Written by: Michelle Belanger
Many people profess to believe in the immortality of the soul. And yet, when confronted with the reality of their own mortality, many such people are still filled with fear. In Eastern traditions, students are encouraged to cultivate an acceptance of the impermanent nature of this life and this body. Through my own workings, I have found that such an acceptance truly is liberating. A life without fear is a life of endless possibilities. The following visualization is intended to help students confront their own mortality and conquer their fear of it.
Note: Be forewarned that this exercise is psychologically taxing and not for the faint of heart. But if you think you are ready to tackle impermanence, this three-part visualization may be just what you're looking for.
Facing Your Fears
Devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali often made their homes in cremation grounds. They would smear themselves with human ash and sleep among the bones. Tibetan monks play on trumpets that are fashioned from human femurs, and special chalices are made from the craniums of monks who have passed away.
These morbid practices are not intended to create an obsession with death and dying. Rather, their aim is to teach us about the mysteries of impermanence and letting go. The body is just a vessel, and so, as the Tibetans see things, its remains may as well be put to good use. Chalices and musical instruments that our culture would find grisly and obscene serve as inspirational reminders to the Tibetans that this life is not the only one we have.
The following exercises will help you explore your own attitudes on impermanence. The exercises are visualization-intense and emotionally demanding, so you should probably take them in stages. You may find that you have to repeat these exercises several times in order to really get the hang of them. The purpose of the exercises and their accompanying journal questions is to help you uncover any lingering doubts or fears you may have regarding death, particularly your own. These exercises may bring some deep-seated psychological issues to the forefront of your mind, so they are not to be undertaken lightly. Once you have run through them successfully at least once, you will permanently alter our perception of your Self, your physical form, and your relation to time and death.
Part One: The Source of Vanity
Sit in front of a mirror. A large mirror, such as the mirror usually attached to a dressing table, is best for this exercise. Some homes and apartments come with full-length mirrors attached to a closet door, and this sort of mirror will work as well, although you will most probably have to stand rather than sit in front of it. If you happen to have access to a full-length mirror in a private location, you will get the fullest effect from this exercise is you stand naked in front of it.
Take a few moments to gaze into the mirror. Study your face very carefully, occasionally peering in closely to see the minute details like lines and pores on your cheeks and around your eyes. Once you have familiarized yourself with your countenance, begin to study yourself for signs of age. Look for little lines around your eyes or creases that are beginning to form on your forehead. If you are standing naked before a full-length mirror, carefully regard the rest of your body. Look specifically for those places where things aren't as firm as they once were, where you can see the skin beginning to go soft and perhaps capillaries and spider veins beginning to show through.
Take a few moments to assess the effect the passage of time has had on your physical form. Think back to when your appearance was younger, more vital. Consider how the changes you can see make you feel. In your journal, take a few moments to write out this response. Then consider how much you attach your sense of identity to your appearance. Write your thoughts on this question in your journal as well.
If you have a scar from an injury somewhere, consider what your body looked like prior to that injury. Take a few moments to recall the injury itself and your reaction to the damage done to your flesh. Remember watching the wound heal, then knowing that a scar would be left behind. Put yourself back in that moment of time when you realized that you would be scarred and reflect upon how this affected your perception of your appearance. Were you angry? Were you ashamed? Did you make an effort to cover the scar up for a time? How long did it take you to accept and adapt to this change in your flesh? If people noticed the scar, how did that make you feel?
After these reflections, take a few moments to record your thoughts in your journal again. What does your reaction to scars and injuries tell you about your attachment to your physical form? Have your attitudes changed since the injury you've considered? If they've changed significantly, what influenced this change?
You may want to take a break at this point, or you may want to split the exercise into two separate sessions in front of the mirror. If you have the time and are ready to go on, simply continue.
Part Two: The March of Years
Now, as you regard your form in the mirror, start to envision what the progress of the years will do to it. Try to imagine this as vividly as possible. Study your face and the rest of your body very carefully, and with your imagination, overlay what you look like now with what you might look like in ten years. Try to see this projected future self like a double image layered over what you can see with your physical eyes. If you are exceptionally good at visualization, you may even be able to impose the aged image over what you physically see.
Go slowly with this, and once you have a solid image in your mind or in your vision, study that as carefully as you had studied your current face previously. As you regard this older you, pay attention to what emotions this sight inspires in you. Does it disturb you to watch your youth fade away? Do you feel ugly as you watch yourself age? Are you frightened by what further changes the years may bring?
After you have studied this version of yourself for a little while, age yourself more. Go forward twenty years, then thirty. Roll the years forward in your mind and watch your face and body age before you as if your life were on fast forward. Take yourself to the very extremity of old age, when you are little more than a shrunken, shriveled shell of your former youth.
