A friend, who had been meditating for some time, approached a Zen master recently arrived in this country. He asked the roshi if he might study with him, to which the roshi replied, “Are you prepared to die?” My friend shook his head in bewilderment and said, “I didn’t come here to die. I came here to learn Zen.” The roshi said, “If you are not willing to die, you are not ready to let go into life. Come back when you are ready to enter directly, excluding nothing.

If we are not open to anything that might happen, if we are closed to any possibility, any event whatsoever, our perceptions narrow to a kind of tunnel-vision that excludes the unacceptable — the unacceptable being anything that does not reinforce our fantasy of our imagined self, the fantasy of some solid permanence. We exclude quite a bit, approaching most events with a kind of drowsy blindness.


Remember, friend,
as you pass by
As you are now,
so once was I.
As I am now,
so you must be.
Prepare yourself
to follow me.

— from an 18th century headstone

The American Indians developed an extraordinary technique to prepare for death. They cultivated an openness to death by using a death-chant. Upon entrance into adolescence, they undertook the rites of passage, going out into the wilderness alone for several days of fasting and prayer, opening themselves to the unknown and receiving some guiding message for their life to come. Often they experienced a vision of wholeness from which arose spontaneously a healing or a death-chant, a means of maintaining contact with the Great Spirit in time of threat or stress. Others came to their death-chant from a grandfather or a dream, or perhaps from tuning into an animal they had just killed. It was an instant centering technique to keep the heart open and the mind clear even in great adversity. When you started to fall from your horse or were confronted by a dangerous animal, or lay aching with food poisoning or burning with a fever, immediately the death-chant came into the mind. It became a part of them, always available in a time of need. It created a familiarity with the unfamiliar, with death.

Imagine, after having sung your death-chant perhaps a hundred times in various close calls, one day finding yourself immobile in the shade of a great boulder. Your body is burning with snake venom and no one is there to help you as the poison begins to paralyze your limbs. But you are not helpless. You’ve got a powerful channel, a path you can follow, each moment unto death. Having made this technique a part of their life, many Native Americans died with great clarity. Because they had practiced a technique that integrated life and death, focusing on their vision, they went beyond the known.

It meant an opening to a kind of not-knowing, to just being. There was nothing you could do to elude any moment but cultivate an openness to the unknown so that whatever occurred you would be fully present.

In that kind of not-knowing we are always present. Because when you allow that you don’t know, you become very awake. You become like a hunter who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He’s not making anything happen. He is just stillness in the midst of activity. He is an open space through which anything can move. He is no longer a noun. He’s become a verb. He’s the act of standing.

That kind of presence for our life is the perfect preparation for death. It means being open to whatever happens, excluding nothing. Because if everything is OK except death, then eventually you notice that everything’s OK but death and loss. And then everything’s OK but death, loss, a bad pastrami sandwich, and the plumber coming. The limiting of what is acceptable narrows down the cage of self-protection in which we fitfully live so much of our life, until “security” means nobody entering our cage. We are isolated. Nobody is rattling our bars.

In the Hindu tradition, there is another instance of this kind of presence for life/death. It is taught and practiced that to die with God’s name on your lips is a way of consciously returning to the source. In an instant, you can drop the mind’s projections of the world and just be with it as it is. Mahatma Gandhi walked out into the garden one evening and a fellow came up to him and shot him through the heart. As he fell, he said “Ram.” Ram is one of the names of God in the Hindu tradition. Millions of Hindus focus their life on God so they may be able to die with his name filling their heart and mind, just as I have been with those who whisper “Sweet Mother of Heaven” as they die. Their death was a soft passage into the light. How many people are so connected to some essential part of themselves that even death could not distract them? That’s something you don’t wait until death to find out. That’s something you cultivate right now. There’s no other moment to begin preparing for death.

If everything is OK except death, then eventually . . . everything’s OK but death and loss. And then everything’s OK but death, loss, a bad pastrami sandwich, and the plumber coming.

