Am I Going To Die?
Am I Going to Die
by David White
“I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to be sick. I am of the nature to die. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
Before dawn, accompanied by song birds and Venus to the east, Amma and I climbed the gently sloping flank of Haleakala to greet the sunrise. What good fortune to be visiting Hawaii, and to accompany a kindred spirit on her birthday morning adventure. The invitation was to visit Fagan’s Cross, high above Hana, to give thanks and to set our intentions for the year to come.
At the foot of the cross, Amma quietly created a beautiful “Ofrenda”, an offering of fruits and flowers, traditionally part of the Mexican Día de Muertos celebration. We sang and prayed as the Sun rose majestically from the shining Pacific. Standing at the altar, the breath quietly rising and falling, there was a deep stillness… Moved by the beauty of Amma’s birthday offering, I shared the following practice. It comes with a bow of gratitude to hospice nurse and doula, Redwing Keyssar, who has introduced it to many. I hope that it will speak to you as well, and if so, that you’ll share it with others.
Taking a full, centering breath, I began by asking: “Amma, am I going to die?”
She responded in return,
“Yes, David… You are going to die.”
Taking another deep breath, straightening my spine, I placed a hand on my lower belly to help stay as grounded and present as possible.
Then Amma asked innocently,
“David, am I going to die?”
The force of her question bridged the space between us. “Yes, Amma, you are going to die.”
Her eyes were closed and her face serene. Mine were open, softly focused, aware of the sun’s radiance and the ocean’s embrace.
Let me elaborate for a moment before returning to the practice.
As you well know, it’s often uncomfortable to talk about our death. So why go there? One answer lies in the ancient Buddhist practice of Maranasati, the contemplation of death. Handed down through the ages, it is a meditation on impermanence and the truth of our mortality. While for some it may trigger a flood of resistance, for others it may bring a renewed awareness of the immeasurable gift of this lifetime. At the heart of the practice is an energetic sword, capable of cutting through delusion while nurturing acceptance. When Amma shared her recent experience of being swept out to sea, and narrowly rescued, this practice came to mind. I imagined that sharing the practice might help integrate her recent brush with death.
Next, as in a jeweled mirror, the question and reply were allowed to be heard not separately, but viewed, felt and experienced as a unified field.
“Amma, am I going to die?”
And her compassionate reply became Manjushri’s sword, capable of cutting through duality and imparting transcendent wisdom.
“Yes, David… You are going to die.”
Watching my thoughts arise and fall away, my belly softened with each breath, allowing more energy to be freed up. Aware of emotional protection around my heart, I invited it to soften as well, allowing the full truth of this moment to make itself at home.
Now came Amma’s voice, like a temple bell, as if Quan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, were present.
“David, am I going to die?
And the fearless reply,
Yes, Amma… You are going to die.”
In keeping with the Noble Eightfold Path, this simple practice simultaneously embodies Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. What an efficient way to bring the mind home, while noticing my enduring attachment to permanence, and hence suffering.
What better time to practice than when I’m relatively healthy. Why wait to join this ‘workshop’ until I’m sick, perhaps disabled and nearing death? The heart of the practice — a piercing question and reverent acknowledgement, are worthy of daily reflection.
As we began the third and final round,
tears of joy welled up inside me.
“Amma, tell me… am I going to die?”
With loving kindness behind each word, she offered: “Yes, David… You are going to die.”
The gentle waves of her voice landed on a quiet beach, followed by waves of gratitude and wonder.
With a voice reflecting decades of devoted practice, again the question,
“David, tell me… am I going to die?”
And as if it were unfolding this very day, this very moment, standing together now at the threshold,
Yes, Amma… you are going to die.”
Then pausing, breathing deeply and fully, we bowed at the altar. Invigorated and at peace, we turned toward a new day.
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