December 28, 2022

Living with the Wisdom of Death

Living with the Wisdom of Death
Tuesdays, February 6 – March 26, 2024
7 to 9pm ET

Jeanne Corrigal has been practicing insight meditation since 1999 and is the guiding teacher for theSaskatoon Insight Meditation Community. She is a graduate of the 2017-2021 IMS Teacher Training Program. Jeanne is a member of the mixed heritage Métis Nation, one of three Indigenous communities recognized in Canada. One of her first teachers in loving presence was Cree Elder Jim Settee. For more information on Jeanne,please visit her website.

Nikki Mirghafori, PhD, has practiced intensively with Asian and Western teachers. In 2008, her primary teacher, Burmese master Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw, with whom she studied jhanas and detailed analytical vipassana, instructed her to teach. An artificial intelligence scientist for decades, she now teaches Dharma internationally. Nikki is Iranian-American. For more information on Nikki,please visit her website.

Here, Jeanne and Nikki discuss their upcoming online program, Living with the Wisdom of Death.

What do you mean by the “wisdom of death”?

Jeanne: In my personal experience, when I don’t live with death close, then I live unwisely. I live as if I have a whole eternity to live, and I forget that this moment is precious. When I bring the wisdom of death close, by simply knowing that it is inevitable, it helps me live more fully in each moment.

It invites me into the deepest practice—the deepest invitation into freedom from clinging that I’ve faced in my lifetime. And in each moment that there is a little release from clinging, there is also a little joy, a little spaciousness, a little peace. This wisdom reflection invites us into this joy, spaciousness, and peace.

Why should someone do this course, especially when death is such a scary topic for so many?

Nikki: People tend to be scared of change and the unknown. Yet, we are part of nature, and accepting that everything in nature arises and passes away, we find that the practice of mindfulness of mortality is a liberating practice. It’s not just about working with fear or to prepare for our own deaths, it’s also about liberation. It’s an awakening practice. We wake up through these contemplations.

This practice informs the way we live and that’s the primary reason to do it. It brings up samvega or spiritual urgency, so that we don’t waste time and act in ways that are not wholesome or wasteful of our goodness or energy. Mindfulness of mortality helps us align our life with our values.

There’s been—and continues to be—a collective confrontation with death around the pandemic, so people may be experiencing even more anxiety than usual around this topic. What are your thoughts on this?

Jeanne: The pandemic has really brought death front and center. So, at this time, we’re being invited by world events to turn to this reflection together. For me, part of the anxiety is fueled by not being able to turn to death and look at it clearly. When we deny it or try to pretend it’s not there, that’s what fuels the anxiety. But, of course, it’s frightening. And so together, we will gently look at death through the eyes of wisdom. And this is a real opportunity for us to transform how we relate to this pandemic.

What’s one benefit of reflecting on death or being mindful of our mortality?

Nikki: It has lots of benefits for how we live our lives. It gives us more freedom. And it helps us to support others. Because if we’re not afraid of our own death, we can help loved ones in their transition. Turning towards the next generations, the biggest gift we can give them is a graceful modeling of how to be fully present without fear for our own death—a priceless legacy that can be passed on. Turning towards our elders, we can create a safe space for open and intimate conversations to help support them in their transition, either planning for it or at the bedside. So, it not only serves us in the way we live our lives, but also the way we can support our loved ones.

Jeanne: Through this practice, I’ve experienced a real tangible decrease in fear. I can talk about death now without bursting into tears from fright. There’s also a tangible increase in confidence that I now have some wise ways to meet that transition. With this practice, I’ve also developed the capacity to be more present and joyful here now with myself, with other people, and with this moment. And that’s not something we can talk ourselves into. When I started to turn to this reflection on death, that capacity to be more fully in this moment arose naturally, from a deep embodied knowing.

Who is this course appropriate for?

Nikki: For everyone—people who are young and have their whole lives ahead of them; people who are old and may realize there are fewer years ahead than behind; people who have a fear of death; and people who don’t. Jeanne’s and my approach to teaching the topic is very gentle and builds up gradually, so come join us, and fear not!

It’s helpful if participants have some practice background, so that one can support oneself with a mindfulness of emotions if they arise, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Yet, it is important for participants to be in a stable and balanced state of mind.

I also want to emphasize that this course is not intended to be a grief workshop, with the intent and purpose to emotionally process a recent loss of a loved one. However, grief is a natural process and could possibly arise for us as we reflect on our own mortality.

Participants are encouraged to enroll with a friend or family member or with their local sangha. Can you explain why this is being recommended?

Jeanne: This is one of the key parts of the course. Of course, everyone is welcome to join on their own, and can deeply benefit from this course. And our hope is that when this course is over, you’ll have some support to continue the reflection—which can really be a life-long one. So, if you have a friend or community members who you can enroll with, this can cultivate a little sangha with some comfort with this topic to continue with. And of course, if you enroll on your own, you can decide to invite friends to join you in a group when you are done, if this feels helpful. This ongoing sharing can be deeply meaningful and impactful. I have a small group that meets once every couple of months, and we simply share what’s present around death for each of us. That group has been the most important piece in my capacity to turn to this reflection on death.

Final thoughts on the practice of reflecting on our mortality?

Nikki: With this practice, we can approach our own death with more equanimity because who knows what death is like. It may as well be an amazing mysterious experience that is integral to being human. Everyone who’s died, has done it successfully. Our loved ones have done it successfully. You can’t fail at dying.

We need to enter the tender space of this practice with love and care for ourselves and for others. Engaging with this practice gives rise to compassion in the heart because when we fully realize that we’re all mortals, that we all die, tenderness for the human condition arises. We realize there’s nothing to hang on to. The heart lets go and can be free.

Jeanne: One of the most helpful practices is having a vision of the qualities we would like to have in our minds and hearts during that transition and at the time of death. For example, I’d like to have kindness and compassion in my heart, and I’d like to remember the practice of letting go. Although we can’t control what’s going to happen at that moment, we can influence it through our vision. We can share this vision with our friends and family, so that if they have the opportunity, they can support us in these reflections during that time.

And this can motivate our practice now. We can rest in these wholesome qualities now, noticing how they feel. This is the heart of our freedom. We can practice noticing what kindness feels like right now; notice what it feels like when we can let go of expectations, agendas, clinging, and tightness now. When we practice with kindness, letting go, and touching freedom now, this helps us prepare for the transition and moment of death.