Death: The Greatest Teacher


The Buddha said the greatest of all teachings is impermanence. Its final expression is death. Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains why our awareness of death is the secret of life. It’s the ultimate twist.

“Laughing in the Face of Stupidity,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”


Whether we fight it, deny it, or accept it, we all have a relationship with death. Some people have few encounters with death as they are growing up, and it becomes personal for them only as they age and funerals begin to outnumber weddings. Others grow up in violent surroundings where sudden death is common, or see a family member die of a fatal illness. Many of us have never seen a person die, while people who work in hospitals and hospices see the realities of death and dying every day. But whether death is something distant for us or we are in the thick of it, it haunts and challenges us.

Death is a strong message, a demanding teacher. In response to death’s message, we could shut down and become more hardened. Or we could open up, and become more free and loving. We could try to avoid its message altogether, but that would take a lot of effort, because death is a persistent teacher.

Teacher death met up with us the minute we were born, and is by our side every moment of our life. What death has to teach us is direct and to the point. It is profound but intimate. Death is a full stop. It interrupts the delusions and habits of thought that entrap us in small-mindedness. It is an affront to ego.

Death is a fact. Our challenge is to figure out how to deal with it, because it is never a good plan to struggle against or deny reality. The more we struggle against death, the more resentment we have and the more we suffer. We take a painful situation and through our struggles add a whole new layer of pain to it.

We cannot avoid death, but we can change how we relate to it. We can take death as a teacher and see what we can learn from it.

“Laughing in the Face of Pride,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

Facts are facts: everyone is going to die sooner or later. No magic trick or spiritual gimmick will make it go away. Distancing ourselves from death or putting off thinking about it does not work.

I have noticed that the more distant we are from death, the more fear arises. Death becomes alien, other, scary, mysterious. People who work regularly with the dying, who are closer to death, seem to have less fear.

We each have our own unique relationship with death, our own particular history and circumstances, but one way or another we all relate to death. The question is: how do we relate with this reality and how does this color our lives? It is possible to come to terms with the fact of death in a way that enriches our lives, but to learn from death we must be willing to take a dispassionate look at our experiences and preconceptions.

Reflecting on our own mortality and the reality of death is practiced in many contemplative traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, the contemplation of death is said to be the “supreme contemplation.” It encompasses reflecting not only on physical mortality, but on impermanence in all its dimensions.

By means of meditation and by developing an ongoing awareness of death, we can change our relationship with death and thereby change our relationship with life. We can see that death is not just something that pops up at the end of life, but is inseparably linked with our life moment to moment, from the beginning to the end.  We can see that death is not just a final teacher. It is available to teach us here and now.

When we contemplate in this way, our many schemes for getting around the reality of death, such as coming up with interpretations to make it more palatable, are exposed one by one and demolished. Death is the great interrupter, unreasonable and nonnegotiable. No amount of cleverness will make it otherwise.

Contemplating death is not an easy practice. It is not merely conceptual. It stirs things up. It evokes emotions of love, sorrow, fear, and longing. It brings up anger, disappointment, regret, and groundlessness. How tender it is to reflect on the many losses we have experienced and will experience in the future. How poignant it is to reflect on life’s fleeting quality.

How we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.

In this practice, we deliberately bring our attention back again and again to our relationship with death. We examine what we mean by death and what it brings up for us. We reflect on our experiences and reactions to it.

It is a bit like going for marriage counseling. “When did you two first meet? Tell me a little about your history. Do you spend much time together? What is it about him or her that has offended you? How do you see your relationship moving forward?” You could say that death is your most intimate partner. It is with you all the time, completely interwoven into your daily activities. Since that is the case, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to make a relationship with it?

But our relationship with death is not that simple. In order to understand it, we need to slow down and systematically examine our ideas about it, what it brings up for us, and what it means to us. Death stirs up all kinds of thoughts. And hidden within those clouds of thoughts is a small, unspoken, deep-rooted, yet persistent notion—that we will come through it intact, as though we could come to our own funeral.

