Excerpted from "Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality" by kind permission of Shambhala Publications.

We could look at our life as a whole as a journey from our birth to our death, but we should not stop there; we could take a closer look. What is our experience of life right now? What is our experience of our life moment to moment? When we look into our immediate experience, we realize that not only is our life as a whole bounded by birth and death, but each moment within that journey is also bounded by birth and death. So it is not just at the end of our life that we encounter death; we are confronting death at every moment.

By Judith L. Lief

Death begins with ourselves. It is part of our life, a part of who we are. Much as we try to keep them apart, death and life cannot be separated; they are completely interwoven. So the boundary between death and life is present all the time, not just when we gasp our last breath. This may not be so hard to grasp intellectually, but experiencing it personally is another matter. It requires that we change our whole approach.

Cultivating an awareness of the immediacy of death is a threat to everything we hold dear. It is a threat to our self-image, to our attempt to make our world solid, to our sense of control, and to our desire to keep death as far from life as possible.

We have this notion of me and my solid life--here I am, "me," in my secure life--and somewhere on the border of that is this threatening thing called "death." There is this "me" that I know and love--and then there's "death," out to get me. Death is out there somewhere, in the distant future, hopefully--more hopefully still, it is way out in the very distant future! We think, "At some point--but not now!--I am going to have to relate to this thing, because I know it's out there, and eventually it's going to catch up with me."

It is as if our life were a line that grows longer and longer over time. Inch by inch, we fight to extend it, until eventually the Great Scissors comes and--chop!--that's the end of our particular line. We know that no matter how hard we try to extend our life, in the end it is a losing battle. But we are afraid to let down our guard. As a result, we freeze up, like old rusty engines in need of oil.

We maintain that frozen approach to life by distracting ourselves from our immediate experience. When we are not just zoning out, we keep ourselves occupied with thoughts of the past and future. We pile up memories--me when I was a child, me 20 years ago, me and all my little thoughts, me and my experiences of this and that. Then we drag all that along with us. Over time, we keep adding more stuff, more and more and more--and we are afraid to let go of any of it. By holding on to those memories, we try to keep what is already past alive.

It is not just at the end of our life that we encounter death; we are confronting death at every moment.