A little while ago a post by a palliative care nurse became very popular on the web. For a very brief moment in time I worked with some people with terminal illnesses, teaching mindfulness and Tai Chi and doing a spot of hypnotherapy. My experience echoed the findings on the post above. In particular, I used to say peoples dying regret was never “I wish I had spent more time in the office…”.
Death happens to us all, it is something we can try and ignore, but can never avoid. We have no idea what happens when we die, we could be switched off like a light and cease to exist, or we could carry on in some form through eternity (I am open to suggestion and persuasion each way) but the one thing we do know is that (as far as we are aware) this is the only time we get to live this one life. We also have no idea when we will die.
We can either be terrified of death or we can use it as a positive resource to live life as fully as we can.
I don’t like flying, I tend to try and hold the plane up by gripping the seat armrests… I would get worked up and nervous and become terrified I was going to crash and die for days before hand! However, whilst recently flying back from a holiday, I had a revelation, one of those moments of clarity. If I was just about to die in a horrible midair collision, would I like my last moments on this planet to be filled with terror and fear or would I rather they be relaxed and mindful and (hopefully) enjoyable?
In Buddhist practice, mediation on impermanence and death is common practice and used to remind us that every moment is precious and we are in constant state of flux, nothing us fixed, nothing is permanent, let go of that clinging and craving.
But it was in that moment on the plane, not in the years I had spent meditating, that I finally understood the power of living in the present moment.
This is nothing new of course, and not unique to the Buddhist tradition. The classical latin phrase “momento mori” (“remember we must die” or “remember your mortality”) with it’s often morbid art has been a reminder of our mortality since ancient Rome (or so popular belief would have it). With it being said that during feasts, at the height of the revelry, servants would carry round skeletons to remind the revellers of their mortality.
The more I contemplate life, the more I realise it is all about this present moment, to be as aware and alert and connected to this moment as possible, as this is all there is. The past has gone, it exists only in our memories and the future, only in our dreams.
By deeply reflecting on your own mortality each day, it will remind you of the preciousness of existence and the importance of being fully aware in the present moment, to make the most of each second.
It reminds me of an old Zen tale:
“One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and ate it. It was delicious!”