Occasionally I hear people say, “Oh, don’t worry, when the time comes, I’ll do the proper meditations.” Good luck! Because when it comes, the energies you have now may not be present. The mind may be difficult to concentrate. Fear may close the heart. Imagine trying to meditate with two huge hi-fi speakers blasting cacophonous music on either side of you. Though it’s a rather oversimplified analogy, it gives some idea of how disquieting extreme pain and the fear of dying might be at that moment.

If you should die in extreme pain, how will you have prepared to keep your mind soft and open? To be with whatever the moment offers? What have you done to keep your mind present, so that you don’t block precious opportunity with a concept, with some idea of what’s happening, open to experience the suchness, the living truth, of the next unknown moment?

Your bank account and reputation do not prepare you for death any more than your wardrobe or your cleverness, What are you doing in life that prepares you for death?

Whatever prepares you for death enhances life. Gandhi’s closeness to God, the death-chant, the openness to the unknown, all make life a richer, more joyous experience,

I’ve been with people as they approached their death and seen how much clarity and open-heartedness it takes to stay soft with the distraction in the mind and body, to stay with the fear that arises uninvited, to keep so open that when fear comes up, they can say, “Yes, that’s fear all right.” But the spaciousness from which they say it is not frightened, Because the separate “I” is not the predominant experience, there’s little for that fear to stick to.

Clearly, a useful practice would be to cultivate an openness to what is unpleasant, to acknowledge resistance and fear, to soften and open around it, to let it float free, to let it go. If you wrote down a list of your resistances and holdings, it would nearly be a sketch of your personality. If you identify with that personality as who you are, you amplify the fear of death: the imagined loss of imagined individuality.

If you made a list of everything you own, everything you think of as you, everything you prefer, that list would be the distance between you and the living truth. Because these are the places where you’ll cling. You’ll focus there instead of looking beyond. Instead of seeing the context in which you are happening, you will grasp onto the happening as the only reality. It is the essence of shortsightedness. It is the tendency that keeps us caught in our melodrama, the holding that makes it so difficult to let go of our suffering.

Buddha said that fortune changes like the swish of a horse’s tail. Tomorrow could be the first day of thirty years of quadraplegia. What preparations have you made to open to an inner life so full that whatever happens can be used as a means of enriching your focus? It’s an ongoing process of opening to life. The more you open to life, the less death becomes the enemy. When you start using death as a means of focusing on life, then everything becomes just as it is, just this moment, an extraordinary opportunity to be really alive.

The investigation becomes, “Who is dying?” And the first thing you answer is “It is I who is dying.” Then it becomes, “Well, if it is ‘I’ who is dying, what is this ‘I’?” You wonder at the condition by which this “I” does not seem fully to refer to any of the mind’s images, to any sound or any taste or any of the senses. And you ask, “Am I just this impermanent flow of minute impressions? I have a name, a face, a reputation.” Then you see that “I have a name” is just another momentary thought, a bubble that passes through the vastness of mind. And a moment later the mind is thinking about something else, You notice “I” is only an idea. Where is this “I” when you are not thinking about it?

Indeed, what’s interesting when you watch thoughts is to see that all thoughts are old. Perception is based on memory. Take away memory — your collection box of concepts and symbolism coded to represent reality — and when you walk down a path, there is just walking. And when you look, there is just seeing. You feel what you feel. You don’t experience everything secondhand. You experience the thing itself, without some afterthought casting a shadow of “someone” walking, seeing, experiencing.

If you walked into a room and all of a sudden your memory dissolved, you would experience “a new loveliness” in each previously familiar object. You would be seeing with fresh eyes a glistening reality. Your familiarity gone, knowing nothing, all would have a new life, In each moment, you would see the miraculous.

It is our “familiarity” with things that keeps us from seeing the things themselves. Instead we project a concept of what they are. When awareness is focused in the present, you experience the suchness of each thing as you meet it. You see a tree and don’t experience “tree,” but a living, vibrating reality, unfiltered by concept and past preference. You meet each thing without an image of that thing to diminish its reality. Then you begin to see how little of life is actually experienced. How do you meet death as life, with an image that keeps you at arm’s length from touching its reality?

