How Reading About Death Can Change Your Life

A new reading group about death, dying and the afterlife intends to increase death awareness across the country.

(Note: This post previously appeared on Medium.com)

For more than a century modern society has been intentionally oblivious to the reality of death. Once dying and death were removed from the home and every-day life by the increased availability of hospitals and funeral homes, it was relatively easy to shove death out of awareness and make it a taboo subject. There was even a belief for a time that thinking about death was pathological and destructive.

But now we know that death awareness—including thinking and reading about death—has positive benefits, thanks to research that has been done in recent years. An article by Kenneth Vail and colleagues from the University of Missouri includes a review of multiple studies on the impact of becoming aware of death and the findings are impressive:

Death awareness leads to increased helping behaviors.

People who had recently been reminded of death were more likely to help a stranger in need. In fact, increased death awareness correlated with an increase in positive factors like compassion, tolerance, and empathy. When we understand that life is fleeting we tend to focus more on the things that really matter, which includes the wellbeing of others for many of us.

Those aware of death are more likely to care about the environment.

Again the understanding that life is fragile can lead us to care more about all of life, including the natural life that surrounds us and the life of our planet as well. Those who do not deny that death is part of the cycle of life are more inclined to be careful with that life in all its forms

Death awareness corresponds with compassion toward those from other groups.

Studies have shown that members of certain fundamentalist religious groups who experienced an increase in death awareness were more likely to exhibit compassion and tolerance toward those of other religions. Peace becomes a more valued commodity when we recognize that our lives have a limited time frame.

Awareness of death leads to healthier behaviors.

It may seem obvious but studies have validated that people who are aware of their mortality tend to make better choices for their overall health. Quitting smoking, increasing exercise, doing breast self-exams, and even using sunscreens are all behavior changes that have been linked to death awareness. We cherish life more when we know if won’t last forever.

The results of these studies show us that our entire society can benefit from getting out of denial and becoming more openly aware of death. In fact, it appears from this information that many of the problems that currently afflict humankind could be alleviated with better awareness of and education about death.

One of the ways to increase death awareness is through reading books that provide factual information about all aspects of the end of life. In addition inspiring stories about the end of life can help us see beyond our fears and get comfortable with the reality of death. Books have the capacity to take us outside our usual experience and expose us to new ideas that stretch our boundaries.

In addition, by reading the stories of others who are coping with mortality we learn that all of us face the same struggles as humans here on planet Earth. The challenges we share are far greater than the differences that exist between us.

 “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin

By reading books about death and dying we can increase our own death-awareness and prepare ourselves to be a source of information and inspiration for others.

To foster this type of positive growth through reading a unique new reading group called “A Year of Reading Dangerously” has been created for 2018. The group will explore death, dying and the afterlife by reading one book on these subjects each month during the year and holding online discussions about each book.

You can join more than 700 people around the world who are all learning about death together by signing up here. You have much to gain by reading about death … in fact, it will change your life!

 

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Why I’m Feeling Relaxed this Christmas

It’s 2 days until Christmas and I am lounging in front of the fireplace, watching the snow come down, and enjoying a book and an eggnog latte. At least that’s how the fantasy has always played out in my head every year.

But most years at this point in the holiday season I have been frantically running from store to store looking for last minute items and staying up late at night to wrap packages while I bake a batch of cookies. By the time Christmas is over I am usually exhausted and feeling let down because the actual celebration hasn’t matched up to my exaggerated expectations.

Worse than the exhaustion I’ve felt after Christmas, I had begun to suffer from boredom during the holiday itself. Many years of doing the same thing, the same way had left me feeling stagnant and stale. I used to count the days until the whole thing was over.

But this year is different. My fantasy of reading a book and enjoying a fire is actually coming true today. I am relaxed and full of joy and love, which is exactly how I’ve always thought Christmas should feel. I’m also excited for Christmas morning and looking forward to sharing the joy with my family.