Visualize this future self as vividly as possible. Hold the image in your mind so you can study it. Even if there is something that makes you uncomfortable, dare yourself to look at it without flinching. Don't push too hard - if you end up really having trouble with this exercise, you should bring your vision back to the present and step away. Save the exercise for a later date - although consider halting you progress in this book until such time as you can look at the ancient face and not look away.
If you have been able to go this far, take a few moments to record your impressions and reactions in your journal. If you are an exceptionally vivid visualizer, as you saw yourself age, you will probably have felt it, too. Record all the details pertinent to the experience in your journal, and be certain to record the emotional reactions you had to this aging process. If seeing yourself age to such a state disturbed you, write out why it affected you that way. If it inspired fear or uncertainty, then try to determine the exact nature of that reaction. When you are done with your journal, regard yourself in the mirror again and reverse the aging process. Bring yourself back to how you appear now.
Once again, you may want to take a break or pick the last portion of this exercise up on another day. If you are experiencing seriously negative emotional reactions to the exercise, then take some time to do something unrelated that will get your mind off of the issues that have unsettled you. If you are really having trouble with fear, revulsion, or anxiety, I strongly recommend that you not undertake the final portion of the exercise until you can do the first parts without adverse effect. Furthermore, it is not wise to proceed to the rest of the book until you have resolved any internal problems you have with the issues raised by this exercise.
Part Three: The Face of Death
At this point, you should be right back where you started from, at least visually. You are standing or sitting in front of a mirror, carefully regarding your own form. Your journal is near at hand with a pen or pencil ready so you can record your thoughts and impressions. The person you see in the mirror is who you are now, just precisely as you appear. Although you have watched yourself age in the previous portion of the exercise, right at this moment, your face and body are unchanged.
Now you are going to enter the most challenging portion of the exercise. You are going to look at your face and project, not age, but death across the visage you are so accustomed to calling your own. (You may actually want to do a little research into the process of decay just so you can visualize death in all its gruesome glory.)
Take a moment to prepare yourself, and then begin by regarding in minute detail the features of your face. Familiarize yourself once more with the things you like, the things you don't like, those qualities you associate with you.
Now, as you watch, see the face you know now and associate with who you are go through the stages of decay. Visualize this vividly, and make certain that you continue to identify the face in the mirror with you. If you start to lose your conceptual connection with the face you are seeing, take a moment to remind yourself that what you are looking at is you. This sense of connection is imperative to the success of this exercise; you cannot cushion your psyche with the convenient escape of detachment. The point of this exercise is for you to face the certainty of your own mortality, and then to transcend your attachment to your physical form so you are better able to perceive the dance of life and death.
Regard your face and watch the color drain out of it until you are looking at the ashen face of a corpse. See your eyes and cheeks sink in, the bridge of your nose grow more sharply defined. Feel the chill settle in as the life drains away and your limbs grow heavy and inert. Watch as in the next stage the skin discolors and beings to bloat. Feel as everything beneath the skin softens and liquefies. Stare deep into your own eyes and imagine that they shrivel and burst, leaving only wet, sunken sockets in their place.
Even with no eyes, you still see the progression of decay: the skin discolors further, going through the many sickly colors of an old bruise. In some places, the bloating of the skin is so severe that it cracks and weeps pinkish fluid. Hair falls out in swaths; great patches of skin flake away. Eventually, enough fluids drain away that instead of swelling, the skin begins to shrink, growing leathery and dark as it closes around the thin bones. Everything tightens, dries out, and grows stiff. Ultimately, you peer at a face that little more than a mask of leathery flesh stretched tightly across a grinning skull.
As you look at the shape of the skull beneath the flesh, know that this is you - or at least, the body you wear right now. Understand that all flesh undergoes this process or something similar, and reflect on what beyond your fleshly form really makes you you. Focus on these other qualities that are not located in your flesh. Consider how these are left unchanged regardless what happens to your physical form. Then, as you regard the grisly corpse-face in the mirror before you, acknowledge that this is just your flesh, and let it go.
Slough off the image of physical death like a mask you were wearing for Halloween and take a few minutes to regard your face once more as it is right now. Consider those non-corporeal qualities that you had called to mind just moments before, and acknowledge that even though this current face is more recognizable and familiar, it is still only flesh. The essence of you goes deeper than the skin, deeper even than the bones that shape your frame.
As you stare at the image of your current face, make a conscious effort to let your attachment to this go as well. The flesh is a costume you wear for a time. It is something you take up and put down once it's worn. When you feel solidly connected to the immortal part of yourself, and detached from the fragile vessel of flesh that you wear, step away from the mirror and record your impressions from this final part of the exercise in your journal. If you don't feel that you've grasped the essence of impermanence after this portion of the exercise, make time to perform the whole series of visualizations again. Do this until you are able to look at the reality of your own death and remain confident that the end of your flesh is not in any way the end of you.
(excerpted from Walking the Twilight Path.)