How would you react if you had to face death right now?
Would you regret not living your life fully, filled with love and meaning? Would you feel frightened because of missing out on something? Would you regret wasting so much time and effort on insignificant conflicts? And most importantly, would you feel disappointed because of never really living in the present moment?
Or would you be nostalgic and content?
I asked myself these questions shortly after my grandma passed away. At that time, I haven’t seen her for months, because I had already started university, abroad.
I clearly remember I was wishing my life away for several reasons: I wanted to finish my exams as soon as possible, and I wanted to finally meet my long-distance boyfriend. Now, years after my grandma’s death, I’m asking myself: Was it worth it? Was it worth it to hurry up time and forget about the essence of life?
I passed exams that don’t really matter and broke up with my boyfriend, with whom I actually had a toxic relationship. Time went by at an incredible speed, and I forgot to live and truly care about my beloved ones.
Reality hit me with a brick and showed me what really matters in life. Since my grandma’s death, I’m trying to consciously remind myself of the fragility of human life. Of death.
Lately, I’ve found out that with this practice I’m not such a big weirdo, others are meditating on death as well, and it has many advantages on human lives.
The Trap of Western Cultures
We, the people of the Western cultures, don’t accept death. We fear death. It is a big taboo, something we shouldn’t and wouldn’t talk about. Or even think about...
Death cannot be the topic on a casual Friday evening with friends, drinks, and nice talks. Death cannot be a topic in school or at work. But most sadly, death cannot even be a topic when it is already there. When it actually should be a topic…
“Do you fear… death? Do you fear that dark abyss?” — Davy Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean
Fearing and not accepting death is a bit like our attitude towards aging. In our culture, we refuse to acknowledge getting old. We treat it as something terrible and non-acceptable. Honestly, how many elderly people do you know who don’t dye their hair…?
But you know, both growing old and dying at some point, are part of life. They will happen anyway, whether you want it or not. So maybe facing and accepting death could be a better idea than fearing it?
Eventually, ignoring the unchangeable leads only to invincible fear and mental frustration.
The Solution of Eastern Cultures
Join me please a virtual journey to Bhutan. To a country, where death is as much an everyday topic as Kim Kardashian or football for us, and despite it, this Himalayan kingdom deemed to be the “Happiest Country” in the world. What is their secret?
A very decisive factor is that people in Bhutan — and in several other East-Asian countries — are speaking and thinking freely about death. Their culture didn’t make fatality a taboo topic.
The people of Bhutan usually think about death 5 times a day. For the first sight, that might sound scary, creepy, and depressing…How are they doing it and not getting crazy? How can they live with the burden…?
As a matter of fact, meditating regularly about death is not depressing at all. On the contrary! Studies conclude that yes, death itself is a threatening fact, but shortly after people think about it, they experience happiness and joy. Getting conscious about our own mortality will push us to live, to enjoy our short time here, and to make the best out of it.
Linda Leaming, a writer from the U.S. visited Buthan and experienced the culture on her own skin. I personally adore her words on the topic.
“I realized thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see. My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”
So that’s the key secret of the happiness of Bhutanese people. They contemplate death, accept it, and live their lives with consciousness about their own mortality.
Here is why you should meditate on death
The Dalai Lama explains that “It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained.”
Reflecting on death can make your life better in various ways.
Thinking about death on a regular basis will force you to learn self-discipline. And it is not just self-discipline towards that fearful feeling you might experience.
You’ll learn to be disciplined about your life. Consciously recognizing that our time is finite will push you to finish what you have started. It will push you to create habits that last. And it will force you to always make time for your family and friends. It will force you to concentrate on what really matters.
We are constantly distracted and tempted by short-term pleasure, like social media or video games. If we don’t recognize the finiteness of our lives, we will easily fall into the trap and waste a great bunch of our time. Realizing that we don’t have too much time on this spinning blue ball will simply devalue the distracting factors.
Also, if you mindfully accept death, then when it actually comes, you might face it with lightness. You’ll face it easier because even though death will still be unknown, the idea will be familiar.
By contemplating on it, you are protecting yourself.
Accepting death as part of life will liberate your mind. Death will happen, but until then, life goes on, and you can finally start living freely.
As unbelievable as it is, but self-discipline will also lead to freedom.
Self-discipline helps you to overcome the distractions of our times. The distractions of unnecessary information, social media, or simple advertisements. And living a life with a lower impact of those distracting factors is liberating.
What is even more important, with the consciousness of death, you’ll certainly live a more meaningful and happy life.
“If you are not aware of death, you will not be mindful of your practice, but will just spend your life meaninglessly, not examining what sorts of attitudes and actions perpetuate suffering and which ones bring about happiness.” — Dalai Lama
Reflecting on death will motivate you to stop wasting your time and find real meaning in your life.
According to the Dalai Lama, being certain of death but uncertain about when it comes, will lead to an enormous motivation, to a sort of intrinsic motivation.
It can be described as a caution. Your time is passing by, another day has gone, be careful. Make your things, stay true to yourself, and do no harm.
This caution will remind you to stay motivated, work well, and find a clear purpose in your precious life.
Since my grandma has passed away, I frequently think about death. Sometimes I am still shaking from fear and anxiety, but sometimes it makes me feel super powerful, content, and confident. With time, I’m gaining control over my life by contemplating death regularly.
We, the people of the West should finally accept death as part of our lives. Avoiding the topic causes only harm and frustration. We should finally break the taboo, educate our children, and talk about death more consciously and more frequently.
Because after all, just as Dumbledore highlighted “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more."
And how to initiate real change?
Maybe it’s a good start to tell your friends on a pleasant Friday evening that you have just read an article with a not that usual topic…