So what makes the difference this year? I think it’s because I’ve done a lot of internal work on myself through the year and have cleared out old expectations, attachments and attitudes.  As a result I’ve been able to make some significant changes to my habitual approach to Christmas:

Less decorating

I have a storage room full of Christmas decorations I’ve collected over the years and, to be honest, I feel very sentimental about most of them. I’m working on letting go of my attachments to them but I’m not quite there yet. So for now I’ve decided that I don’t need to display all of them every year.

This year I’ve chosen a few boxes of special decorations and placed them strategically in the house where they’re easy to notice each time I walk into a room. Maybe  each year I’ll pick a different box and delight in seeing some things I had actually forgotten about.

Fewer days of preparation

I used to start shopping a few months before Christmas and begin decorating on the weekend after Thanksgiving. But this year I didn’t even think about Christmas until it was 2 weeks away. Rather than feel stressed because I had so little time to get ready I actually felt more relaxed because I knew I had to limit my activities. I was motivated to choose only the things I most love about Christmas and let everything else go.

Less baking

Since we are trying to eat healthy these days I’ve changed my baking habits for the holidays as well. I used to bake big batches of pumpkin bread to share with neighbors and dozens of dozens of cookies for our family to enjoy. But I’ve narrowed my list to a few special treats that we only have at Christmas and I bake smaller batches. We still get to enjoy our traditional sweets but we have just enough to last for a few days instead of all month.

Fewer gifts

Two years ago my brother suggested that we stop exchanging gifts for Christmas, which inspired me to make the same suggestion to my friends and other extended family members. We now send cards to one another with personal notes and talk on the phone during the holidays.

With fewer gifts to shop for, wrap and mail, my stress level decreased dramatically and I’ve saved time and money as well, which is a huge benefit. Because we take time to write and call one another I don’t feel any less connected to my loved ones than when we used to exchange gifts. In fact, by being more relaxed I’m able to share even more positive feelings with each of them.

Experiences instead of extravagances

Once I discovered how nice it was to give fewer gifts I was able to suggest a change to my immediate family as well. We used to spend hours opening gifts on Christmas morning and I pressured myself to buy a huge number of presents so that there would be a big stack under the tree every year.

But this year we are exchanging “experiences” rather than material gifts, which means we will surprise each other with creative ideas for ways to spend special time together later in the year (like concert tickets, hikes, picnics, or camping trips) so the Christmas spirit will last longer than just one day.

There are far fewer packages under the tree but there’s more excitement about giving and receiving mystery experiences than we have felt about material gifts for many years. (Listen to my podcast about our experience gifts here.)

Embracing simplicity

In the past I put a huge amount of effort into making everything perfect for the holidays. I somehow thought that I could create the “magic” of Christmas by decorating every inch of my house, cooking elaborate and beautifully presented meals,  and giving awe-inspiring gifts to each person on my list.

But this year I’m finding great pleasure in keeping everything simple and allowing myself to be less than perfect. My greatest gift to myself has been time–time to read, meditate, exercise, watch movies, and laugh.

So this year I’m filled with joy and love and “Christmas spirit,” just like I always imagined. I have “unplugged” from the holiday conveyor belt and I’m hoping that you find a way to get free as well.

Stop for one moment and look around: there is beauty everywhere in this extraordinary world. So light the candles, turn up the music, pour the wine, savor the food, and share the love … it’s Christmastime again.

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A Simple Ritual to Ease My Grief

The Aramaic word for grief can also mean “to wander.” When I was left wandering and bewildered after the death of my niece a small ritual helped me find my way again.

A few months ago my niece died of breast cancer at the young age of 47. I was somewhat prepared for her death because of her 14-year journey with cancer and the inevitable decline she had been experiencing for several months. Yet in reality death always arrives like a lightning bolt that pierces to the core.

There is no way to prepare for death’s appearance or to be unmoved by the jolt: your loved one is next to you in one moment and then gone after a single breath. You don’t know you are at the end until the end has already passed.

So the news of Tracey’s death hit me hard with a mixture of emotions—disbelief that she could really be dead at such a young age, pain for her son and her parents as they coped with this loss, guilt that I hadn’t done more to help, and a trace of relief that finally there was no more uncertainty and no more agonizing over what suffering the next hour or the next day would bring to her. Her journey here was finished.

