From AN5.57 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (copyright Wisdom Publications):
“This noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am not the only one who is subject to death, not exempt from death. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to death; none are exempt from death.’ As he often reflects on this theme, the path is generated. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he does so, the fetters are entirely abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted.
In this sutta, the Buddha says that by contemplating death “the path is generated”. What does that mean? My understanding is that by familiarizing ourselves with the rise and fall of living beings as a normal process, we start to see the world and our place in it in a more realistic light. We begin to be less obsessed with our small, temporary victories over others and see ourselves instead as part of a larger process. As the path develops in us, we see how intimately we are connected with others, and how profoundly we affect each other with every interaction. We see how our choices in the world affect how we think and feel, and how by guiding those choices in a wholesome direction, we can change ourselves and our world.
In his outstanding book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande emphasizes the importance of talking skilfully with people about end-of-life concerns. Although he speaks from a physician’s perspective, his words are useful for all of us (from Chapter 6, Letting Go):
One basic mistake is conceptual. To most doctors, the primary purpose of a discussion about terminal illness is to determine what people want – whether they want chemo or not, whether they want to be resuscitated or not, whether they want hospice or not. We focus on laying out the facts and the options. But that’s a mistake, Block said.
“A larger part of the task is helping people negotiate the overwhelming anxiety – anxiety about death, anxiety about suffering, anxiety about loved ones, anxiety about finances,” she explained. “There are many worries and real terrors.” No one conversation can address them all. Arriving at an acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits and the possibilities of medicine is a process, not an epiphany.
This process requires as much listening as talking. If you are talking more than half of the time, Block says, you’re talking too much.
Having these conversations with friends and family members before we are facing death is an important way in which we can come to understand both the limitations and the rich possibilities of our lives.