The more closely you look into all these ideas, the more you see how inadequate the conceptual mind is in the face of death. Nonetheless, how we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.

Contemplative practice challenges us to look deeply into our thoughts and beliefs, our fantasies and presumptions, and our hopes and fears. It challenges us to separate what we have been told from what we ourselves think and experience. We have all kinds of thoughts about what happens when we die and how we and others should relate with death, but through meditation we learn to recognize thoughts as thoughts. We learn not to mistake these thoughts and ideas about death for direct knowledge or experience. We learn not to believe everything we think or everything we have been told.

“Laughing in the Face of Attachment,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

We are in a dance with death at all levels, and each level influences and is influenced by the others. We are influenced by what we have been told about death and dying, by our personal history, by our cultural biases, and by what we have observed. We are also influenced by inner habits of thought and conditioned responses. Our most subtle views and reactions to impermanence may be quite hidden, but they touch on our view of life altogether, and on our personal identity.

If we want to understand our relationship with death, we need to explore its broader as well as its more subtle dimensions. If we are willing to take an honest look at how we personally deal with this reality, we can develop a deeper understanding of impermanence and even befriend it.

One way to begin is by reflecting on your personal history with death. What have you been told about death? What are some of your earliest experiences of it?

In my case, when I was about five, I was told my babysitter had died, and that was it. For me, she just disappeared, and children did not go to funerals. A bit later, when my aunt died, I was told that she would go to heaven, a very beautiful place. But I didn’t think people really believed that, because all I saw were people upset and crying. When pets died, I was told they “went to sleep.” It didn’t look like sleep to me.

As a child, I observed that dead animals did not breathe or move about like live ones. I saw that they shriveled up and began to smell funny, or were squashed beyond recognition. I saw that dogs hit by cars screamed in pain and that animals looked sick before they died. I saw that people became old and frail. I saw that when you killed a bug, you could not make it come back to life, even if you felt sorry. My friends and I thought it was funny to sing ditties, like “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…”  Death was not that real to us; we made it into a joke.

I observed many such things on an outer level, but on an inner level, I did not have a clue as to what death was about or what it all meant. I did not know how to make sense of it, or to link it to other experiences in my life.

Death is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.

In our encounter with mortality, it is this inner dimension, the relationship dimension, that we need to explore. It becomes obvious that to get to a more uncluttered relationship with death, we first need to plow through a surprising number of ideas, presumptions, and speculations, some of which are very deep-rooted. Through this process, we can become aware of the many concepts that are floating around in us, and try to figure out where they come from and what effect they have on us.

When we look into where all this comes from, we encounter a paradox. We usually consider death to be the end, but it begins to seem that death is in fact the beginning. It is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.

We can begin our exploration right where we are. We have already been born, we are alive, and we have not yet died. Now what? We might connect to our life in terms of a story or a history. For instance, we were born in such and such a time and place, we did this and that, and we have a particular label and identity. But that story is always changing and in process; it is not all that reliable. However, when our story is combined with a physical body, we seem to have something more solid, a complete package. We have something to hang onto and defend. We have something that can be taken away.

But what do we have to hang onto, really? Our story is not that solid. It is always being revised and rewritten. Likewise, our body is not one solid continuous thing. It too is always changing. If you look for the one body that is you, you cannot find it.

The closer you look, the less solid this whole thing seems. When we investigate our actual experience, here and now, moment by moment, we see how fleeting and dynamic it is. As soon as we notice a thought, feeling, or sensation, it has already happened. Poof! It is the same with the act of noticing. Poof! Gone! And the noticer, the one who is noticing, is nowhere to be found. Poof! When we contemplate in this way, we begin to suspect that this life is not all that solid—that we are not all that solid.

This may seem like bad news, but in fact this discovery is of supreme importance. As we begin to see through our mythical solidity, we also begin to notice all sorts of little gaps in our conceptual schemes. We notice little tastes of freedom and ease in which our struggle to be someone dissolves, and we just are. In such moments, at least briefly, we are not being propelled by either hope or fear. We see that continually holding onto life and warding off death as a future threat is not our only option. There is an alternative to our tight-jawed habit of holding on and defending.

