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.
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.
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