Living can be such a paradox: the golden potential of life and lightness of joy; and the shadows – often suppressed in the unconscious – of who we are. Death, I would assert, is the greatest paradox of all. Birth leads, ultimately and inevitably, to death. Humanity’s problem – unlike other beings – is that we know it. However, we don’t utilise this information to good effect; rather we behave as if it’s not true. And we die, consequently, with senseless regrets.
Science, conveniently, provides us with great excuses for our death avoidance. Certain biases and predilections, we are told, mean that we can’t really know something we’ve never done before – and so it’s absolutely normal to behave as if we won’t die. We find instead a plethora of alternative depressing subjects to focus on: public speaking, walking alone at night, not being liked, market crashes; in turn numbing ourselves from these sufferings through a multitude of addictive substances and often debilitating behaviours. Not facing up to death, we don’t prepare for the fact that one day we will not be sitting, as we are here and now, reading these words. Meanwhile, our habits – ironically – often induce catabolic, life-limiting effects.
I was well aware that one day I would die. I lived, however, as if I would not: death the morbid, unspeakable taboo. A Vipassana meditation experience changed all that: I had understood the evening’s lecture on the futility of ruminating over past events and an unknowable future. My mind, however, immediately wandered to the potential of a recurring pain manifesting itself in the night. In that moment, I got it: there was nothing then and there that I could do about remnants of a past injury that might appear in the night to come. I felt the senselessness of rumination and undertook to deal with the pain later when and if it did arise. It never did again. From that moment, I knew impermanence and my life changed. I went on to discover groups intent on changing attitudes about death through social engagements and popular literature. Death, essentially, would not leave me – and life continued to improve.
Anecdotally I was aware of my own experience and that of others engaging in death conversations. My researcher instinct was perplexed, however, at an evident lack of relevant academic studies in what was manifesting in me as an important topic. Compelled to know more, I gained approval from Alef Trust and Liverpool John Moores University to conduct a study to consider “what experiences arise for individuals from having engaged in deliberate and focused conversations on the subject of death.”
The study was originally to be operationalised around a death over dinner event in Milan. An alternative plan had to be crafted due – perhaps ironically – to potential death threats from the global pandemic! A group of nine brave souls agreed to engage in a five-week online programme on our gruesome topic. We came together in meditation and to ponder questions such as: what we would do knowing we had only 30 days left to live; what we would wish for our legacies to be; why it is we don’t discuss death.
The group were mainly Muslim women resident in the UAE, and adherents to Islamic faith. I timed the study to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan: a time intended for reflection. This Being Mortal programme provided a platform to connect in the concurrent challenging times of lockdowns and isolation. After four weeks, we celebrated our ancestors together. All participants then reflected individually on the experiences, written in personal narratives. A summary of what arose from these engagements is depicted below:
Commonly, participants were inspired to greater acts of compassion and kindness – both to themselves and others. There was a widespread desire to be in the moment, to enjoy, to live more fully. There were concerns around purpose and meaning; of the legacy one should leave behind. It was remarkable that in remembering others, however, what mattered was how they had smiled, or cooked, or made us smile. Overall gratitude was expressed for what was conceived as a worthy exploration, and a widespread agreement that others should also engage around the topic of death. In summary – and consistent with the popular literature – there were notable instances of transformative change across the group as a result of purposefully engaging in reflections about death. The more common tendency not to engage in such discussions, essentially, circumvented to positive effect.
There were, however, inherent limitations in this study. Prevailing circumstances of social distancing etc. prevented in the moment, face to face discussions a subtler approach to engaging ‘isolated’ participants thus considered ethically essential, perhaps in the process preventing some rather richer, in the moment conversations. Diversity in the group was particularly lacking, and there was minimal opportunity to assess longitudinal impact. There was also a degree of uncertainty ofthe principal cause of the evident positive impacts witnessed. Was the principal researcher’s personal enthusiasm shared with the group influential in what transpired? Were the meditation practices that the group engaged in together directly impactful on their own? Academic studies in mindfulness indicate these have positive impacts in themselves.
On reflection, the researcher was influential in the outcomes observed. The researcher provided a positive perspective and the ability to engage through challenging circumstances, to be vulnerable and, more importantly, authentic. This was most evident in the final meeting when the group came together. One of the participants was grieving the death of her father just a few days earlier. The group asserted its maturity to sit with death in the space, not in an awkward silence, but in a deep and meaningful collective sharing.
In conclusion, death is an important topic that should and must be brought to life in a society that severely lacks compassion for others and for the planet and its natural resources. Further exploration is recommended to consider how Buddhists and members of other indigenous cultures who consciously engage in death practices are impacted by so doing. It is highly recommended also to engage a diverse group of men: a group so disenfranchised by life that so many are driven to its early termination.