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Mindfulness and Death

Ironically, awareness of death can sharply improve your quality of life.

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Death is a taboo topic. It honestly feels risky writing about this; I have no idea how readers will respond. That said, it's worth considering. One of my favorite lessons on Dr. Sam Harris' Waking Up app is his lesson on death. He brings to mind that death pokes fun at everything we do and care about. It makes itself present in all of our lives whether we talk about it or not. We can’t avoid it; it really is the only certainty in our lives. It perpetually broadcasts itself to us all the time; in the news, in the lives of ailing friends, colleagues, and family. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that you spend a substantial portion of your day attempting to stay alive; when you cross the street, when you avoid texting and driving, and when you schedule a doctor's appointment when you’re worried about something in your body.

The good news is that awareness of death is a potent doorway into mindfulness and gratitude. When you know there will be a last time you do everything, that your days are numbered, that there’s a clock that you can’t see ticking your life away, you really can savor the most mundane and even unpleasant of tasks, and embody an ontological mode of being.

Two years ago, my dear aunt died from cancer. My parents told me she was there when I was born and held me minutes after I exited my mother's womb. I have special memories of staying with her from when I was two to five years old, all the way to discussing my pending transition to study at the University of Georgia for a year in 2015. Chemotherapy was no match for the stage 4 cancer and 10 weeks before she passed, she made a conscious choice to surrender to her destiny and fade away peacefully in her home with her husband, away from hospitals and aggressive medical treatments. Never before had I confronted the fragility and temporary nature of life. I had lost my grandparents over a decade ago, and while it hurt, it did feel like losing them was naturally part of the life cycle. My aunt, on the other hand, only 63 years old, was the healthiest person you could meet. She exercised often, meditated regularly, ate healthfully, and had an extremely deep and loving bond with my uncle. Her death led me to examine my own mortality; I too, just like everyone else, will die. I will lose everyone I love, and you will too.

I know this is not a comfortable reality, but awareness of this has the potential to powerfully transform your life. A long-time Buddhist monk and scholar, Sogyal Rinpoche, put me a little more at ease with this quote, which I'll never forget:

"When we finally know we are dying, and all other beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings."

I want to live every day with this in mind and hold this close in all my interactions with others. How would you respond differently to being stuck in traffic, when you’re acutely aware that you, everyone you love, and all the other disgruntled drivers around you, will die? Whose struggles may be surprisingly comparable to your own? What about waiting in line at the DMV or airport security? How will your irate indignation transform when you’re deeply in touch with the fleeting preciousness of every moment and life's inherent impermanence?

Mindfulness practice can produce this type of transformative awareness. To put this into practice, the next time you find yourself in an ordinarily frustrating situation, pause for a few seconds to notice what’s happening in your body, feelings, and mind. Then, purposely consider how your future self, when close to death, would have wanted you to respond to this precise moment. What would your future self tell you? Can you picture them? What’s their nugget of wisdom and perspective for you? And if you let it sink in, how does it feel? How does your body respond to your future self's wisdom? This can quickly and powerfully change the quality of your mind, awareness, perspective, and attention.

This post is for educational purposes and is not meant to substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.