Your Last Day Alive

Ajahn Yatiko • July 2012

During this morning’s meditation I was reflecting on the sutta, Mindfulness of Death (AN 6.19) where one monk tells the Buddha he keeps death in mind once a day thinking that he might live that much longer to contemplate the Buddha’s teachings. Another monk says he keeps death in mind several times a day, and yet another monk brings death to mind every minute or two. The Buddha says each one of these monks is dwelling heedlessly. One of the monks present says he contemplates that he might die in the time it takes for an in-breath or an out-breath. The Buddha commends him for that. After all, we could die on an in-breath, before breathing out. And with every out-breath, we could die before breathing in again. This is a powerful reflection. It brings the mind into the present moment in a striking way.

The Buddha described a group of five unskillful mind states that hinder the mind. These five hindrances are: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and drowsiness, restlessness and anxiety, and skeptical doubt. Taken to a deep level, this reflection on death can cause the hindrances to be in abeyance, because the hindrances almost always involve the passage of time. If the mind is in the present moment, and if we recognize that death could come this very instant—with the snap of a finger—then there’s no time for the hindrances to arise.

For many of us, this is an old reflection. One way you can give it new life is to assume that this is your last day alive and that your moment of death will be tonight at the stroke of ten. How will you spend your day if this is your last day alive? You might say to yourself, If this is my last day alive, I don’t want to spend it on self-centered habits. I don’t want this last day of my life to be marred by being heedless or by taking for granted this human form, this opportunity, this community, or by concerns about my personal health. Behaving in those ways on the last day of your life would be tragic. You might also acknowledge the ordinary and practical aspects of life, saying to yourself, I still have things I have to do today. I need to do chores and go to work. Let me do this in a way that’s going to be an offering so that I can give of myself. I can support the monastery or help some people. And finally, you might say, Today is my last opportunity to free the heart from the defilements. Let me do my best.

That’s why we’re here—to free the heart from greed, hatred, and delusion. Sometimes we can get lost in judging our meditation—My samādhi is not good enough. Although our meditation is very important, we forget that the whole reason we’re meditating is to free ourselves from greed, hatred, and delusion. The depth of our samādhi practice or the experiene of a profound insight is only significant because it supports that freedom. So we can reaffirm our intention to be free of greed, hatred, and delusion, to be content with our experience. For some of us, if not many of us, no matter how difficult our situation is—our health, our position, or our mental states—it’s not so bad. It could be much worse. It’s enough to be content with. This is simply where we find ourselves in this moment. This is where our kamma has put us. And it is possible for us to be content with our situation and to use it to free ourselves from the defilements.

When we contemplate death and think we have to overcome the defilements—which we do—remember that one of the defilements we have to overcome is discontent with ourselves. It’s so common in this culture for people to find fault with themselves, to find it difficult to accept themselves. This manifests itself in so many ways. Sometimes we can see this trait in people who are conceited. Often that conceit is a mask for a lack of self-acceptance.

As this could be our last day alive, we can look at this dissatisfaction, discontent, or lack of self-acceptance and let it go. There’s no time to waste. We don’t have time to indulge in things like that. To a certain extent we need to be strict and firm with ourselves—Things are okay. I’m okay. Everyone else here is okay. I am good enough and they are good enough, and I don’t have to make a problem of who I am or who other people are. We can let go of all our critical tendencies; they simply don’t matter.

What does matter is that we look into our own hearts to see whether we find conceit there, a self-centered quality. Is there pride, ambition, anger, judgment, or self-righteousness there? That’s why we are here—to look into our own hearts. We’re not here to look at the structures and forms, like the monastery or other people’s actions. None of this matters. The details don’t matter. The monastery can be beautifully efficient and well structured, or it can be chaotic, strange, confusing, and disharmonious. All that, to a certain extent, doesn’t matter. What is paramount is looking into our own hearts and asking ourselves, Am I experiencing suffering or stress? What can I do to understand it? What can I do to encourage wholesome states of mind and decrease the unwholesome states?

This is our work, and we don’t have that much time to do this work, because we never know how much time we have or when we’re going to die. So we need to take this reflection seriously, and to allow it into our hearts.