After each little insight or pause, there is a regrouping, and we find ourselves reconstructing our world. Each time we put it back together, we are also putting together the threat that it cannot be maintained. We do this over and over again. We are repetitively and continuously fueling the pretense of solidity and the fear of death that comes with it.

To undo this harmful habit, we need to see it more clearly. We need to recognize that we ourselves are responsible for perpetuating it, and therefore we have the power to stop.

“Laughing in the Face of Jealousy,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

In looking at the seeds of our relationship to life  and death at a subtle inner level, we uncover how we set  ourselves up for a struggle with death from the beginning—at the very personal level of identity and self-definition.

The more solidly we construct ourselves, and the more rigidly we identify with this construct, the more we have to defend and the more we have to fear. Looking at death in terms of such subtle underlying patterns may seem inconsequential, but it is not.

When we drop the battlefield approach—that life and death are enemies—we become open to an entirely new way of viewing things. Instead of this vs. that, us vs. them, something much more inspiring can take place. Experiences can arise freshly because they are immediately let go. Because they are dropped as soon as they arise, there is nothing to hold onto and nothing to lose.  There is no battlefield, no winner and loser, no good guy and bad guy.

Simple formless meditation is a very powerful tool for relaxing this pattern of holding and defending. Working with death through our awareness of momentary arisings and dissolvings is a profound practice. It shows us that the life–death boundary is an ongoing and quite ordinary experience, and that this unsettling meeting point colors all that we do. If we can become more grounded at this level, we can become more open to what death has to teach us altogether.

Although death is an ongoing reality, there are times when it hits us particularly hard. It may be when we have a health scare or a near accident. At such times, we really wake up to the presence of death, and its teachings come through loud and clear. The heart pounds, the senses are heightened, and we feel extra alive. There is a stillness, as though time had stopped.

When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.

Times like this are so simple and straightforward, so immediate. “This is it,” we think. “It’s actually happening.” In such moments, the heightening of our awareness of death simultaneously heightens our feeling of being alive.

In fact, in the face of death, we feel more fully alive than ever. We are shocked into thinking more seriously about what to do with the time that we have. Usually, though, we don’t maintain that awareness, and the feeling of heightened aliveness fades away. We revert to the default pattern of avoiding death, and, along with that, our dulled down approach to life.

Maintaining an awareness of death makes life more vivid. In the light of death, petty concerns fall away and our usual preoccupations become meaningless. It is as though clouds of dust that have covered over something shiny and vivid have been blown away, and we are left with something raw, immediate, and beautiful. We have insight into what matters and what does not.

Awareness of death—hearing its teaching—cuts through the subtle clinging at the core of our experience. It cuts through our self-clinging and our clinging to others. This may sound harsh, but all that clinging has not really helped us or anyone else. Our clinging to others may have the appearance of real caring, but it is based on fear and an attempt to freeze and control life. It is a way of tuning out death and pulling back from the intensity of life. But if we develop more ease with our own impermanence and struggles with death, we can be more understanding of others and their struggles. We can connect with one another with greater genuineness and warmth.

Death turns out to be the teacher who releases us from fear. It’s the teacher that opens our hearts to a more free-flowing love and appreciation for life and one another. When we get stuck in self-importance and earnestness, death steps in. When we get caught in self-pity, death steps in. When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.

Death spurs us forward with a sense of urgency and puts our preoccupations in perspective. Death lightens our clinging and mocks our pretensions. Death wakes us up. It is our most reliable teacher and most constant companion.

Complete Article HERE!


Join Me on The Death Chicks Crowdcast Show


I’m going to be a guest on The Death Chicks Show!

09/10/15, Noon Pacific and 3pm Eastern

(Does that make me a death dude?  I’ll have to ask them.)

Who here is an expert in ACTUALLY dying???

Have you done it?

