How Contemplating Death Can Improve Your Life
In recent months, death has suddenly become more visible.
The Covid-19 pandemic has confronted us worldwide with the fragility of our existence. We’ve lost loved ones, gotten sick ourselves, or just spent months indoors trying to slow the spread of this potentially fatal disease.
The disease has also impacted people of color in the US more strongly, which has given added urgency to movements for racial justice catalyzed by visible police killings of Black people. These powerful protest movements highlight that everyone does not experience this fragility equally; that some of us may feel it in every encounter we have with the police, while others do not; that some of us can access top-quality healthcare, while others cannot.
But death has always been there.
If your life were a story in a newspaper, a truthful headline would be “You Are Going to Die”. Perhaps in smaller font, it would add “And You Don’t Know When or How.”
Everything else could be further down in the story. But we spend most of our energy paying attention to minor stuff, ignoring the giant truth that sits behind the screen of our delusion.
The truth is that from the day that you are born, the one thing you can know for sure about your life is that it will end. You don’t know about your love life, fortune or health, but you can be certain that sooner or later you will die. Everybody else’s life has come to that same conclusion, no matter how rich, good-looking, famous or successful they were; all heads of state, movie stars and billionaires have eventually died, as have all the meditation masters that have ever lived.
So it seems likely that you will not be the one exception in all of history.
And yet, death is still something that most of us ignore or block out of our consciousness. We carry on with an assumption about how long we will live, but the truth is that we do not know when or how our life, or others’ lives, will end.
And then death shows up unexpectedly.
Before the pandemic, a young friend of mine died suddenly. She seemed perfectly healthy and happy, but then never woke up from sleep. It was a shock for many of us, but also a reminder about the inescapable truth of death. Because none of us had expected her to die then, some people had regrets about things they had said or done (or neglected to say or do) while she was alive. How would we have acted differently had we known that the last time we saw her would really be the last time ever?
In many contemplative traditions, it’s recommended that we spend time every day reflecting on death to help us to remember. This is not to be gruesome or to scare us, but to help us live our lives in a thoughtful way, and to help us realize the truth of the body.
How might this work? You could take time every morning to reflect, “My body will surely die sometime, but I don’t know when.” Or, “Like everyone, I also am going to die. I don’t know how or when.” You could even try it right now. Say this in your own words and really let it sink in.
Notice the emotions this brings up -- perhaps a sense of urgency, or maybe a sense of compassion for those who face greater risks than you do. Notice how this impacts your sense of priorities.
You can also reflect on this truth about people you know and care for, that their lives are also certainly going to end. Notice how this changes your thoughts towards them, or what seems important in your relationship.
If we do this kind of reflection regularly, we might live in a different way. We might be more deliberate in our own lives, and dedicated to erasing the injustice and inequality that others have to face.
We are all fragile creatures whose time on the planet is limited and unknown. Perhaps contemplating death in this way will help you be more forgiving and grateful. We can connect with the poignancy and beauty of our lives, spend our precious limited time wisely, and treat people in ways that we will not later regret.
By acknowledging that death is the inevitable “headline” you can make the story of your life more real and live with integrity and presence.
Anushka Fernandopulle teaches meditation, works as an organizational consultant, and does leadership coaching with individuals and teams. She has practiced meditation for over 25 years, including four years in full-time intensive training in monasteries and retreat centers in the US, India and Sri Lanka. Her work is informed by a BA in anthropology/religion from Harvard University, an MBA from Yale, and certification in coaching from the Coaches Training Institute.