Birth and Death in Every Breath

When we practice mindfulness of breath, says Judy Lief, we connect to the reality that birth and death are happening in every moment.

Judy Lief
21 September 2021
Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes Exhibition, National Art Museum Of China, Beijing, China. Photo: TAO Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Buddhism teaches us that it’s very important to relate to the reality of death and prepare for the challenge of leaving this life. It may be hard to face up to the truth of impermanence, but to do so can be liberating. And the time to do it is right now!

When you meet your physical death, you are not going to die “then,” but “now.” Likewise, to prepare yourself for death, you need to do it here and now.

The simple bodily activity of breathing teaches us about dying — not only as a future possibility, but as a part of everything we do.

Mindfulness is a powerful method for connecting with that simple ground. It is a way of shifting your relationship to death. In mindfulness practice, you focus your attention on the breath as it comes in and out, as each breath arises and dissolves.

Mindfulness is simple, it is immediate, and it is embodied. Instead of musing about death as a future possibility, mindfulness confronts us with the experience of impermanence on the spot. It lays the ground for establishing an ongoing awareness of death as integral to life, not a threat from afar.

You don’t breathe in the future and you don’t breathe in the past. You’re always breathing in the present, which makes breath potent as an object of meditation practice. Breathing is dynamic, not static. On one hand, one breath follows another, over and over, all more or less the same. On the other hand, each breath is unique and happens just once. Over and out!

Like life, breathing seems to be continuous, but in fact it is not. In each breath cycle, the inbreath is birth, the outbreath is death, and the little period in between is life. In meditation, you tune into this arising and dissolving process over and over again, and so you become more and more familiar with it. With each breath, you are born and you die. With each breath, you let go and you allow something fresh and new to arise.

The simple bodily activity of breathing teaches us about dying—not only as a future possibility, but as a part of everything we do. Our breathing takes place within rivers of breath flowing continually among all living, breathing beings sharing one atmosphere. It connects us with the greater flow of living and dying beyond the personal.

Listen to the breath. It is direct teaching. No need for words.

Judy Lief

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of many books of teachings by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death. Her teachings and new podcast, “Dharma Glimpses,” are available at