A friend of mine recently heard these words from his doctor and has been living his last few months on this earth in this body. He is only 71 years old so he is not old, in fact he is only 13 years older than I am. I know him because although he lives in a house now, he has been a vandweller and still spends many months each year on wheels. He wrote a very interesting article for cheaprvliving about living in a vehicle and afterwards we became friends and our paths have crossed often in the last 5 years. He is a wonderful guy who has lived an amazing life to it’s fullest. Learning of his diagnosis brought the topic of death right to the forefront of my mind. For a very long time now, death has been a very important subject to me; in fact I consider it a life-changing topic that I guide my life by.
What about you, how would you feel if you heard a doctor say those words to you? Have you ever given death any thought? Our society so greatly fears and hates death that most of us do everything we can to insulate ourselves from it and pretend that it isn’t real and we are immune from it. I believe that is a tremendously unhealthy way to live and can lead to a sad and unhappy life, or at least I know it did for me.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ~Mark Twain
Nearly every primitive culture had a rite of passage for adolescent children where they went through some kind of near-death or painful experience before they were seen as adults and accepted as full members of adult society (see this site for 25 extreme examples of that: http://list25.com/25-crazy-rites-of-passage/ warning: some of them are truly horrible and not to be admired). Unfortunately, we no longer embrace death and look it straight in the face as most of our predecessors did; we do just the opposite; we hide from it and pretend it isn’t there and won’t happen to us. The result is the fear of death slowly creeps into every area of our lives and we live in terror of anything that may cause us discomfort and death. A life lived in fear is a truly miserable life; it was for me.
“Fear was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it.” ~Bill Wilson
I believe most of modern societies problems can be traced back to a wrong relationship with death. We should embrace it and allow it to be the motivating factor to live a full and happy life every single day that we have. But instead we cower in fear and hide from it doing everything we can to keep it far away from us. The result is that we don’t fully embrace life because doing so brings us closer to death or discomfort, our sworn enemies and source of our fears.
I lived my whole life in fear and because of that I was never happy. In fact by the time I was in my 40s I had concluded I was not happy and never would be happy. My only goal was to keep my unhappiness to a minimum and endure through life as best I could. I went through a very miserable mid-life crisis that forced me to make some changes. I found a spiritual program that promised to truly, deeply change my life. Because I was desperate to change I threw myself into it with my whole heart. During the process of following their path the day came when I came face-to-face with my own death. I totally imagined and visualized what it would be like to die just like to was literally happening to me. During my time in that program, my life totally changed, it performed an honest miracle in my life and I attribute much of that change to coming to grips with a healthy relationship with death.
In that program we were encouraged to study and find a religious path we could follow. I never adopted any one but instead I try to draw the best from each. The two that influence me most are Zen Buddhism and Native American spirituality, specifically the Lakota Sioux. Interestingly, they both place a heavy emphasis on embracing death as a part of life (your’ll find a link to both in just a minute). I’ve tried to follow their example by living every day of my life, and making all my decisions with my death in mind. It has been a North Star that I guide the ship of my life by.
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one. Let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it, let us have nothing more often in mind than death … we do not know where death awaits us so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom … a man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” ~Montaigne
This is the attitude I always try to maintain toward my death:
- I constantly try to bear in mind the Lakota saying attributed to Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn “Today is a Good Day to Die!”
- My death is much closer than I think and all the living I want to do, I need to do now. Tomorrow is not guaranteed!
- My life and my death will determine my future lives so I try to live and behave with as much compassion and empathy as I can every day.
- When I die, and people hear of my death, I want as many people as possible to say to themselves, “I’m sorry to hear he’s gone, he was one of the good ones.” And as few as possible to say, “Good riddance!”
My path was unique to me and so each of you is going to have to follow your own path to a right relationship with death. Fortunately, I don’t think you have to do any of the extreme things primitive cultures did, I believe you can do it right with two simple steps. 1) Begin to contemplate and meditate on your death in a way that works for you. 2) Begin to take actions that defy your fears and make you happy right now. Lt’s look at how to do those two things.
1) Start thinking about your death by meditating on and contemplating it on a daily basis. A simple way to include it in your life, is every time you have to make a decision, think about how it will impact your death, will it make your death “better?” Before you can do that you have to know what a “Good Death” or a “Bad Death” will look like. Start now to spend time thinking about what will be a good death for you? What do you want friends and family to say when you die? What can you do today to make that happen?
But it’s important that your goal should never be to delay your death (because TODAY is a good day to die, right!?). Your only goal should be to enhance it, to make it a better, more meaningful death. For example, make healthy choices not because you are afraid to die but because to die at 95 in an avalanche climbing a mountain is a preferable, more glorious death than to die of cancer, wasting away in a hospital bed at 65.
This is actually a large part of Buddhism and is something we can all learn from them no matter what your religious beliefs or non-beliefs. The Buddha considered meditating on death, the Supreme form of meditation.
“Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme,
Of all mindfulness meditations,
That on death is supreme.” ~Buddha
I highly recommend you study this page to see how the Buddhists do it: http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1792
It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had. ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
2) Take actions to defy your fear, and make your death better! Knowing and understanding death isn’t enough, you must take steps every day to live this moment to it’s fullness, like it was the only one you have! We need to stop delaying happiness for an imaginary future, instead grabbing life with all the energy you have right now. You only have so much time to love, to be kind, to have fun, to have adventures. Fill each day with as much positive energy as you possibly can.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of a man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. “ ~Jack London
And that means acting like “Today is a Good Day to Die!” There will never be a batter day today than right now because I have lived a full and complete life. For an outstanding explanation of what those words meant to Crazy Horse, I strongly encourage you to take the time to read this page: http://thereisadoor.blogspot.com/2010/04/crazy-horse-was-more-mystic.html
Live, so you do not have to look back and say: ‘God, how I have wasted my life.’ ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
If you learn something from this post, then you make my friends death a little more meaningful and glorious, and for that I am grateful.
“I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.”