Maranasati Meditation: How to Practice Mindfulness of Death

Maranasati meditationMaranasati meditation refers to several early Buddhist practices focused on mindfulness of death (Access to Insight, 2013a, 2013b).

The objective of mindfulness of death practices is to deepen our appreciation of our mortality in an effort to paradoxically lessen death anxiety and enhance our zest for living.

Research shows that coming to terms with death is essential to living life fully (Blomstrom, Burns, Larriviere, & Penberthy, 2020), yet in the Western world, many of us are socialized to avoid discussing or even thinking about death, leading many to suffer from death anxiety and terror of this inevitable event.

This article will introduce maranasati meditation and discuss its benefits and usefulness in psychology and therapy. Some mindfulness of death practice scripts are offered below in both audio and text format, including short practices aimed at beginners and more lengthy guided meditations aimed at experienced practitioners.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Gratitude Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients connect to more positive emotions and enjoy the benefits of gratitude.

What Is Maranasati Meditation?

Essentially, maranasati meditation consists of a series of Buddhist mindfulness of death practices, ranging from contemplation of the ever-present potential for death at any moment, to deeper contemplations, to the eventual breakdown of the body during the death process.

There are two Pali suttas dedicated to mindfulness of death (Access to Insight, 2013a, 2013b) and a commentary offered on the practice in the Visuddhimagga, often translated as the Path of Purification (Buddhaghosa, 500/2010).

The term “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali word sati, which also refers to recollection and remembering. In the English translations of the Pali suttas and related commentaries, the terms “mindfulness” and “recollection” are often used interchangeably.

The Buddha is said to have encouraged monks to remain mindful of the potential for death at any moment to deepen their appreciation and gratitude for their precious human life and cultivate a sense of urgency to practice.

This ongoing awareness of death was encouraged to loosen attachment to desires and fears that lead to suffering rather than mindfulness. When writing about monks who practice mindfulness of death, Buddhaghosa (500/2010, p. 236) explains:

“Perception of impermanence grows in him… while beings who have not developed [mindfulness of] death fall victims to fear, horror and confusion at the time of death… he dies undeluded and fearless without falling into any such state.”

The Buddha also encouraged practicing mindfulness of death as an antidote to feuding and conflict. “People, other than the wise, do not realize, ‘We in this world must all die,’ (and, not realizing it, continue their quarrels). The wise realize it and thereby their quarrels cease” (Dhammapada, n.d./300, Verse 6).

You can listen to some traditional Pali chanting on mindfulness of death that has also been translated into English in the short video below, courtesy of Colombo Dhamma Friends.

 

6 Benefits of Practicing Maranasati

The benefits of mindfulness meditation for our overall health and wellbeing are well documented, as Dr. Jeremy Sutton explained in his article The Importance of Mindfulness. Maranasati also has a unique selection of benefits:

  1. A deeper appreciation of impermanence that reduces the suffering of attachment and emotional reactivity to change (Shonin & Van Gordon, 2014).

  2. An increased sense of gratitude for each moment of our precious human life (Taylor, 2016).

  3. An enhanced appreciation of human vulnerability that leads to greater compassion for self and others (Anālayo, 2016).

  4. A diminished anxiety about death, the death of our loved ones, and dying in the world around us. This helps us to support others during their dying process and friends and family who are grieving (Rosenberg, 1994).

  5. A reduced fear of our own death, which can help us die in a state of peace rather than agitation (Levine, 1997).

  6. The above benefits combined lead to greater vitality and increased zest for life because of an enhanced ability to remain fully connected to the present moment (Dalai Lama, 2004).

AI researcher and Theravada Buddhist meditation teacher Nikki Mirghafori discusses the human quest for immortality and the benefits of mindfulness of death practice in this Vox podcast.

 

Mindfulness of Death in Psychology & Therapy

There has not been much research conducted into mindfulness of death as a clinical intervention in psychology and therapy.

In contrast, there have been several studies on working with bereaved counseling clients and using mindfulness skills to help them navigate the grief process (Cacciatore, Thieleman, Osborn, & Orlowski, 2014; Huang et al., 2021; Huxter, n.d.).

However, these studies have relied on the application of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy practices, such as watching the breath and body scanning, to help regulate painful thoughts and feelings.

Few studies have investigated clinical applications of maranasati or mindfulness of death practices that aim to familiarize practitioners with their own and others’ mortality, often termed “mortality salience.” However, there have been some preliminary studies investigating the effects of mindfulness of death practices on psychology and therapy. Two are discussed below.

