The Profound Upsides of Mortality

Podcast Summary / Nikki Mirghafori

Depending on the culture you are from, discussing death might ensure that you never get invited to another dinner party. However, this aversion prevents us from accessing the deep wisdom that lies in the contemplation of death, a destination we all face.

 

The four foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) is a secular work rooted in the Buddhist tradition that provides four themes of introspection. Contained within is a meditation practice that uses visualization and contemplation techniques to meditate on the nature of death.

 

Nikki Mirghafori never intended to be a Buddhist teacher, but was given this responsibility by Venerable Pa-Auk Tawya Sayadaw Bhaddanta Ācinna of Burma. In episode 218 of Dan Harris's podcast, she shares her story and her own relationship with mortality.

 

If you have the time, I would urge you to listen to the entire interview here.
 

Nikki's Story. 

The rumble of airplanes flying low on bombing runs was the soundtrack of Nikki's teenage life during the Iran-Iraq war. As sirens wailed across Tehran, her family ran down to the basement and huddled together, feeling the shaking glass as the sounds grew louder. This was it. Nikki held her mom, and said goodbye to the world. It was these close brushes with death that helped Nikki develop a different way of experiencing her world. Colours were deeper, tastes were  sweeter, more intense.Seeing people she loved and cared for only made her gratitude for life itself grow deeper. 

Moving to California while finishing her dissertation on Artificial Intelligence at UC Berkeley, she got sick for a year with a mysterious exhaustion. While out hiking, a tick had bitten her, causing her to contract Lyme disease. 

Despite the physical exhaustion and emotional pain, it catalysed the existential search that she began as a teenager in Tehran all those years ago. She even wrote a letter of gratitude to the tick to make peace with her changing health and new ways of being. 

Through Buddhism, her tentative exploration into contemplative practice led her to a deeper commitment to the training, culminating in a 3 month retreat in Burma under the instruction of Pa-Auk Tawya Sayadaw Bhaddanta Ācinna, a respected Buddhist monk.

Today, she spends her time contributing to developing ethical frameworks for the use of Artificial Intelligence and teaching Buddhism, and I feel lucky to have crossed paths with her at the Concentration Retreat at Spirit Rock. 

 

A World of Distraction.

In 2004, Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, surveyed the group of women and compared how much satisfaction they got from their daily activities. They reported that they derived more satisfaction from prayer, worship, and meditation than watching television. 


However, they spent an average five times longer watching television than engaging in any spiritual activities. Why was there this gap? Making a hard resolution to stop wasting time may not work for everyone.
 

Sometimes habit patterns have a stronger hold on us than we imagine. So on this marathon, the question of cultivating positive habits then becomes one of finding the right motivation.  

Why should we contemplate mortality?

The practice of mindfulness of death reveals a scarcity of time and supports us to live in alignment with our deepest values. By contemplating our mortality, we live more fully, with more purpose, freshness and intensity: We live with a lot more presence for those around us.

 

Working with the fear of death does not mean we don't want to live. Yet, if we are going to die, can we transform it from an experience of fear and dread, to one of curiosity? Most people avoid the topic of death altogether, but in doing so, they avoid speaking to the latent anxiety that pervades daily life.

 

When we cultivate a relationship with dying we free up psychological energy for the time that we have, instead of distracting ourselves of the fear of loss. As one’s practice matures, it is possible to be free of this fear altogether. This training allows us to become available for our loved ones, to hold their suffering and their mortality with more ease, because we are not as disturbed by the illusion of an existential finality.

 

Instead of seeing death as a mistake or an injustice, a sense of profound gratitude arises when death is not feared; when it is seen as a natural part of the cycle of being human – the constant coming and going of energy. Insight develops around the causes and conditions that gave us a chance to live in this consciousness and to have had the opportunity to come together for it.

 

“Letting go” practices in the moment of death can be liberating. The thought of us not being here anymore doesn't faze us as much as it used to. Instead of dread, the process can be one of profound peace; letting go into a fascinating mystery, letting go into a moment of freedom.

How do we practice facing our mortality?

The five daily recollections (Upajjhatthana Sutta), help us get closer to a direct understanding of the nature of mortality. Two of five have to do directly with death and the reminder that we do not know if this breath will be our last.  

1. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
2. I am of the nature to be sick; there is no way to escape having ill health.
3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. 
5. My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. 

We are just passing through this world and using everything just for a little while. We are merely travellers and we need constant reminders of this. Sometimes literal. In ancient times, charnel grounds were places where human bodies were left to decompose, uncovered after death. Contemplatives would gather to meditate with their eyes open, to see the true nature of the body. On the Maranasati Retreat at Spirit Rock, there is a slideshow of images of corpses at different stages of disintegration, and this training contributes to the first foundation of mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta). 
 

Rather than looking at the body morbidly, instead we grow in the realisation that this is simply the nature of the body itself. A direct way to experience this is to try and visualise the breath you are taking as your very last breath, perhaps even by gently holding the breath for a little while. Accepting this idea of the 'last breath' is harder than it sounds. 
 

What tends to happen is that the ego will retort, saying "this is not really my last breath", a phenomena that psychologists have termed 'Terror Management Theory'. The idea is that the ego cannot fathom its own demise, and it responds by coming up with different ways to push the finality away. 
 

It is a type of defensive human thinking and behaviour that stems from an awareness and perhaps a biological will to survive. By succumbing to the mind's aversion to this inevitability, we mentally check out, we go shopping or have drinks, distracting ourselves from the destination we are all heading towards.  The problem is that we never get a chance to prepare. 

Finding different ways to connect with the experiential understanding that this is your last breath will help overcome the resistance, and a way to gauge progress is to notice if a deep dread arises. You may be on the right track! With time and practice, becoming acquainted with this fear allows us to make peace within ourselves, and to live more fully. 

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With Gratitude To: 

Nikki Mirghafori

Dan Harris