My morning routine includes coffee, meditation, IFOD editing, walking my dog, a workout and thinking about my death. Each day I say to myself “you are one day closer to death than you were yesterday –what are you going to do today to make it worthwhile?” I find this habit to be a bit uncomfortable, but it has benefits:
- I don’t get as stressed as I used to. When something happens that is stressful I remind myself that we all are going to die which really puts most issues into perspective.
- Thinking about dying regularly helps me distinguish between what is important and what is not.
- I find myself stopping during the day and appreciating being alive more than I used to. I notice nature more. I stop longer to look at art.
- I think I probably prioritize my goals better.
- I probably have more empathy for people than previously.
I began thinking about death daily after watching a video of the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered in 2005 at Stanford. Here’s the relevant part of the speech:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.
This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.Source: Stanford Commencement Address
Of course, the idea of focusing on death to unlock an appreciation of being alive long pre-dates Steve Jobs. The central tenet of the code of the Samauri is that you should focus on your death. The Hagakure, a book written by an 18th century Samurai provides:
The Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most slightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done.
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.
Similarly, the Bushido Shoshinshu, which is the Code of the Samurai opens with:
One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve. As long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will also fulfill the ways of loyalty and familial duty. You will also avoid myriad evils and calamities, you will be physically sound and healthy, and you will live a long life. What is more, your character will improve and your virtue will grow.
Finally, here’s what Anne Lamott had to say on this topic in her fantastic 1994 book Bird By Bird:
I remind myself nearly every day of something that a doctor told me six months before my friend Pammy died. This was a doctor who always gave me straight answers. When I called on this one particular night, I was hoping she could put a positive slant on some distressing developments. She couldn’t, but she said something that changed my life. “Watch her carefully right now,” she said, “because she’s teaching you how to live.”
I remind myself of this when I cannot get any work done: to live as if I am dying, because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children. They spend big round hours. So instead of staring miserably at the computer screen trying to will my way into having a breakthrough, I say to myself, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” Then I can decide to read Wallace Stevens for the rest of the morning or go to the beach or just really participate in ordinary life. Any of these will begin the process of filling me back up with observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories. I might want to write on my last day on earth, but I’d also be aware of other options that would feel at least as pressing. I would want to keep whatever I did simple, I think. And I would want to be present.
Thanks for this interesting post. This could also be why some are drawn to major religions and find peace in believing in an afterlife. The topic in general does help put things in perspective. (I’m also a big fan of waitbutwhy).
I read the wait but why blog post and was glad that I did. It put things in perspective and had really good advice for how to make important decisions.
There is an App you can download called “We Croak” that will send you a reminder at random times throughout the day that you are going to die. The reminders come in the form of a quote about mortality, life or death. It claims to be based on the Bhutanese belief that contemplating your own death brings greater happiness. Hard to believe but there’s an App for that!
I forgot to add a link to this great blog post on this point from Wait But Why: https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html
Really eye opening
This is a profound message for humans to Wake Up to the truth of the impermanence of all living things.