Maria Stella (2016) explains how teaching mindfulness of death to counseling students enhanced their awareness of their feelings about death and potential obstacles they might encounter when working with bereaved clients.

Stella asked her students to take part in an exercise where they were guided to contemplate their own deaths in a worst- and best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario was a sudden unexpected death through an accident or violence, while the best-case scenario was a gradual death surrounded by loved ones.

Students were asked to remain aware of their emotions, bodily sensations, and any thoughts that occurred in both scenarios, and then split into pairs and discussed their experiences with each other. Students reported heightened awareness of their ideas and feelings about death, while many found it challenging to listen to their exercise partner talking about death without interjecting to diminish their own discomfort.

After debriefing in pairs, the students were asked to return to the large group and discuss the activity while Stella provided an interpersonal and neurobiological account of mindfulness to integrate theory with practice.

Stella reported that the mindfulness of death exercise increased students’ awareness of both their own attitudes toward death and their ability to listen to others’ stories about death. This could equip them to become better counselors of bereaved clients in the future. “Through this process, students often learn to befriend death and become more empowered as future counselors” (Stella, 2016, p. 37).

Another study by Moon (2019) explored the effects of mindfulness of death practice in the context of terror management theory (TMT). TMT proposes that a basic psychological conflict exists in human beings due to the drive for self-preservation in a context where death is understood as inevitable and unpredictable.

This produces psychological terror that is managed in various ways, from forms of avoidance and escapism to a range of cultural belief systems that explain human existence as more than a mere accident of biology. Examples of the latter include religious beliefs in an afterlife, the fantasy of immortality obtained through cultural achievements, and ethical systems that prevent the killing of others and punishment of those who kill.

In the TMT literature, mortality salience is associated with positive psychological outcomes including decreased attachment to material things, increased acts of charity, and a sense of peace about dying (Burke, Martens, & Faucher, 2010).

Moon (2019) conducted a small-scale study to determine whether the mindfulness of death practices described in early Buddhist texts could induce mortality salience. Moon investigated the effects of his Mindfulness of Death-Based Death Education program with a sample of 123 Korean adolescents aged 13 to 15 years old.

Moon adapted the mindfulness of death practice from the maranasati suttas (Access to Insight, 2013a, 2013b) to ensure it was age appropriate for adolescents. The students were instructed to sit in a standard meditation posture following their breath while pondering, “If there was not much more time to live, what would I do?”

His study found that mindfulness of death induced mortality salience, and his findings supported the results of TMT studies that found this has positive psychological effects, including enhanced compassion for others and deepened appreciation of the intrinsic value of life.

Moon (2019) concluded:

“In the future, I hope that many experts in diverse fields will study the application of mindfulness of death and its positive effects on life.”

To date, mindfulness of death remains a specialized contemplative practice in mostly Buddhist circles. However, these preliminary studies indicate the clinical applications of the practice are worth exploring further, given the prosocial psychological outcomes reported.

 

How to Practice Maranasati Meditation: 4 Tips

Wilted flowers

1. Assess your readiness

Maranasati meditation practice can be approached at various levels.

Some honest self-assessment about readiness for the practice is required. While the practice does not involve a rumination on the morbid aspects of the dying process, for many people, thinking and talking about death evokes a range of uncomfortable feelings, including anxiety, sadness, despair, and even terror.

This will largely depend on a person’s previous experience with death, their bereavement history, and any previous difficulties processing grief. Therefore, preparation is important; even seasoned meditators might face difficult feelings when engaging in the practice initially.

 

2. Notice how endings are a part and parcel of everyday life

Being mindful of death can include paying greater attention to the endings we encounter every day in the wider natural world. Life involves witnessing many ‘little deaths’ on a daily basis, such as leaves falling from a tree during the changing of the seasons, the withering of a vase of flowers, and the rotting of food into compost. These everyday endings can be a useful gateway to contemplating impermanence and our own mortality.

 

3. Start slowly with a gentle, short practice

Moon’s (2019) study introduced the young participants to mindfulness of death by asking them to contemplate a question while sitting in a meditation posture and attending to their breath.

Some other introductory practices are suggested below. It is essential to be gentle with yourself when contemplating your own mortality and the mortality of your loved ones.