To achieve expert status, one usually has to be proficient in something or have done something over and over again.  Hmmm… kind of tough with the death thing”, eh?.  Even those who have had near death experiences are still amateurs in a way– because they’re back!  They didn’t do it right the first time! 😉

This is why we LOVE the title of this book and the work that Richard Wagner, PhD has been doing for the last 30 years.  Since we are all amateurs at “the death thing”, there is actually a road map for those who are dying and will be dying.  Is that you?

Richard Wagner, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist/sex therapist in private practice in Seattle, WA, 1981 to present.  He has AGDD_front coverover 30 years of experience working with terminally ill, chronically ill, elder, and dying people in hospital, hospice, and home settings.  He facilitates support groups for care-providers as well as healing and helping professionals.  He provides grief counseling for survivors both individually and in groups settings. He is the Founder of PARADIGM/Enhancing Life Near Death, a cutting edge, health related nonprofit organization.

Dr. Wagner was awarded the prestigious University of California, San Francisco Chancellor’s Award for Public Service in 1999 for this very work.

He is also the author of Longfellow And The Deep Hidden Woods, a critically acclaimed children’s book that touches upon the topics of death and bereavement.

Dr. Wagner was born in Chicago and grew up in Niles, Illinois, a Northwest suburb. He left home to attend the seminary after high school and graduated from Oblate College in Washington, DC in 1972. He moved to Oakland, California in 1972 and studied at The Jesuit School of Theology (part of the Graduate Theological Union) in Berkeley.  He was ordained as a priest in November, 1975 and obtained his Ph.D. in 1981. Dr. Wagner lived in Oakland until 1978 and moved to San Francisco until 1999.  He then relocated to Seattle, Washington where he lives today.

Richard can be reached at http://theamateursguide.com

+The Death Chicks   show was created to shine light on the tabooed topics of death, dying, grief, and loss.  We’re listening to all perspectives and having the conversations that we as human beings who live and die on this earth, need to have, without fear of judgement.

+Patty Burgess Brecht   is the President of Possibility for Doing Death Differently and Teaching Transitions.  She is an End-of-Life Educator and Certified Grief Recovery Specialist.  She is the developer of the End of Life Specialist Training and Certification (CEOLS), and teaches individuals and organizations how to Do Death Differently by not being overwhelmed or afraid of death, but to seek and experience the joy, the passion, and the even the exhilaration inherent in the honor of BEing with the dying.  Her video-based, online, inspiring course is used in hospices, hospitals, home care, colleges and universities across the country and is now open to individuals who are drawn to this work.

www.doingdeathdifferently.com – for Individuals
www.teachingtransitions.com – Hospices and Colleges/Universities

+Myste Lyn  is an Empowerment Coach who specializes in supporting women recovering from loss.  Myste is an intuitive healer who reconnects women with their inner place of peace.  She specializes in reducing fears, alleviating guilt, and creating inner confidence.  http://www.bittersweetblessing.com/

Join  on Thursdays Noon Pacific and 3pm Eastern.

As we like to say NO ONE is getting out of this gig alive!   So we may as well talk about, learn about it, plan for it, lean into it, and feel comfortable with it when it is our time or the time of our loved ones.

Please share and help us get the word out!

Can you think of someone:

  • who is facing their own death and might be comforted by a roadmap
  • who is burdened by very heavy feelings, and could use some help re-entering life after a death?

If you do, please pass this invitation on (or after the fact, recording…).

You never know when a suggestion out of the blue from YOU, can give another a reason to go on.  This could make a true difference for another. And there are people, only a mouse click away to with whom to connect and share.

The new crowdcast app lets you watch the show from Facebook, Twitter, or simply sign in via email, and of course you can always watch it from this page or YouTube.  For those not on Google plus, they can watch it from where ever they are happiest!  Find your happy place here:

See you there!



The Amateurs Guide to Death and Dying: A Truly Aventurous Way to Explore Your Mortality


Thu, September 10, Noon Pacific and 3pm Eastern

Hangouts On Air – Broadcast for free

Book Review — The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life


I am delighted to share with you a very thoughtful and reflective review of my book. This review appears in The Natural Transitions Magazine, which is available in both hard copy and E-version. To get your copy visit HERE!