As life would have it, with its curious synchronicities and juxtapositions, I was scheduled to do an interview with two women who had written a guidebook to end-of-life rituals just a few hours after news of Tracey’s death reached me. I didn’t even consider postponing our conversation because I knew that this timing, though difficult, was perfect.

My guests, Donna Belk and Kateyanne Unillisi, talked about the importance of rituals for making sense of life’s tragedies and painful events and they shared their suggestions for creating our own simple rituals. I understood deeply the importance of this subject and that I needed to somehow find a way to mark this day with some special ceremony, though I had no idea where to begin.

The next morning I took a long walk on a path next to the Blue River and thought about Tracey. I was filled with regrets – Why hadn’t I visited her one last time? Why hadn’t I called her for that talk about forgiveness that I knew she wanted to have? Why hadn’t I been there more for my brother?

As I walked more and more slowly, weighed down with all of the guilt I was heaping on myself I suddenly heard laughter—and it was unmistakably Tracey’s laugh. I felt as if she were standing right next to me and I heard her say “I understand everything now! It’s all okay.”

In that moment I was surrounded by joy, peace and love. I looked down and saw beautiful flowers I hadn’t noticed before at the side of the path: fragrant wild roses in bright pink, Tracey’s favorite color. I instantly knew what to do next and asked Tracey to join me.

I began to gather wildflowers from the banks of the river and was surprised by the variety I found growing there when I really stopped to look: mountain lupine, bluebells, yellow daisies, poppies, chicory, cinquefoil, wild geranium, blue flax, columbine and more.

By the time I reached a small stream that flowed gently into the rushing river I had a handful of blossoms of many colors. I spread them out on a tree stump to create a mandala of sorts—an array of beauty and a reminder that life changes constantly but ultimately continues on.

I said a prayer for Tracey and for all of our broken hearts that were missing her so dearly on that day. Then I dropped each blossom—one at a time—into the stream and watched it drift gently away. With each flower that tumbled into the stream I felt a lessening of the burden of grief and a gradual influx of peace. And all the while I heard the faintest hint of laughter floating on the breeze.

 

 

 

 

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How to Make Peace With Negative Thoughts and Emotions

There has been a great deal of emphasis in the New Age movement over the past few years on the power of positive thinking, with strong recommendations to eliminate all negative thoughts and emotions in order to enhance the benefits of being positive. In fact, some teachers have urged their students to break ties with any negative people in their lives to avoid being contaminated by their less-than-ideal energy.

But what happens when you feel negative emotions such as fear, doubt or anger arising within you? What do you do when your thoughts turn to the dark side? Again many teachers recommend shutting out these thoughts and feelings by ignoring them and replacing them with a positive outlook.

However, from the study of human psychology we know that you cannot actually rid yourself of negative emotions – you can only repress them, which causes those feelings to retreat into the Shadow. Once your negative emotions find a hiding place within your subconscious Shadow, they are free to create all sorts of chaos in your life, as has been discussed in other posts.

But is there a better way to manage your own negativity so that it doesn’t poison your efforts to create a positive attitude or sabotage your attempts to grow as a person? The answer can be found within a poem written by Rumi, the Sufi philosopher who was born in the year 1207.

Rumi says to think of your psyche as a guest house that has a new arrival or unexpected visitor every morning, such as “a joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness.” He recommends that you welcome all of your thoughts and feelings “even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,” for they “may be clearing you out for some new delight.” In the last lines of the poem Rumi concludes:

            The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

What a novel way of looking at these troublesome thoughts and feelings of ours – as guests who have arrived for some purpose even though we don’t really understand what that might be. And we should not only allow them to have a presence in our lives, but we must tolerate the effects they have upon us because those negative parts of ourselves play an important role in our growth process.

