Discover more from Sarah Fay
Is Imagining Our Death Helpful?
Reading time: 15 min.
Answer: Probably not.
My most disturbing imagining of death occurred in a hotel conference center near the Los Angeles airport. At the front of the room was a small makeshift stage. On it was a comfy-looking armchair, a floor lamp, and a side table—a replication of part of a living room. Byron Katie, an American spiritual teacher, sat on the chair.
She told us to lay on the floor, and I did. Most of the people in attendance did too though some remained seated. I was in my late thirties, had been diagnosed with three different mental illnesses (one after another), and believed something was horribly wrong with me. Why else would I feel crushing depression? Why else would anxiety vibrate in my chest all day long, sometimes crescendoing to a thunderous shudder in my head at night? I had to fix myself—at least, that’s what I thought—and “Katie,” as people called her, was the way.
She was in her sixties then. Her hair was an almost electric white, cut in a long pixie. She wore a billowy shirt and a long skirt and clog-ish mules. The strangest part about her was her eyes, which were almost alien in that they glistened and appeared pupil-less even though her pupils were right there, staring at you.
The story of her awakening goes something like this. Her real name was Katie Byron, but she’d changed it to Byron Katie—turned her name around—when she found enlightenment. She’d been a real estate broker in California. She was married with three kids. At some point, she started to suffer from depression and agoraphobia and gave into rages that supposedly terrified her children. After entering a halfway house and clinic for women with substance abuse disorders and eating disorders, she became even more out of control. The people running the clinic isolated her in a small room. She spent a couple of weeks alone with her depression, fear, and rages. One morning, she woke to see a cockroach crawling across her foot. Except it wasn’t her foot anymore. She was an it. She and the universe were one. Her perception of reality had been all wrong. Only our thoughts about the world cause our suffering; without them, even a cockroach, even the most excruciating physical pain is beautiful. The only emotion she felt was bliss.
It seems enlightenment doesn’t last; it demands upkeep. When Byron Katie returned home, she fell back to the human default setting of seeing the world through the lens of threat and fear again. To prevent it, she came up with four questions she’d ask herself of each troubling thought that arose: Is it true? Can I absolutely know that it’s true? How do I react when I believe that thought? Who would I be without that thought? She discovered—as the Buddha and Kant and many others have—that none of our thoughts are black-and-white, all-or-nothing, “true.” Those four questions could expose the flimsiness of any thought or perception. (The good thoughts and perceptions—the ones that served her—she didn’t question.) After asking herself those questions about a thought like She should love me, she could see how it wasn’t a hundred percent true. Then, by inverting the thought or perception and “turning it around,” she found examples of how maybe it wasn’t true and not a problem: She should love me became She shouldn’t love me or I should love me or I should love her. All three “turnarounds” were equally true. This became known as “The Work,” a system of inquiry Katie has since spent her life teaching to people like me.
I was really into The Work—into it enough to have flown to California from Iowa, where I should have spent my spring break writing my dissertation. The Work was supposed to save me from the pits of depression and intolerable edginess and racing thoughts that made up my life. It hadn’t, but I still hoped it would.
I’d paid an exorbitant amount I couldn’t afford to attend The School for the Work, known simply as “The School.” The airplane ticket to California was more than my monthly budget, but credit cards were invented for a reason. I’d checked into the Hilton LAX and had started an “inward journey.” For nine days, I’d explore my inner life and finally let go of my fearful worldview. Byron Katie called this view my “story,” the mistaken belief that the world was painful, miserable, and scary.
Doing The Work had been part of my daily routine for about six months. Initially, each morning, I sat on the couch in my living room and filled out a worksheet. I’d start with the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet, which is pretty much what it sounds like: an opportunity to blame someone else for my sadness, confusion, and hurt. On the worksheet, I’d write down how I wanted someone to change, tell the person what they should or shouldn’t do, and just rant and complain. Then I’d take a sentence I’d written and write it on the One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet.
The worksheets were supposed to be helping me unravel my thoughts, question my story, and see the world anew. They required I dismantle each thought by questioning it: Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? And then imagine me without it: Who would you be without the thought?
