushing to catch a plane when the first one lobs in: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” The timing could be better. Nonetheless, I click to reveal the accompanying quote, by physician James Hallenbeck. “First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.”
Cheery stuff. Still, I’ve come to enjoy seeing the frog icon that signals a new notification and many of the quotes are lyrical and life-affirming. Virago believes that facing death, however we choose to do it, leads to a greater appreciation of life. Whether we’re well, or dying, resistance fritters away a lot of precious energy.
Virago came to her work as a death walker after the sudden death of a close friend. Instead of handing over the reins to a funeral director, Virago and her friend’s husband completed all the necessary tasks themselves, including washing and dressing the body, building a coffin, holding a vigil and conducting a ceremony.
Virago was then approached by others in the community who sought help to bury their own dead. “It really brings a deep comfort to people, and a pride that they’ve honoured someone properly,” she says. Virago’s three-day death walker trainings are regularly booked out.
Christchurch artist Melanie Mayell completed it five years ago and now runs monthly death cafés in a city that has seen its share of tragedy, with earthquakes, fires and a mass shooting. Death cafés, Mayell explains, are hosted conversations traversing any aspect of death.
They don’t offer therapy or grief support, and there is no agenda or invited speakers. “First timers that have never participated in one of these conversations before are as welcome around the table as professionals who might have been living in this space for 10 or 20 years,” she says. “We all learn from each other.”
In 2019, Mayell hosted the first annual Death Matters conference which provides a more structured format. Regular contemplation of death reinforces that our days are numbered. “It urges us to find what’s important to each of us, and to shift our priorities accordingly,” she says.
Brushes with death
Gold Coast-based photographer Russell Shakespeare was only 23 when his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. He doesn’t recall the accident itself, only the aftermath, as paramedics struggled to keep him conscious.
After being cut out of his vehicle, Shakespeare was rushed to hospital, where he was treated for extensive injuries, including two broken ankles, a smashed knee, broken ribs and a broken nose. Once he had recovered, the close shave gave him a new lease on life.
“I was on this crazy mission, nothing could stop me, I was like a maniac,” he says. It propelled him in his photography career and, in his personal life, he spoke from the heart. “I told a girl I loved her and wanted to marry her, and she freaked out,” he says, with a laugh.
Decades later, Shakespeare still swims and takes long walks every day, despite lingering pain. “All those little bits of pain are constant reminders to be grateful for every day you’ve got,” he says.
Auckland-based Kirsty Salisbury had an even earlier brush with death. At the age of 12 years, she suffered a brain haemorrhage and was admitted to hospital in a coma. It was there that she had a near death experience, or ‘NDE’ as she calls it, in which she communed with benevolent beings and “was in this place of pure white light, of love, of happiness, of joy”.
She didn’t speak about the experience for many years, but eventually felt compelled to explore her own and others’ experiences in her Let’s Talk Near Death podcast.
Salisbury has since released around 100 episodes, and interviewed a range of guests, including Dr Nicole Lindsay, a lecturer at the School of Psychology at Massey University, who has conducted research and published extensively on the topic.
While Salisbury feels blessed by her NDE, she believes personal transformation is possible without it. “When we can come to terms with death and dying, that’s when we can truly live,” she says. “When we embrace death as a concept that’s happening to all of us, that’s when we unlock the keys to living the juiciest, most exciting lives that we can.”