Death and Dying in Practice

By Lawrence Bienemann

Lawrence BienemannJapanese warrior folklore says that samurais were warriors who woke each morning saying, “Today is a good day to die.”  While they meant it literally, the rest of us might benefit from some sort of reminder to stay in our day.  But in this culture, the recognition that any day could be our last is considered kind of a downer.  We certainly don’t want to wake up thinking that this would be a good day to die.  We seem to prefer things like, ‘Where’s the coffee?’ or ‘What do I need to do today” or ‘Maybe I should call in sick?”
I recently read about aikidoist Mary Stein choosing to finalize her “Advanced Healthcare Directive” and her decision to have it witness by two of her fellow aikido practitioners.  You probably already know that this type of document is a fairly straightforward, common sense legal summary so that family or caregivers understand our wishes and instructions under certain medical circumstances.  What I found intriguing was her ability to carry her practice into this important part of her life.
I began thinking about similar connections to what we do in the dojo, during meditation, and while writing.  In Zen meditation practice is we sit on a mat, and meditate.  We strip away and discard thoughts that are not true for us, returning to breath and ‘no thought.’  Each moment leads us toward our truth.  Each moment also leads closer to death.
In the dojo, each move is executed with the idea that we have to completely give ourselves to it, let go of our fear of “doing it right’ and eliminate the fear of injury.  In that way, each martial arts move is a form of death to the practitioner.  We give up the illusion of control and give ourselves over to the inevitable.
The Buddha said—paraphrased—“life is suffering and then we die.”  I replicate that statement every time I go to the dojo or meditate.  I ‘suffer’ then I ‘die.’ The positive implication is that, as a result of these practices, I move closer and closer the truth about who and what I am… and am more able to accept those findings.

Editor’s note: You can read more of Lawrence’s thoughts at Senior Samurai. All of us at the dojo are looking forward to your return in December!

11 thoughts on “Death and Dying in Practice

  1. I agree with the idea of surrendering to life and accepting death, but not as one defeated, but one enlightened. The intent is to live, fully. The samurai knew the better warrior was the one unafraid to die in battle, and hence, the one most likely to prevail.

    That said, I do fear injury, more now than I used to. Maybe it’s being 43. Maybe it’s experience with my own injuries and witnessing others over 15 years on the mat. It is certainly a fear I carry for my students when I teach. Yet it is this fear that makes me a lively uke! As sensei says,

    “It’s behoovin’ to be movin’.”

    I surrender to the possiblity of injury when I come onto the mat and trust nage to take care of me, but at the same time I’m working my tail off to control what is within my control, and limit the potential for injury. Ironically, as I focus on avoiding injury via good ukemi, I am helping nage perfom his best.

    Perhaps this Sufi saying summarizes my feelings on the mat:

    “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel to a post.”

  2. After sleeping on this, I’ve decided “fear” is not the right word. I think “awareness” is closer to what I mean.

  3. Yeah, I’m definitely aware of the possibility of injury on the mat. Especially after my groin pull.

    We’re not twenty anymore….

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