By Lee Webster

What does it mean to die a good death? Sure, we all have a fair idea of the self-explanatory concept, but have we really thought out the nuts and bolts of it? Have we taken the time or made the effort in a clear, compassionate, and all-encompassing way to envision our own end or the end of a loved one?

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life is not a book for a good night’s read, cozying up to the fire. In fact, it’s not exactly a book at all in the conventional sense. Wagner begins by introducing the reader to ten characters who make up an imaginary death and dying support group. Each has his or her own baggage, concerns, fears, and life experiences.AGDD_front cover

In ten weeks—ten chapters—each expresses valuable and, at times, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the group, while exploring the issues of death and dying. Wagner then invites the reader to participate in the virtual group, to write in an included workbook, and do check-ins, exercises, and homework that have been designed to stimulate the reader’s personal thoughts and observations while sharing in the struggles and epiphanies expressed by characters in the book.

For many of us, the prospect of facing our own mortality and that of those we love within a real group setting would be excruciating. The Amateur’s Guide makes a fictitious group event into a supported solitary pursuit, allowing the reader to wade through difficult emotional waters at his or her own pace, and to linger with thoughts and insights while simultaneously “observing” the reactions of other participants in the group—all on paper. It’s a unique approach to self-exploration within community.

“All of this,” Wagner writes, “is designed to help make the end of life less of an intimidating process and more of a rich, poignant transition.”

Written in an engaging, deeply human style, the characters come to life through both burdens and revelations. They remind us of the vastly different roles our families play in forming our outlook and capacity for internalizing and coping with our own deaths. They remind us that our historical and cultural context has formed our attitudes towards death and that a renegotiation is required if we are not comfortable with the prevailing messages.

They remind us that as much as we say we live in a death-defying culture, we spend an awful lot of time flirting with death. And that love becomes the intrinsic focus of the death experience—whether love is or was present becomes paramount in defining our relationship to death, both personally and universally.

There is no limit to the reminders provided in this book that will potentially bring readers into sharper consciousness regarding mortality and, more importantly, help integrate a deeper understanding of death into our waking lives through faithful participation in this valuable process.

The many practical (telling someone where to find the keys) and spiritual (are you in a right relationship with yourself, friends, family, God?) topics are presented to help center the reader on what is important in the moment to mindfully prepare for death. The exercises Wagner offers are worth the time and effort. After all, what other resource is likely to provide an opportunity to write your own obituary?


Lee Webster writes from her home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She is a frequent public speaker on the benefits of home funerals and green burial, a freelance writer, conservationist, gardener, quilt maker, and hospice volunteer.

Contact Lee at

Be sure to visit our colleagues at Natural Transitions and support their work.


Mitch Carmody’s Review


I’m honored to share with you a remarkable new review of my book by an equally remarkable man, Mitch Carmody, CGSP. He is the author of Letters to My Son, turning loss to legacy.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life
By Richard Wagner, Ph.D., ACS

I found Dr. Wagner’s book to be an incredible expose’ on the processes and mythologies of death and dying in a modern world. It was wonderful, refreshing, educational and enlightening, as well as entertaining.AGDD_front cover

The colorful cast of round table characters that he created from a compilation of real life people is quite remarkable; by the end of the book I had my favorite personas that I could not wait to hear from. The book engages you right from the get go and maintains that momentum throughout its pages. It made me laugh, it made me cry; it validated and put into simple words so may ideologies that I subscribe to in processes grief and facing one owns mortality.

This book is perfect for those individuals that may not like to attend or who are unable to attend a support group. For people faced with their own impeding death, this book is a brilliant concept. It allows for group interaction without actually being present.

This book is not only great for the dying and terminally ill but for caregiver, family and clergy who serve their needs. I highly endorse it and would recommend it to anyone seeking theological enlightenment. We are all amateurs when it comes to death and dying, for ourselves or those whom we love. Reading this book gives one encouragement to step outside the box of accepted social mores about death and dying and I believe can truly enhance the end of life for those faced with their own death. A great read for anyone; not one of us will escape from the eventual reality of our own death or those whom we love. This book can prepare us.