Some years ago I managed an animal sanctuary in southern Arizona, an extraordinary migratory stopover for 125 species of birds, the southernmost reach of some Arctic fowl and the northernmost of some South American. It was a very rich oasis, a mandala of brilliant colors and songs and flight. I came to the sanctuary knowing very little about birds, but part of my job was to show expert ornithologists around because I knew the various habitats and places where rattlesnakes might be, or where dangerous situations might arise. Walking with experts, they would say, “Ah, look at that Vermillion Flycatcher” or, “Ah, there’s a Canadian Marsh Hawk.” And I started noticing, walking in the woods, that I would see “Vermillion Flycatcher” instead of the crimson, living reality, “Marsh Hawk” instead of the truth. I realized that as the mind turned each thing into itself, naming it, it killed the clarity of just being with each new meeting, pushed away the scintillating suchness of things.

It is this tendency of the conditioned mind to turn reality into ideas and images that keeps us from meeting life head-on. We trade off reality for the shadows it casts.

So we see that whatever we say or think about death, we really don’t know. An idea that you pass out of the body and the Great Ice Cream Cone in the Sky is waiting for you is still just an idea. Whether it is the truth or not is inconsequential at that point, because whatever it is, it is still just an idea. If we trade ideas for the living truth of the moment, we live in shadow and confusion. Even ideas such as “the body dies and consciousness continues” is still just another bubble floating in the mind. If our experience is of ideas of things, rather than the things themselves, how are we to stay open to a reality that turns out to be quite different from what we imagined? What happens when life conflicts with what we are absolutely certain is “real?” Because of this difficulty in keeping the mind and heart open when something conflicts with an idea of what is supposed to be, we see less of the miraculous in life. Because it was “impossible,” its perception will quickly be rationalized and discarded as unreal.

If you go to a restaurant that you believe has the best Chinese food in town and it turns out to be a German restaurant, you may well be thinking your food instead of tasting it — because expectation increases tunnel-vision. You can only see between those few bars in your cage where you are focusing. How can you stay open to “Ah, sauerbraten!”

Your bank account and reputation do not prepare you for death any more than your wardrobe or your cleverness. What are you doing in life that prepares you for death?

In a way, it seems strange that we are so unprepared for death, considering how many opportunities we have to open to what is unexpected or even disagreeable. Each time we don’t feel well, each time we have the flu or a kidney stone or a pain or stiffness somewhere in the body, we have the opportunity to see that sooner or later some pain or illness is going to arise that won’t diminish but will increase until it displaces us from the body. We can use each such situation to practice the death-chant, to practice Gandhi’s closeness with God. We are reminded again and again of the process we are. Continually opportunities arise to practice letting go of this solidness, to tune to the ongoing process, to sense the spaciousness in which it’s all unfolding.

Why wait until the pain is too great to focus the mind? Why not use each moment of sickness, each flu, each cold, each slight injury, as a reminder to let go, to open to the intensity arising?

When pain or sickness arises, I see there is the option to open to it, not holding or pushing it away, not blocking it, not intensifying it. When I open to it as a teaching, then there is little that reinforces identification with “the sufferer,” the one who in self-pity regards himself “the victim of circumstances.” Whatever is, it’s there. And as I try to open to it, I see how it is a perfect preparation for whatever might come next, a deeper letting go. It shows me how I hold to any expectation that life has to be any way at all.

Often when I get stuck, identifying myself as “he who is sick” or even just as the personality being “me,” it wakes me up. I can feel a separateness from my environment, a numbness and confusion that dulls the truth of the moment. Being sick or accidentally hitting my thumb with a hammer becomes preparation for the impossible, for dying, for living in the next unknown moment of life.

As one teacher said, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, “All you have to understand is just this much, just this moment.” If you can participate in this moment openly, then you’ll more likely be present for the next. If that next moment turns out to be on your death bed, then you’ll be open to that too. There is no other preparation for death except opening to the present. If you are here now, you’ll be there then.

There is no other preparation for death except opening to the present. If you are here now, you’ll be there then.