At the end came what Katie called “the turn around.” We’d take the thought, reverse it, flip it, and turn it inside out. This is from the worksheet: Example of a statement: He hurt me. Possible opposites: I hurt me. I hurt him. He didn’t hurt me. He helped me. Contemplate how each turnaround is as true or truer in that situation.
I was doing The Work obsessively, all day long. It seemed about time I became awakened, enlightened, a sage. But I questioned all my thoughts—every single one. Despite having read and reread her books, I failed to heed her advice to leave the pleasant thoughts alone. Nothing was true. My thoughts loosened and spun, becoming even more unruly and relentless.
Upon checking into the School, I gave up my phone and my books though I pocketed my iPod, feeling like I couldn’t live without it. I’d agreed not to call any family or friends and not to exercise. I signed a waiver to be videotaped if Katie ever called on me to do The Work with her on stage. No sugar, flour, caffeine, or alcohol had passed my lips for over a month. (Some participants partied in the hotel bar, which I found disdainful in my relatively pious dedication to Katie and The Work.) I’d woken each day and participated in “the morning walk,” during which Katie led us through the industrial neighborhood surrounding the hotel in silence with instructions to rename the world: a tree could be called a house if we said it was.
Most days were spent in that windowless conference room watching and listening to Katie, envying her bliss. With ease, she told us that our fearful minds have it backward. The universe is kind. Life happens for us, not to us. Other people are simply the projection of ourselves. The world is a reflection of ourselves. If we don’t believe our thoughts, we don’t suffer. (I took this as a sign that I just needed to question my thoughts more.) All we have to do is let go of the past and the future. Stress occurs when our thoughts oppose love. Life is an uninterrupted flow. In each moment, we create the world anew. Just love “what is.”
Eastern traditions had said all this before. (Katie’s husband is and was the scholar Stephen Mitchell. Together, they’d published translations with Katie’s commentaries of Buddhist and Hindu scripture like the Diamond Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.) Although I’d done plenty of yoga and meditation and had made the pilgrimage to see Thich Nhat Hanh, it wasn’t until Katie asked who I’d be without my identity that I went there, all there, imagining myself as nothing, no one, a void.
Which may be why I was going a little nuts. When I saw a participant at The School sitting in the hallway outside the conference room laughing uncontrollably at nothing and babbling nonsensically and Katie said he was having an awakening, I wanted that too. One afternoon, I danced on the grass outside the hotel, listening to music on my contraband iPod. Cars slowed as I leaped across the grass, doing my strange interpretive dance. People stared. If it hadn’t induced paranoia and later been considered a manic episode by my psychiatrist, it might have been bliss.
At The School, nearly day in and day out, I sat in the audience in the conference room and watched Katie question the “truth” of all sorts of things: even physical pain, cancer, and sexual abuse. A young man sat on stage and said, “I’m in pain.” Katie asked him, “Is that true?” He hesitated. I considered my situation, substituting myself for the man. I’d injured my hip running, and sitting all day made it ache and then throb and then feel like someone was stabbing me in the hip with a knitting needle. The man said, “Yes.” Of course, it was true. Pain is pain. “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” Katie asked. My mind spun faster. Maybe not. Maybe it wasn’t true. The man said, “No, I guess I can’t know that.” Onstage, Katie’s eyes flashed. “Who would you be without that thought?” The man glanced at the ceiling. Tears came into his eyes. “I’d feel like I do right now, sitting here with you: No pain in my back at all.”
The day I lay on the conference room floor awaiting further instructions from Katie, I’d finished eight days of The School’s curriculum. As I lay there, feeling the carpet against my bare arms, Katie finally spoke. She took her time talking as if inventing the words as she went. What we were about to do, she said, would likely be the most intense experience any of us had ever been through.
She told us to close our eyes. Then she asked us to imagine our deathbeds.
Katie had written about death in her books. She called it “the pure unknown.” Her view contrasted my own: Death wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t something either. And it was good because reality was good. We were scaring ourselves if we believed our “childish stories” that death was anything but a gift.
