Reflecting on death is oddly life-enhancing

dancing skeletons

Most people would tend to assume that reflecting on your own death is going to be a bit of a downer. Why think about that depressing stuff?

Well, there’s a good reason why. It can make you a happier and better person.

In an experiment in the UK, people were asked to reflect about death in an abstract way, were asked to imagine their own death, or (as a control) were asked to imagine toothache.

Next, the participants were given an article, supposedly from the BBC, about blood donations. Some people read an article saying that blood donations were “at record highs” and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were “at record lows” and the need was high. They were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate.

People who thought about death in the abstract were motivated by the story about the blood shortage. They were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read that article. But people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read; their willingness to donate blood didn’t seem to depend on how badly it was needed.

Thinking about death — your own death — can make you realize what’s important in life. That’s one reason why the Buddha suggested that we should reflect frequently:

  1. I’m going to get old
  2. I’m going to get sick
  3. I’m going to die
  4. I’m going to be separated from all that’s dear to me

There’s a fifth reflection that’s a part of this set as well:

  1. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’

To sum that up, life is short, and you’re responsible for what you do with it. The clear implication is that with all that in mind we’re more likely to live well, paying attention to those things — like helping others — that are really important.

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Someone on Facebook commented about Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is a branch of psychology looking at how we handle our fear of death. Often it’s been found that when people are subtly reminded of death, they become more rigid and cling to nationalism, religion, etc.

    TMT is fascinating, and I go into it in my most recent book, Living as a River.

    There is a difference (as the study I refer to above shows) between thinking about death in a general sense (which provokes anxiety) and thinking about death specifically in terms of your own death or the death of someone who is close to you. The latter approach has been shown to be life-enhancing, so that if you reflect on the future death of your spouse you tend to find that you appreciate them more and are less bothered about their little foibles. I’m sure there’s a lot more study to be done on this area, but it does seem to be important how we think about death — and the more specific our thoughts are, the better.

    I’d guess how it works is that if you think about death in a general sense there’s some part of you that’s fighting it because at some level you hope it’s not going to happen to you. When you think of your own death you cut all that crap out because you’ve just accepted the reality that it is going to happen to you, and you’re left with the question, what do I do now, knowing that I’m going to die?

  • Ann Becker-Schutte
    June 3, 2011 1:55 pm

    I think that this is an exercise that is helpful in so many ways. It provides not just the existential & emotional benefits you describe, but it can also create important family discussions.

  • No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. -Steve Jobs

  • If only we could be free from the consequences of other people’s actions.

  • Hi,

    I am planning to do a research on death contemplation and its impact on human happiness, for a Masters in psychology.

    There is psych literature to show how people respond to death reflection and mortality salience (proposed by TMT) is different. The current method used in psych is asking respondents to think of the possibility of getting caught to a fire in a friend’s apartment. This is an attempt to create a near death situation rather than death reflection. (However this is what’s currently used) I am not sure whether this is equal to reflecting on death.

    The problem I have is I cant find a proper reference on how to administer death contemplation. There is a lot of diversity among different groups. Can you pls help?

    • Hi, Sajith.

      Sounds like an interesting project.

      Gosh, I’d have thought that reflecting on the possibility of getting caught to a fire in a friend’s apartment would be more of a contemplation of imminent pain and danger, rather than death.

      When you ask about a proper reference on how to administer death contemplation, I presume you mean in the Buddhist tradition? There isn’t specific guidance in the early Buddhist teachings on exactly how to do this, but we are asked to reflect, in some way, on the fact of our own deaths, and on the universality of death. Partly this was to be a process of observation:

      The aging of beings in the various orders of beings, their old age, brokenness of teeth, grayness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of life, weakness of faculties — this is called aging. The passing of beings out of the various orders of beings, their passing away, dissolution, disappearance, dying, completion of time, dissolution of the aggregates, laying down of the body — this is called death. So this aging and this death are what is called aging and death.

      And then this observation is applied to ourselves:

      “There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?

      “‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

      “‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’ …

      “‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’ …

      “‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’ …

      “‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’ …

      “These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

      You’ll find these passages (and others) linked to from this section of Access to Insight’s index.

  • Thank you for your reply. I really appreciate taking trouble to clarify it in detail.

    When you say “I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness” what exactly do you mean by ‘have not gone beyond illness’? I want to be 100% clear. It’s very clear in the death one though.

    Thank you for the link, I managed to download the path of purification book from access to insight, there is an entire chapter on death meditation. Although there are 8 strategies in it, as you have said there is no specific way to do it.

    Thank you once again

  • Ah, well that’s a tricky one. The traditional explanation for going beyond illness would be that, having become enlightened, one would not be reborn and thus not be subject to illness.

    However my own interpretation would be that the Enlightened person, in this life, although they may experience illness, it does not cause them mental anguish, and so they are not literally “disease-free,” but are free from the suffering that arises from disease.

  • In my opinion your interpretation is more believable considering the Buddha himself fell ill and died despite being enlightened.

    I think may be my option is taking the 5 elements in your post and create a simple provocative thought process which can be administered to the respondents in the study. Although I would love to keep it as an open process, asking people to figure out their own way, unfortunately, science insists on rigorous methods.

    Anyways, it was indeed nice talking to you. Thank you so much for your constructive and prompt response.

  • […] Reflecting on Death from Wildmind Buddhist Meditation […]


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