 

4. Consider learning mindfulness of death on a specialized meditation retreat

Many mediation teachers only teach deeper maranasati meditation practices in the context of retreat. Out of self-compassion, consider taking time out in a protected environment to explore the challenges of maranasati meditation under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

 

5 Best Guided Maranasati Meditation Scripts

The first three guided meditations below are audio meditations of varying degrees of intensity.

If you are new to maranasati meditation, begin with a short sitting practice, as we all have different vulnerabilities that can be exposed by contemplating death.

The third practice below is led by Sri Lankan monk and meditation teacher Bhikkhu Anālayo (2016) and guides you through a visualized experience of dying according to Buddhist cosmology on the dissolution of the elements that make up the human body.

This meditation is performed lying down in the corpse posture, also known as savasana in yoga. While you might think this sounds rather morbid, you may be surprised by the increased vitality you experience afterward and your deepened sense of gratitude.

The practice is discussed in much more detail in Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book Mindfully Facing Disease and Death: Compassionate Advice From Early Buddhist Texts.

 

Guided Meditation – Death & Impermanence by Noah Resheta on Secular Buddhism

(6 minutes 30 seconds)

 

Mindfulness of Death Meditation (Maranasati Contemplation) by Kristina Lopez

(14 minutes 17 seconds)

Access on Insight Timer.

 

Recollection of Death (Maranasati Sutta) by Bhikkhu Anālayo

(39 minutes 11 seconds)

Access on Soundcloud.

These guided meditation scripts can be read silently to yourself or to others. You could even try reading them aloud and recording them, then playing them back to guide your meditation practice.

 

Meditation scripts

 

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

This website has many resources on mindfulness based on the latest scientific research in the field, including 3 free mindfulness exercises, 17 mindfulness mediation exercises, and Mindfulness X, a complete 8-session training program in mindful-based interventions that will deepen your awareness of impermanence.

These exercises and activities can be a useful foundation for reflecting upon your mortality and good preparation for practicing mindfulness of death.

If you read this article because you work with the bereaved, you may be interested in the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, which contains various resources to help you work with grieving clients, including Journaling Through Grief in 40 Days. This activity offers a framework of prompts to guide reflection on the grieving process and facilitate personal development following a loss.

Also, the Metaphors of Grief worksheet can help clients who find it difficult to express their feelings in writing. The toolkit is the world’s largest online positive psychology resource and is updated every month with new tools based on the latest scientific research.

 

A Take-Home Message

Mindfulness of death practice contrasts with the human tendency to avoid contemplating our own mortality.

However, the outcome of maranasati meditation can be paradoxically life enhancing. It helps to induce mortality salience, which has prosocial psychological outcomes, including deeper compassion for ourselves and others and an enhanced appreciation of living. It also enables practitioners to approach their own death with greater composure.

If you are a psychologist, counselor, or therapist, consider practicing mindfulness of death to improve your awareness of your own feelings about death and dying. This could enhance your ability to work with bereaved and grieving clients, or those diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Health professionals, social care professionals, and other emergency service workers working on the front line are confronted with the reality of human mortality daily.

Including mindfulness of death practice in the training of such helping professionals could familiarize trainees with their own feelings about death and dying, help reduce death anxiety, and buffer them from becoming overwhelmed and developing post-trauma symptoms and burnout.

In addition, mindfulness of death practice may help you support loved ones who are approaching the end of their life with greater peace and acceptance when their time comes.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Gratitude Exercises for free.