I wanted to believe this, too.
My death bed was in a hospital. The scene was something out of movie or soap opera. The bed was positioned so that I sat not up but partway. My arms lay at my sides; the crisp white sheet was tucked neatly under them. The fluorescent lights were sharp with an unpleasant blue tint.
Katie said that when we realized there was no escaping death, that we couldn’t be saved and there was no hope, there was no fear. We’d stop pretending that we can control anything. In fear’s place would come peace.
But my image shifted. I was in that hospital bed and didn’t want to die. Even if I could have cried out, no doctor or nurse was around to save me.
Katie instructed us to envision our burial or cremation. My heart started to pound. I wanted to stand up and leave the room. My thoughts swirled: I was going to die on the conference room floor.
“Picture it,” she said.
I did. I saw myself in a clichéd wood casket, lying amidst white satin, a pillow behind my head. What I was wearing was unclear. My eyes were closed.
She said, “Your body is no longer yours.”
My casket was lowered into the ground—“they,” whoever “they” was, hadn’t even bothered to close it—my body felt very much mine. I couldn’t move. The casket sank lower and lower into the earth.
Then there was no casket. Walls of black dirt enclosed me. My voice made no sound. The imagined dirt fell on my face and hands so vividly that I could feel the dirt on my skin.
My natural body—the body in the conference room—seized with terror. I couldn’t catch my breath. I also couldn’t seem to pull out of my imagined grave, up into the daylight, back to reality.
With what seemed like a great effort, I moved my fingers. Then my toes. My heart pounded as I stood. Sweat trickled from my armpits as I stepped over the bodies and rushed for the door.
Later—much later—I learned that Buddhists refer to this exercise as the cemetery contemplations. Katie’s version wasn’t quite the same. The Buddhist practice of Nava Sīvathika, or Nine Cemetery Contemplations, comes from the Sattipatana Sutta. In the Buddha’s time (or at one time, depending on if you think of the Buddha as the historical figure Siddhartha Gautama, an actual man, after which a kitten might be named, which not all Buddhists do), monks practiced this meditation while living in a cemetery.
The vipassana death-awareness practice, the Marana Sati, is lengthy. During it, a person contemplates the decomposition of a body (the person’s body) above ground, step by step. Meditators acknowledge that each stage of the body’s composition will happen to them:
· Stage 1: After a couple of days, your corpse becomes swollen and releases fluids—stomach distended, lips bloated, face distorted, cracking skin. Unless someone (e.g., your undertaker) has sewed your mouth shut, pus oozing eyes and mouth.
· Stage 2: Animals come. Your flesh is poked and pecked and pulled apart by crows. Dogs rip apart your flesh to get at your intestines, which they do, twisting and tearing at it until your body is ravaged.
· Stage 3: Your flesh is scattered; all that’s left on your bones are tendons and some blood.
· Stages 4 and 5: Your flesh, the blood, and the pus are gone.
· Stage 6: Your scattered bones are strewn everywhere.
· Stage 7: Your bones turn white.
· Stage 8: Somehow (this isn’t clear), the bones end up in a heap. You can’t tell the difference between your femur and your skull.
· Stage 9: Your bones disintegrate into a white powder that seeps into the earth and becomes soil. Your body is gone.
The idea is that death-awareness practice leads to liberation. Death is inevitable, happens to everyone, is short, comes unexpectedly, and requires us to enter alone. By accepting the reality of our deaths, we stop experiencing negative emotions like jealousy, anger, and depression. We achieve tadi, detachment in the face of suffering and health, those who love and hate us, fame and disgrace, loss and gain. Knowing that death isn’t pretty, we accept that life isn’t a fairy tale. Understanding that we won’t live forever, we’re saved from pettiness. We stop coveting material possessions. Our values become more apparent and easier to adhere to.
But this kind of meditation—and meditation in general—was never intended for lay people, only monks. Corpse contemplation isn’t recommended as something the average person should undertake. Which may be why I found myself in the hallway after having run from the room—sweating, lightheaded, unable to catch my breath—trying to outrun death.
Don’t miss an issue. Subscribe!