Count Backwards from Ten…

I recently watched a TV-series that ends heroically with the protagonist accepting being killed to save millions of lives.1 She walked down to a river to revel in a beautiful natural spot she enjoyed since she was little and then proceeded to count backwards from ten, visualizing, with each number she counted, the family and friends—both from her present and past—that she loved and cared about, before, knowingly, being shot by a sniper.

I thought: what a beautiful way to focus on the beauty and joy of life, even at the moment of death. And not surprisingly, I thought about this while meditating the next day, and realized what a wonderful meditation it’d make. So I counted backward from ten, imagining the most poignant scenes of my life.

  1. Falling asleep next to my son when he was a toddler after a busy morning playing.
  2. Hugging that same little boy as he toddled out sweaty-headed from his nap. (He’d always sleep longer than me.)
  3. Laughing and joking with my wife when we were first dating.

And many others.

Some of these memories popped naturally into my mind. Others had to be called up a bit. Who do I care about? Who do I miss? My father took some time to draw back into my memory as it’s now been 17 years since he returned to the Earth. The recognition of that was painful but the memories, when nudged back into recall, were still sweet.

I also discovered what happens when you tell yourself not to think of white bears (a topic I remember studying back in social psychology class in the 90s). I thought briefly about more difficult interactions with those loved ones when part of my mind prompted me to do so. But as with white bears, it’s important not to fixate on trying not to think about these, but to simply guide the mind to think about something else, in this case positive memories.

The wonderful thing is I’ve now done this meditation several times and a variety of memories surfaced each time. Playing games with friends, time with my sister, talks with my mom, and many others.

A peaceful place to count backwards from ten. (Image from Adrian Campfield via Pixabay)

The Bardo and our brief journey through it

This meditation also got me thinking about the Bardo Thodol, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead—and particularly the 30-year old documentary film about Tibetan death rites of that name. This has been influential in shaping how I see the dying process. Traditionally, Tibetans read to the corpse of loved ones, for several days—often until the body starts leaking fluids from the head, a sign of the passage through the bardo (the interval between death and rebirth). During that time, monks take turn reading from a copy of the Bardo Thodol (which actually means Liberation through Hearing During the Intermediate State), describing the journey to the next life. Here are a few excerpts:

“O Son of noble family…. you are not alone in leaving this world. Everyone who has come before you has died. You can no longer stay here…. Now I will abandon clinging to this body and to this world. I will go forward. I will abandon fear and terror. I will recognize whatever appears as a projection of my own mind.”

“Recognize that any mental image, pictures which occur, are of your own creation. Maintain that recognition and you will achieve liberation.”

Even after the body is gone and cremated (typically around a week),2 the reading of the Bardo Thodol continues for a total of 45 days. On Day 9, the monks read, “Do not be afraid, recognize them [the wrathful deities] as projections of your own mind. Do not be afraid for they are your innate wakefulness.”

A Tibetan monk reads the Bardo Thodol to a deceased man.

The monks explain that on average, it takes a person 45 days to find a new being to enter, hence why the reading continues.3 But my deeper analysis of why the reading continues so long after death is that it’s not about the dead, but the living. The process prepares those listening—from elders to children—for their own moment of death, and how to focus on the positive. Look at the words read: Whatever appears is a projection of your own mind—if you can recognize that you will achieve liberation.

In other words, during the death process, in which one most likely has intense dreams in the last moment of brain activity,4 if you are afraid or angry, if you are clinging to life, if you are resisting death, you may encounter nightmares. If you can accept death, if you can reflect on the beauty of life, the relationships that sustained you, those who love you, and let that all go, your transition can be a peaceful one.

These wrathful and peaceful deities are manifestations of your own consciousness, primed by years of readings of the Bardo Thodol. Recognizing they’re just manifestations brings you liberation. (Tibetan Illustration from Wikipedia)

Of course, I’m a “This is our only conscious stage of life just like all other animals” kind of guy, so the transition I refer to is the return to Gaia. To dissolve into a goo that will sustain the next generations of life. To reenter your bigger self, Gaia, albeit sans consciousness. But I do believe if your death isn’t immediate, that there will be a brief time of dreams.4 Hell equals fixating on scary, painful thoughts as you die. Heaven is focusing on the good as you go. The recent scene from the show I mentioned captured a simple and accessible way for anyone to practice conditioning one’s mind to focus on the good. And in the film, the Dalai Lama even says, “I will face a terrible situation [death], and knowing it, prepare for it, then when that happens, you’re already prepared for it, so it’s much easier to happen.” He then laughed saying that when he thinks about death, he sometimes gets excited to see “whether I can utilize these practices fully at that moment or not.”

So I invite you to try counting down from ten, visualizing the best moments of your life, the interactions you had with friends, families, and nature. For me, as I practiced this meditation additional times, karate popped in there too. Chatting and sipping beers with my cousin, and many other things. Even, strangely, meditating in nature—which risked creating a positive feedback loop that triggered a state of catatonic nirvana—but I shook it off, not quite being ready to be an enlightened one! So give this simple meditation a try and see whether this offers you the calm it did for me.


1) I won’t say which one so as to avoid spoilers. Though if you really want to know, click here.

2) According to the documentary, the reason Buddhists cremate is to prevent both the family from holding attachment to their deceased loved one, and the deceased from staying attached to this life. Another striking difference with Gaianism. Staying attached, connected to one’s lost loved ones is a good thing, to celebrate and commemorate their lives, to mourn them, to remember them, to plant them in the soil so new life—a multitude of new life—grows from their physical remains. That feels far more right than incinerating loved ones’ remains (not even considering the ecological positives of green burial versus cremation).

3) I guess, if it takes you longer, you’re on your own!

4) Weird personal story: when I was a boy, at camp (a Christian camp actually), kids showed me how to make myself pass out (which I learned later is a dangerous practice). The dreams in those moments of shutdown were intense and garbled, but surely similar to other times when your brain is suddenly starved of oxygen.

Bonus Endnote: One more essay on dying that I share here, that if you haven’t read, you may value.

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