Mitch Carmody, CGSP
Author of Letters to My Son, turning loss to legacy
Creator of Proactive Grieving ©

Heartlight Studios


On The Radio with Chris MacLellan — Tuesday, 01/08/13


I’m delighted to announce that I will be sharing the airwaves with my friend and colleague, Chris MacLellan, from Be A Healthy Caregiver fame.  We’ll be on blogtalkradio Tuesday, 01/08/13 at 1:00pm eastern time and 10:00am west coast time.

Find all the information HERE!

Come and join the conversation; you’ll be so glad you did!

And be sure to visit Chris on his site, The Purple Jacket and follow him on Twitter @TheBowTieGuy.

See Ya Tuesday!

healthy caregiver


The Midwest Book Review Review


I am so pleased to announce The Midwest Book Review review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death And Dying.

Thank you, Mr. Cox and your staff, for this wonderful review. We can’t think of a better holiday gift than a superlative review.




None of Us Get Out of Here Alive


Another wonderful review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life has appeared. This time the review comes from my colleague, the very talented author, Mikaya Heart. Her review appears on the Blogging Authors website.

Click on the Blogging Authors’ banner above for the full review.

In our society, death is a taboo subject, and many people won’t talk about it at all. I’ve always been fascinated with the process of dying, and how someone’s energy remains after they die, often affecting us on a deep level. I recently read a great book on the subject by Richard Wagner. A gay man, an ex-Catholic priest, and a psychotherapist, Richard was first exposed to the process of dying during the AIDS epidemic in the early eighties when his friends were dying in droves. I won’t say any more about his own journey since it’s all in the book, but rest assured—he knows what he’s talking about. As he says, none of us will get out of here alive—so let’s talk about how to make that process of transition easier.

Richard started a group called Paradigm specifically designed to help sick, elder and dying people and their friends and families avoid the kind of nightmares that he had seen repeated again and again, based on society’s phobia about death. Perceiving that basic information is being withheld from dying people, he ran countless groups on death and dying in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has helped thousands of individuals over the years. He took groups of ten people for ten weeks, inviting various experts to come and give presentations on different aspects of what is involved in dying: legalities such as wills and executors; talking to one’s family and friends; assisted dying; what to expect of your body as it gives up; spiritual aspects of dying, and other topics.

The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying is an in-depth account of one of these courses, profiling the ten people who attended it, each chapter covering a different week. Those ten fictional characters are, Richard says, “composites” of some of the real people who took his course over the years that he ran it. The reader gets to know the individuals very well (sometimes painfully well) throughout the course of the book, as they reveal their deepest inner fears in the safety of the group. They all become more familiar with the concept of death and how to deal with it. Some of them, interestingly, move further away from it, while some go the other way. They all become more empowered. This book is written from a personal perspective, which is essential for any good writing on such a personal subject. Richard deserves congratulations for being brave enough to deal with such a difficult topic in a very open, accepting and compassionate manner.

My only complaint is that I wanted more. Since this book is quite long enough as is, I hope that Richard and others will consider writing more books. Because, as a society, we have failed miserably in talking about the realities of death and dying, there is a great deal still to be discussed. How can relatives and friends help a person who is dying? Do dying people benefit from getting permission to die from those they are close to? How can we change our desperate need to hold on to what we call the state of living even when it is clearly time to let go? How can we learn to relate to the positive aspects of death? How does the energy of an individual affect us when they are no longer present in a body? Richard’s book touches on some of these very profound questions, but they (and many others) need to be addressed in greater depth.

Mikaya Heart is an award-winning author who writes on subjects as varied as orgasm, shamanism, sports, lesbianism, politics and travel. Her memoir, My Sweet Wild Dance, which won a Golden Crown Literary Award, was described as “soul-refreshment of the highest order.” Mikaya uses shamanic methods to teach people how to operate from a place of trust instead of fear.