  • Access to Insight, Bhikkhu, T. (Trans.). (2013a, November 30). AN 6.19 Maranassati sutta: Mindfulness of death (1). Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.019.than.html
  • Access to Insight, Bhikkhu, T. (Trans.). (2013b, November 30). AN 6.20 Maranassati sutta: Mindfulness of death (2). Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.020.than.html
  • Anālayo, B. (2016). Mindfully facing disease and death: Compassionate advice from early Buddhist texts. Windhorse.
  • Blomstrom, M., Burns, A., Larriviere, D., & Penberthy, J. K. (2020). Addressing fear of death and dying: Traditional and innovative interventions. Mortality.
  • Buddhaghosa. (2010). The path of purification: Visuddhimagga. Buddhist Publication Society. (Original work published 500)
  • Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(2), 155–195.
  • Cacciatore, J., Thieleman, K., Osborn, J., & Orlowski, K. (2014). Of the soul and suffering: Mindfulness-based interventions and bereavement. Clinical Social Work Journal 42, 269–281.
  • Dalai Lama. (2004). Advice on dying: And living well by taming the mind. Rider.
  • Dhammapada. (n.d.). Verse 6. (Original work published 300). Retrieved from https://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/verseload.php?verse=006
  • Huang, F. Y., Hsu, A. L., Chao, Y. P., Shang, C. M. H., Tsai, J. S., & Wu, C. W. (2021). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on bereavement grief: Alterations of resting-state network connectivity associated with changes of anxiety and mindfulness. Human Brain Mapping 42, 510–520.
  • Huxter, M. (n.d.). Grief and the mindfulness approach: Death, dying and bereavement counselling. Buddhanet.net. Accessed from http://www.buddhanet.net/psygrief.htm
  • Levine, S. (1997). A year to live: How to live this year as if it was your last. Bell Tower.
  • Moon, H. G. (2019). Mindfulness of death as a tool for mortality salience induction with reference to terror management theory. Religions 10(6), 353.
  • Rosenberg, L. (1994). Shining the light of death on life: Maranasati meditation (Part I)Insight Journal, Spring. Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Retrieved from https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/shining-the-light-of-death-on-life-maranasati-meditation-part-i/
  • Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Mindfulness of death. Mindfulness5, 464–466.
  • Stella, M. (2016). Befriending death: A mindfulness-based approach to cultivating self-awareness in counselling students, Death Studies 40(1), 32–39.
  • Taylor, S. (2016). Mortality and mindfulness: How intense encounters with death can generate spontaneous mindfulness. In I. Ivtzan & T. Lomas (Eds.), Mindfulness in positive psychology: The science of meditation and wellbeing (pp. 126–140). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

About the Author

Jo Nash, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and writing coach. Jo obtained her Ph.D. in Psychotherapy Studies from the University of Sheffield, where she was a Lecturer in Mental Health at the Faculty of Medicine for over a decade. Today, Jo combines her passion for language with mindfulness skills when coaching writers to help them cultivate flow and optimize productivity. She is the creator of the ‘focused flow’ approach to writing coaching.

Comments

  1. Mark--Hutt Bennett

    First of all, I thank you with great gratitude for this blog. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I’ve had a number of these intuitive experiences just today. My first experience with death was at age 18. It was my stepfather, an Air Force veteran. After several months of therapies to combat four-stage Hodgins, he laid in the I. C. U., unconscious with no hope of survival. My immediate reaction on seeing him in this condition, was it was totally wrong. They were keeping him alive like a vegetable. Bob Border had no hope of surviving. Gratefully, I was able to convince my mother something needed to be done right away. She initially disagreed with me. Ultimately, she understood agreeing speak to the doctor the next morning. Had I not done this, who knows how long he would have been kept alive in this condition. He died the next day. Without a doubt, my persistence and actions we’re able to hasten his death and remove him from suffering.
    After my mother spoke with the doctor, he agreed having certain medical procedures removed. 12 hours later he died. While we sat in the waiting room at Moffett Field Hospital, medical personnel informed us he was very close to passing. Shortly after that. the nurse reented informing us he was gone. I immediately broke out sobbing. This huge wave of emotion washed over me. It was the realization I’d never see him again. That’s when I realized just how much I really love him. Oh how so much I’d wished I realized this the before he was gone. But I hadn’t. It was too late. It hurt so much.
    That was several decades ago. Now I’m in my sixties and just very recently retired. I see my own mortality now getting closer. Fortunately, is not new for me. I’ve contemplated my own death many times. Over all those decades, I’ve experienced numerous deaths of friends along with several in my own family. The death of my stepfather at 18 has given me the ability to be of service in anyway I can to friends and many family members. Either before or at the time of their actual passing. Sincerely, I’ve reflected on this ability. Continually I’m grateful, that I can compassionately be of service to these loved ones at the time of their dying. Now presently, a long time friend and neighbor of 20 years named Steven, is scheduled for transplant surgery on November 18th. A better person than myself to share this death meditation process with is Steven’s daughter. She has a degree in medicine. My intention is to share and ask her to read this blog being better able determine and decide if this would be something accepting and beneficial for her father. There’s only a few more days before the surgery, so I need to reach out to her as soon as I can. That’s my reaction to this blog on dieing. I going to pray and visualize Steven being wholly open thus benefiting greatly to this blog. That’s how important and beneficial it is to me. If so desired, I’d be more than happy to share the outcome.
    Great Thanks again.
    Mark-Hutt Bennett

    Reply

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