When we reject our own negative feelings it is as if we lock our “house guests” in the basement where they remain hidden from us and we lose sight of their influence on our behavior. But when we openly welcome our negativity, we keep it within our vision where we can monitor it until we become powerful enough to gain control. By acknowledging and owning our negative thoughts we gain the ability to analyze and work with them and can then understand ourselves better and eventually grow in consciousness.

So remember to keep the doors of your “guest house” unlocked and ready for any visitors that choose to show up. Be prepared for some difficult times when you won’t be able to find many positive “guests” at all. But also be aware that there is a purpose for everything you think and feel. Enjoy exploring the mysteries that arrive in your life. Let them clear you out and make room for the next “visitor” to appear – because it might just be the joy you have been waiting for all along!

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Why I Think About Death Every Day

I was 16-years old when I first began to think about my own death. A classmate of mine died from a fall while hiking, which caused me to recognize that it is possible for a young person (including me) to die at any time. For the first time, death became real to me and since that event I have thought about death every day. In fact I might say that I have kept “death on my shoulder” like the character Billy Jack from the movies of the same name that were popular in the 1970’s.

But I am not alone in my tendency to dwell on thoughts of death. In fact, contemplation of death is a spiritual practice in Tibetan cultures. Moreover when I recently interviewed a priest about the Catholic perspective on death he quoted St. Benedict as saying, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.”

While this might sound like a morbid practice, I can assure you that it is not. Recognizing my own mortality on a daily basis has actually changed my life in profound ways and provided many benefits:

Gratitude for every moment of life

Knowing that life is fleeting helps me appreciate each experience and every moment to a deeper degree than ever before. I no longer take life for granted and value the time I have been given.

Restructured priorities

With the briefness of life in mind I am able to focus on those things that really matter to me (like love and relationships) and let go of the superficial and trivial details that compete for my attention. I don’t “sweat the small stuff” now because I know it’s not really important.

Taking responsibility for my life

I now see that life is precious and the meaning it contains is up to me. No matter what has happened in my life, I am responsible to make the best of it and create as much love as I can. I no longer waste time blaming other people or circumstances for the problems I encounter.

Looking within myself for answers

I also have learned to seek my own answers from within rather than looking outside of myself for guidance. No one else can understand my life or my purpose better than me so I need to find my own path and follow it.

Finding joy in being alive

The French value the concept of joie de vivre, which literally means “the joy of being alive.” Recognizing that death could arrive at any time helps me cherish the gift of life. I wake up joyful each day because I am still here with another opportunity to experience life on this planet, even if I am sick or if life’s circumstances aren’t exactly what I would have chosen. Simply being alive is enough to create deep joy.

Being prepared for anything

Since I have spent a considerable amount of time contemplating my own death, it won’t really be a surprise to me if or when I hear the words “You are going to die” from a doctor some day. I have already known that fact for most of my life and I have made sure I am ready every day. While I may not be happy to hear those words I won’t be shocked or angry or depressed. Death is an important part of life and I am prepared to face that truth.

So for me, thinking about death is a simple spiritual practice that has changed and exhilarated my life. I wish I could teach everyone that but our society remains entrenched in fear and avoidance of death.

But now is the time when we need more than ever to find joy in every moment, to be grateful for all of life, to be prepared for the future, and to shift our priorities to what really matters. Now is the time to learn to truly love life by embracing the reality of death.

(Learn how you can start a simple practice of contemplation of death here.)

About the Author: 

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the host of End-of-Life University Interview Series and author of “The Tao of Death” and the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/KarenWyattMD and on Twitter @spiritualmd 

 

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6 Mystical Teachings the Whole World Needs Right Now

If it seems like the entire planet has gone slightly mad over the past few months, you are not alone in that perception. In fact, a Pew Research study has shown that intolerance has been increasing around the world for the past decade, including “crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias.”

What’s going on here? Shouldn’t our religions be teaching us to behave in a more positive and “godlike” manner rather than fostering hatred? The problem seems to lie less in religion itself and more with the level of consciousness of individuals who practice various religions. Rigid and narrow ways of thinking are more likely to lead to intolerant practices than inclusive and flexible states of mind.