In Carlos Castaneda’s books about receiving the teachings from Don Juan, he mentions again and again how his teacher tries to bring this point to his attention. But Carlos’ rational mind is throwing up a million ideas about how life is supposed to be. Don Juan uses every trick in the book, including Carlos’ fear of the unknown, to bring Carlos’ attention to the very moment in which life is unfolding. He pushes Carlos beyond the mind.

Don Juan says to Carlos, “A man of knowledge chooses a path with a heart and follows it. And then he looks and rejoices and laughs. And then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon. He knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere. He knows because he sees that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no country. But only life to live.”

Who is close enough to live without honor, without dignity? Who trusts this moment so much that they have no need to create some arbitrary morality, because they know that who they are is the essence of morality itself? They recognize that they are the shining awareness by which life is perceived. Who trusts the light of their original nature sufficiently to allow themselves to respond appropriately in the moment to whatever is called for?

A man very close to death was told that it looked like something might have occurred which would change his condition. He might be in the process of remission. Waiting to hear the lab results as to whether he would be dead in a few weeks or perhaps up and about, he turned to his wife and said, “You know, whether I die or not, it’s clear to me that I have exactly the same work to do.”

To acknowledge the moment is to live fully in this instant, compassionately observing what is felt, seen, heard — not in the analytical mind of why, where, or how it relates to some self-image, some model of the universe, but with the keen light of investigation, with a new wonderment at each unfolding.

Most people begin to open to life not because there is joy, but because there is pain. Pain often denotes the limit of the territory of the imagined self, the “safe ground” of the self-image, beyond which a kind of queasiness arises at being in the midst of the uncontrollable. This is our edge, our resistance to life, the place the heart closes in self-protection. Our edge is the foundation to which the walls of our cage are secured. Playing the edge means being willing to go into the unknown. It means approaching that place where real growth occurs. When we start playing the edge, we don’t just hang out in safe territory any more. Fear becomes the beacon of the truth and we cut through our resistance by the investigation ot what is real and who indeed is holding to some false sense of security. We see that our pain arises in pulling back from the unknown and the imagined. It is by playing this edge that we expand beyond the fear of death, beyond the idea of “someone” dying, and come into the wholeness of being, the deathless.

If you sit down with yourself each morning and allow the mind to quiet, you will begin to see that edge. You will see the place that starts muttering and commenting on everything that arises in the mind. If you are paying attention to your relationships with your mate or children or boss or parents, you will probably start seeing your edge. It is holding to our edge that obscures death, that makes death seem so real and solid, rather than another transition into the next unknown.

An example of how each person’s edge is different was clearly demonstrated one day when a number of us in southern California began to climb the pinnacle peaks at the Joshua Tree National Monument. About two dozen people began scrambling up the rocks; after a few moments it could be noticed that some stopped at 100 feet while others continued on. Some halted at 250 feet, others continued on. At 400 feet on a ledge sat a number of others. Most had come to the level where fear halted futher advance while a few dropped to their hands and knees, crawling against their trepidation, heads down as though butting against their edge. At the very top of the pinnacle several danced and shouted and yodeled off into the echoing wilderness. It was interesting to note at the time that those who had climbed to even the 100 foot level may well have done more playing of their edge than those who went all the way to the top, unafraid of the precipitous fall, their particualr edge untouched in this instance. You could see each person’s edge as clearly defined as strata in the sheer rock wall.

Our edges are different and constantly changing, as is all else in the universe. We notice that our cage has varying capacities and available space. We move to that edge with compassion. And each step is taken slowly and mindfully beyond. Each step is taken with love, not forcing the edge but softly penetrating our imagined limitations and going beyond, step by step, into the freedom of non-holding.

I received a call not long ago from a woman I have known for some years who has been a prostitute and a heroin addict. She had been involved in this life for about twelve years, until her best friend died in her arms of an overdose of heroin two years before. She said she just couldn’t hide anymore. The pain was too great, and she decided not to pull back, but to go right to the edge of her holding and play it for all it was worth. She moved out of downtown San Francisco and found an apartment in the suburbs where she got a job in a large office and began, as someone put it, “to take herself apart, bone by bone,” not to let anything go by unexamined.

