How Remembering Your Death Can Help You Live Better
“Many have died; you will also die. The drum of death is being beaten. The world has fallen in love with a dream. Only sayings of the wise men will remain.”
The fact of the matter is that every person who’s reading this is going to die. Including me. And you.
Yet, most of us don’t give the inevitability—nor finality—of our death a second thought. “Maybe if I don’t think or talk about it, it won’t come to pass,” we rationalize. After all, it’s uncomfortable, right?
As a distraction, we bury ourselves in our routines, on autopilot. We overeat, smoke, drink. We work a job we hate; stay with a partner we no longer connect with. We put off passions until some indefinite ‘later.’
Thankfully, if you’re reading this, there’s still time.
In this article, I’ll discuss what using death as a reminder is, the basics of implementing the practice in your daily life, and how you can find solace and inspiration with the recognition of your mortality.
Why Use Death as a Reminder in the First Place?
Deriving a Better Life from Remembering Death
Barnaby Tenzin Denison, a Buddhist monk at the International Mahayana Institute in Eastern Washington State, explains that reflecting on our death can help reveal the richness and beauty of life.
“Death isn’t optional,” he emphasizes. “Like gravity, impermanence happens whether we’re aware of it, whether we believe in it, whether we accept it, whether we want it, even if we want something else.” As a consequence, “familiarizing ourselves with this fact aligns us with reality,” he says.
When we digest, internalize, contemplate, familiarize our mind with death, again and again, we reveal the richness of life.
When we “don’t take life for granted, we are better able to focus on what really matters to us, and we are less prone to getting swept up in life’s many distractions,” adds Chris Crotty,Buddhist teacher and pastoral counselor at Chris Crotty Dharma in Boston, MA.
After all, he explains, most of us have ideas, goals, and intentions for living our best life, but we tend to drag our feet when it comes to accomplishing them. When we recollect that our life could cease at any moment, we focus on what’s really important.
But it’s not all skulls and roses.
Pros and Cons of Focusing on Death
Death as a Guide vs. Fear
Using death’s inevitability to determine if you’re using your time wisely is one thing. Obsessing over it is quite another. One acts as a guide, the other as a debilitating fear. We don’t want to derive a negative from a positive.
“It is wise to cautiously approach these kinds of teachings, which means evaluating our emotional and mental stability, our readiness for this level of contemplation,” Chris says, which is something a teacher or therapist can help with.
Together, instead of fear, owning your mortality should be celebrated as a lifetime achievement; a mark of maturity. You’re facing the Reaper and telling him to fuck off—because this moment is yours.
With the bad news out of the way, let’s get to the good.
What You Can Gain by Focusing on Your Death
By living our lives while reminding ourselves of our imminent demise, we’re tuning into the reality of life. That which lives must die. It’s uncomfortable, but this discomfort is the very thing that can help us bring about meaningful change.
Changing our relationship with death also opens our minds to thinking about other difficult topics. And the confidence to turn toward uncomfortable things, work through them, and come to a resolution, allows us to “undo the knots, work through the neuroses, become more balanced, and work through some of our shadow stuff,” Tenzin explains.
Chris adds that “from a Buddhist perspective, awareness of death (along with aging and sickness) is a form of protection against the illusion of permanence.”
· Improved health · Reprioritized goals · Promotes helping behavior toward others · Increased tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism · Motivates you to take action instead of standing on the sidelines · Motivates sustainable, pro-environmental behaviors · Suppressed ego · Promotes better health choices, such as putting on sunscreen, boosting exercise levels, and quitting unhealthy habits, such as smoking
· Can become anxiety and phobia-inducing if you focus too much on death · Be careful of being unrealistic and expecting too much.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to the meat of the matter and discuss different ways to remember death and lead a richer existence.
10 Ways to Remember Death and a Live Happier Life
While there is an infinite number of ways you can remember your mortality throughout the day, here are some common options:
1. “Sometimes, in the morning, I ask myself how I want to spend the rest of the day, imagining the day as my last,” Chris says. It’s a powerful tool for “helping us detach from the shallow stream of our life.”
2. In 120 years, no one on this planet will be alive anymore. “We can look at photos from generations ago and respect that that person is no longer alive,” Tenzin recommends.
3. Keep a special item in your pocket that reminds you of your mortality. I keep a small silver Buddha, although just about any item can work. One idea that I find appealing is a Memento Mori (“remember death”) coin, which is also available as a ring.
4. You can also keep something death-related, such as a skull, on your desk.
5. Don’t forget about technology: Download an app that helps you contemplate your mortality. One of the most popular options is WeCroak, which sends you five messages per day. Or, you can log onto the Death Clock and the Death Timer.
6. There’s also Afternote, which can help you create a tribute to yourself before you’ve died and see what you like and what you don’t.
7. Write something on your mirror so your message appears every time you take a shower. This idea can also work with sticky notes anywhere you want in your house.
8.Meditate daily for at least 10 minutes and try to let go of thoughts as they pass.
9. Take time to pause and actively reflect on your mortality through visualization.
10. Remain mindful when you’re out and about immersed in daily life, whether walking, driving, or working.
These are just starting points. Do whatever works best for you!
Death Can Be a Powerful Teacher, Depending on Your Perspective
We know the “largest mountains are shifting; the great oceans are changing. When we look carefully, everything is changing moment-by-moment,” Tenzin says. “We can use this in our daily life because the level of permanence we project onto something doesn’t exist.”
The bottom line is that we know that our death is certain. However, we don’t know the time. The good news is that we can use the compassionate understanding of these realities to help us better determine what matters most when we breach the cusp of eternity.
Chris emphasizes that the “awareness of aging, sickness, and death have helped meditators channel their energy since the time of the Buddha, who recommended that we reflect on these inevitable truths daily.”
This way, while you’re alive, your death won’t be a source of suffering. And when your time comes, you’ll be prepared. Please don’t wait until it’s too late.
As a final note, since fear can be a significant roadblock to implementing death as a reminder, I’ll leave you with a quote from Bronnie Ware in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:
“Fear started rearing its ugly head, as I wondered how on earth it would all come together, yet again. Bringing myself back to the present moment was the only thing that had saved me before, and was the only thing that would save me now.”