However, throughout history every religion has yielded mystical teachers who have brought messages to mankind that transcend the consciousness of the masses, such as Abraham, Christ, Buddha, Rumi, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Krishna, among others. These teachers who represent different religions have each taught some common principles that transcend every religion and show us how to live in peace in a diverse world.

1. There is One God

There is One Creative Force in the Universe, from which everything, both seen and unseen, derives. That same One God is viewed differently by each of us through our own individual lens, which may have been shaped by religion, family, society, education, life experiences, or other factors. A small and narrow lens leads to a limited and partial view of God, including blindness to the fact that every other person has been created by that same God; and every other religion worships the same God. A limited view of God through a tiny lens leads to judgment and bias toward others who seem to be different from and inferior to us.

You can expand your own “lens” by learning about people who differ from you, studying mystical teachings, and using your own life experiences to guide you to a new way of seeing. Think of someone you feel judgmental toward and then list all of the things that you actually have in common with that person.

2. God is Love

The Creative Force of God is actually love made visible. Everything in existence derives from love and thrives on love. But a narrow lens may make it difficult to perceive love as a creative force and to manifest love in your own life. Therefore your actions will be driven by the greed and fear of lower consciousness if you cannot take the higher path and be guided by love.

Spend time each day bringing love into your life and sharing it with others. Meditate or pray with the thought that love constantly pours into your heart from the Creator, only to overflow to the people around you.

3. All is One

We are One with every other aspect of creation, including every other human being. While our narrow lens may reveal to us only the differences that separate us from others, we share with every creature the truth that we have been spun into existence from the breath of God and also that our physical form will one day dissolve back into the Divine Source of creativity. In other words, each of us has been born into physical existence and each of us will also die one day. That fact is responsible for the greatest common bond between all living things and means that our primary struggle in this life is shared with every other being.

Death is the great “unifier” of the masses—the one Truth with which we all must wrestle. Think about your relationship with mortality and recognize that all life is precious because it is fleeting.

4. What is in One is in the Whole

Because we are connected with every other living thing in existence, what we do to one aspect of creation we do to all of creation, including ourselves. If you harm another person, you harm yourself and the entire planet. If you heal another with love, you bring healing to all of life. Every word, every thought, every action is significant and should come from positive intention, that is, from love. Only love sustains and nourishes life for the good of the Whole.

Do one thing “for the good of the Whole” every day. Think of a simple positive act that can make a difference for someone else.

5. Change comes from within

To change what is outside of us we must first change what is inside of us. In fact, you are powerless to change the world around you to fit your mind’s concept of “how things should be.” You can only change yourself, which requires spending your lifetime looking within and understanding the wounds you carry. If you want to rid the world of darkness, you must look into your own darkness first. Shine the light of love on the pain you hold: the fear, anger, shame and greed that have been hidden within. Use your light to expose your own shortcomings rather than looking for what’s wrong with others. What you heal within you will be healed in all of creation.

Journal about the wounds that hide in your Shadow. How can you love the parts of yourself that are in pain?

6. Nothing lasts, everything changes … except love

If you think you can keep life the way it is right now or go back to “the way things used to be,” you are in error. Everything in this universe changes from moment to moment and that is a fact you must embrace. If you resist change within yourself you will waste your vital Life Force on a task that leads nowhere. Learn to ride the waves of change and focus on the process rather than the outcome, for you cannot control the future.

Since love, as the Divine Creator of all, is the only constant that does not change, bring love always to every moment. Let love guide you as you work on changing your own inner landscape. Love is the light you need to illuminate your painful wounds and also to heal them. Allow love into your awareness and let it be your tool for change as you work to change yourself and thereby change the world.

Contemplate where and how you are resisting change in your life. Write about what might help you let go and allow change to unfold in its own way.

The current dire state of human relationships on this planet might be a great opportunity for evolution and growth to higher consciousness to occur. If you want to make a difference in the world, work on your own consciousness—grow and evolve within—in order to change things for the better. This is the where our hope for the planet resides!

 

About the Author:

 Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the host of End-of-Life University Interview Series and author of “The Tao of Death” and the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd.

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