As a professor, some of my best learning lessons come from teaching. I recently started teaching a class on Death and Dying. This is a really weird move on my part. Although my first encounter with death happened very early in life, I did not feel comfortable with, or even accepting of, the subject of mortality. Like so many people in our culture, I felt disturbed by the seemingly cruel reality that everyone we love, including ourselves, are destined to perish.
After practicing mindfulness and yoga for many years, some of this feeling started to shift for me personally. Reading teachings from the masters, the subject of death is very clearly embedded in the subject of living. Like those beautiful Tibetan sand mandalas painstakingly crafted by monks only to be suddenly swept away in an instance, impermanence permeates all living beings.
I wouldn’t say that my fear or sadness around death has been entirely relieved. But, as I am learning and teaching more about this subject, I have developed a more nuanced view. I have stopped fighting or denying the complex and difficult emotions that come with a losing life. But I have also discovered an unexpected tenderness that comes from meditating on this reality daily. When we accept the truth that our lives are finite, and that the end may come suddenly, unexpectedly, and of course uncontrollably, every single moment becomes more precious.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned so far.
1) Be clear about your intentions. I still make so many mistakes, I still waste time. But, whenever I can, I try to think about my intentions when interacting with people. When I consider the possibility that I might not get another chance to connect with this person ever again, I ask myself: what do I really want to say and share with this person? This has transformed my past attempts to try to prove my point and “win” an argument into seeking forgiveness, healing, and finding a loving connection. This doesn’t mean that my life is conflict-free. I still react. I still say stupid things that I regret. But, ultimately, I am getting more clear about my intentions and I am getting better at honoring them in my actions.
2) Slather love and kindness onto everything you do.
I’ve been reading a lot about what dying people report as their greatest regrets. One of the recurring themes has to do with how well we love (others and ourselves). So I try to practice being more forgiving and kind whenever possible. It’s a simple concept, but it takes time to undo the years of programming that predispose us to be judgmental to ourselves and others. We must be patient and keep trying.
3) Don’t hold back your joy.
Another common regret people have is that they did not allow themselves the freedom to be who they wanted to be, to do the things that fill their lives with joy and purpose. So, I’m now in the practice of welcoming more joy whenever possible. I allow myself to take breaks, holidays, to put my work on pause and just savor a delicious meal or conversation. I try to seize opportunities to be outside and to move my body in a way that allows me to feel my aliveness. Instead of clinging to old images of my youth and creating a judgmental narrative around my body’s decline, I welcome and give thanks to the years of life that have been gifted to me. I try to live, and eat, and make decisions in a way that supports my life and wellbeing.
4) Awareness > Time.
Finally, contemplating life, death, and the timeline of relationships (some that persist well beyond the grave), I find peace in knowing that by slowing down and giving this moment my fullest attention, I am living in deep time. The past and future are experienced in terms of the present moment. By paying attention and allowing myself to be here in this moment, experiencing the fullness of emotions and sensations that drift in and out of awareness, I am able to hold the entire span of time with a deeper consciousness.