Mindful Dying

A Buddhist chaplain on what it means to die "consciously"

November 23, 2014

“Imagining a scenario in which you are dying… may be extremely useful for how you’re going to live five minutes from now,” says Steven Spiro. He's a Buddhist chaplain who works with people at the end of life, and leads workshops on death and dying. 

Spiro is a proponent of "conscious dying." It's a movement to help people come to terms with their mortality, and lay the groundwork for a death that is as joyful, calm and generous as possible.

"In my opinion, a lot of what the wisdom traditions have been teaching over the millennia are spiritual practices that allow us to let go," Spiro says.

He's developed an Advance Directive for Conscious Dying, a document intended to help people consider their priorities are for their final days. Here's a taste of his conversation with Sara Nics.

Steven Spiro: You know, there's the Woody Allen quote, "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." I think that a lot of people agree with that. I think the conscious aspect can come in, in terms of planning... We can plan at a relational level. Who am I at odds with in my life? Who do I need to forgive? Who needs to forgive me? There's a lot of suffering when people don't do these things. That's part of conscious dying.

Sara Nics: You shared with me this Advance Directive for Conscious Dying, which I filled out. It was really interesting to do it. You have questions here about who do you want to be with you most, and who do you not want there. Some of those answers, for me, were very surprising. What are some of the responses that you get to this process of figuring out -if we are given the luxury of time- how we would like to use those final weeks?

SS: Yeah, just the exercise of imagining a scenario where we are dying, sets things up in stark contrast. So, "I really don't want that person there. I really want to see these people..." All of these kinds of issues that are brought up in the Advanced Directive for Conscious Dying suddenly become real. And so the exercise of filling these out, and thinking about these things, may be extremely useful for how you're going to live five minutes from now...

SN: One of the things that was most surprising to me, was one question that you have, "How strictly do you want your wishes to be adhered to by your loved ones. Do you want them to do exactly what you say even if they may be uncomfortable? Do you want your loved ones do what brings them the most peace?" And I wondered how much this conscious dying movement is about claiming ownership of our death, and/or sharing it?

SS: Yeah and we don't want to encourage clinging to a certain scenario either. That's why that question is in there. "Here how I see it all unfolding, and I'm ready to let go of it..." Humans have tried not to die alone, I think, for as long as we've been around. We've wanted this to be an event that's shared. And we can think about other people in our lives who've died - my grandmother, my father, or whoever it was - what impact that had on my life, and then turn it around and say,  "What impact will my death, and how I die, have on other people?"

If you'd like to hear Spiro talk about meditating on mortality, setting the scene at a deathbed, and more stories of conscious dying and living, you can find Spiro's extended interview here.