Some schools say you should spend a third of your life preparing to die. Of course, the problem is you have no idea when you are going to die, so it is never too early to begin. Realistically, however, you cannot begin to consider your death seriously until you have passed the point of no-more-accumulation.
What is the point of no-more-accumulation?
This is the point where you feel you have had enough. In our early years, we seek to accumulate…things, experiences, responsibilities, involvements. All of this is valuable…up to a point. We learn about life, about ourselves, but then we exhaust our desire for more. We discover that what we thought we wanted does not bring lasting satisfaction, so we are disappointed. This is a precious realization. Perhaps then, we can begin a path in reverse, from outside to inside, from more to less. This is known as Safar dar Watan, the journey home.
So, the first step in preparing for death is de-accumulation. This takes many forms. Getting rid of stuff is part of it, but carefully. Keepsakes need to be relinquished consciously, acknowledging and letting go not only of the thing but also the attachments, the associated memories. This is a process of taking back your attention from the past. You will need all your attention for the encounter with death. Letting go of the past will require special efforts, perhaps a form of re-capitulation. This is a subject for another inquiry.
If you become seriously ill, you need to step up your efforts. Transfer responsibilities to others. Make good on your promises to the extent possible. Give and seek forgiveness where you can. Leave a clear written will for your family so that there are as few questions and conflicts as possible. The aim is to be able to look ahead at the moment of death, not back, and to free yourself from the attention-pull of those you leave behind. Do your good-byes before the last hours when you are hopefully otherwise engaged. Or when perhaps you will be too exhausted or in too much pain.
Your death bed is for dying, not last minute settling of affairs.
The aim of dying well is be in a place of no emotion, not panicking at the moment of transition but rather meeting it in a state of presence and impartial, voluntary attention. Every moment spent in these states during life is preparation for a conscious death. Presence is a state of non-identification. Your identities and emotions are embedded in the body and they go with the body to the grave. Dying while identified must give rise to considerable confusion. Your aim is to separate from the body and face the unknown in presence with the essence qualities that have always been you; if there is an after-life, this will be the one who lives it. Can you get to know yourself as this being before you die?
In the zikr, you sometimes ask us to remember our origin and who we were before time began. Is it for this purpose?
But doesn’t thinking about your death risk bringing it towards you, instead of thinking positively about getting well again?
Many think this way but it is a big mistake, in my view. Death is an inevitable part of life. Contemplating it does no harm. Your body naturally tries to live and function as long as it can. Each healthy cell is programmed to live.
On the contrary, I think that having a sense of your death enhances your ability to live. Death is an impeccable advisor. One of the strongest barriers to work on self is the sense that we are immortal. Surely we can make the necessary efforts tomorrow. We do not want to face death because we fear it, so we hide out in the vague idea that it is a long way off and needn’t be a concern today. It is the fear of death that makes it such a potent ally in our work. Death tells us that time is short, the opportunity of the moment is valuable and not to be wasted. Death tells us to wake up, to anticipate His arrival at any time, to be vigilant, to avoid unnecessary entanglements and expenditures of energy.
Vajrayana texts recommend that you spend time in charnel grounds to overcome the fear of death.
I haven’t done this and I’m not sure that losing the fear of death is the right path. Fear is not the problem, panic is. Learn to face your fear and use it to wake up. Besides, we don’t have charnel grounds here anyway; the closest thing we have is hospitals. If at all possible, choose not to die in a hospital. The atmosphere is terrible and the distractions are enormous. Die at home if you can but you may need to make arrangements beforehand.