This new year found me thinking a lot on death. Not because I’ve recently lost someone close to me. It feels more like a natural pull toward deepening my spiritual study and practice. Marking the passing of 2012, I know I’m one year closer to my own eventual death, and the deaths of everyone I love. It’s also the anniversary of the murder of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART in Oakland: a death that symbolized much and galvanized many, at the time.
Reflecting on death is an important practice within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, related, as I understand, to pre-Buddhist Hindu methods of graveyard observation. The Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta advises hanging out in the charnel grounds, noticing the nine different phases of a decomposing corpse. Benefits of developing this intimacy with death and decay range from deepening one’s understanding of impermanence (one of the Three Marks of Existence), to, on a perhaps more pragmatic level, icing down a particularly hot lust-wave that might be interfering with your ability to meditate properly. Go look at some rotting flesh for a while; you’ll calm down.
Another classic reward for contemplating death — one I’ve been experiencing these past few days — is how it can help us appreciate the preciousness of the life we’ve got. Whether or not we believe we “only live once,” this life is still an incredibly fleeting opportunity, not to chase endlessly after pleasure, but to make as many positive choices as we can. To let our little light shine. What’s been surprising for me, though, is that instead of increasing my sense of urgency, this sobering reflection seems to be kind of slowing me down — in a good way. Less frantic; more focused. It’s like I can understand now, at a body level, that a rush-rush-rush approach won’t always yield better, more brilliant light. What’s needed are quality, rigor, and vigor; not necessarily speed. There’s a difference.
So, on we go. For how long in this form, who knows.
Excellence! Here’s to quality,rigor and vigor in our new year.