This kind of fierceness, which attempts to compensate for years of hiding, also has a tendency to breed certain qualities of self-judgement, which she also discovered had to be worked with, seen as an edge, let go of.

Her commitment is so great because the pain in her life has been so intense. She has been brought to a place where she is willing to stop deadening the pain by temporary satisfactions so she can go to the root of “what” or “who” is suffering. She said that she had come to a point where there was no place to turn, except inward.

So, the unexpected or unwanted brings each of us to the edge of our pain. But we begin to investigate what causes the pain and posturing. We come to the fear, the doubt, the anger that we usually withdraw from, and gently enter into it. We often find that we don’t know what anger or guilt or fear is, because we have always pushed these qualities away or compulsively acted them out with very little awareness of what was happening. We don’t know what these qualities of mind are because as we have approached our edge we have withdrawn into the drowsy blindness of a life only partially lived. We have judged these qualities as unworthy of our fantasy of our imagined self. In order to protect that mirage of some separate worthy solidity, instead of using the signal of our attachment, our pain, as a notice to go beyond our cage, we have withdrawn from the edge of life. We have postponed our life in the same way we are attempting to postpone our death.

A friend, taking robes as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, went to study with one of the great meditation masters. When he met with the teacher, the teacher said, “I hope you are not afraid to suffer.” If you want to find the truth, you cannot allow your resistance to motivate you continually. We are constantly hiding and posturing, and inventing an acceptable reality, instead of meeting with the pain and resistance which so clouds understanding. We continually elude our liberation because of an unwillingness to open to the stuff which has been locked in by years of postponing life — all the encrustations of the heart, all the mercilessness to ourselves, all our fear of letting go of who we think we are.

And this is the condition we find ourselves in. It’s not something to judge. It’s just something to notice. Here we are, with so many unwanted states of mind. And we pull back. Our reaction limits our openness to what comes next. Fear arises; we close. Doubt arises; we close. Anger arises; we close. Death arises; we close.

Who trusts this moment so much that they have no need to create some arbitrary morality, because they know that who they are is the essence of morality itself?

To some, this encouragement to examine the blockages of the heart and the confusion of the mind may seem quite negative. But actually what we are speaking about is the path of joy. The acknowledgement of the stuff which closes us allows a softening, a melting away at the edges. And the spaciousness which results illuminates that which has always been there, our original nature shining through, the joy of pure being, the stillness of the underlying reality we all share.

Indeed, the mind is always dreaming itself. So we start coming to the edge of the dream, start cultivating the compassion to let go. We re-learn the ability to experience life as it unfolds, to play lightly without force or judgement. It is not a war. It is at last a kindness to ourself, which gives rise in time, with constancy, to a spacious participation in the flow of change, beyond ideas of loss and gain, beyond ideas of life and death — opening into just this much, the vastness of what is.

We begin to open to awareness itself, threatened by nothing, withdrawing from nothing, becoming one with life.

At one with life we are perfectly prepared for death, knowing that nothing can separate us from our true nature and that only our forgetfulness can obscure it.

Stephen Levine is co-director, with his wife Ondrea, of the Hanuman Foundation’s Dying Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Project has for three years offered lectures, workshops, a telephone consultation service, audio and video tapes, books, and articles on conscious dying. Most recently, it has opened a Dying Center, with a full-time staff, in Santa Fe. A spokesman says:

“We will try to have no firm models of what a ‘conscious death’ is. For some people a quiet, meditative atmosphere would be optimum; for others, a more festive setting. In some cases it might be appropriate to bring a close family member along to Santa Fe. The forms will be ever changing.”

There is no charge for food, room, or the services of the staff. Participants are asked only to pay for their own medical care and for either their return transportation or disposal of their body. For more information about the center write The Dying Center, P.O. Box 478, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87501.

The Hanuman Foundation was established by the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass, whose book Grist For The Mill Stephen Levine edited. Levine’s new book, Who Dies?, An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, will be published by Doubleday next Spring.