(The canvas print of this cover photo by Pawel Kuczynski, actually hangs by my front door as a daily reminder.)
What would your year look like if you lived it as if you were preparing for death?
Let’s pretend you’ll receive a terminal diagnosis and any treatments options will fail. You’re certainly going to die in approximately 12-36 months. What would this final stage entail for you?
Would you do what most people consider doing: quit their job, travel, party? Would you consider doing things you’ve put off due to fear, busyness or apathy? Would you become more conscious of being alive now that you believe you’re going to die?
When I received my ALS diagnosis along with a 3 – 5-year timeframe to my final exit, I didn’t believe I was going to die. I honestly thought it was an absurd mistake. Not a medical misdiagnosis, but more of a causal, cosmic mistake. My concern, however, was never with death, but with the ALS symptoms and signs, and the restrictive effects of progressive paralysis on my life. The severity of the ALS hit hardest when I lost function to the extent that I was becoming dependent on others, and unable to do what I loved (bodywork and teaching).
I was one angry and bitter man, as those close to me then can attest. However, I remember with pride that I wasn’t angry because I was going to die; I was enraged because I couldn’t continue to live my authentically designed life as I was. I remember breaking down with grief while talking to a friend that I wouldn’t be able to continue with my clinic and classes. This means I knew after years of searching that I had found my purpose. I was aligned. Even in the face of death, all I wanted to do was continue my bodywork practice and teaching workshops. There was nothing else I’d rather be doing.
I didn’t want to quit.
I didn’t want to reduce my hours.
I didn’t want to waste time on some other activity.
If I was going to die in 3 years, fine! But at least let me continue to be able to do what I love until then.
My rage and grief were that I could no longer live the chosen life that I loved due to progressing paralysis.
- I couldn’t use my hands for bodywork nor connect with people at a profound level in a sacred, neutral space.
- I couldn’t speak at lectures or workshops, nor watch my students evolve with delight at their newly discovered understanding of the human condition.
- I couldn’t ride my motorbike at 2 am through the freeway on a warm Tuesday night.
- I could no longer train in martial arts, snowboard, dance, fix things with my hands and feel the pleasure in increasing kinesthetic skill.
- I couldn’t hold and read the books in my extensive library.
They’re simple things, but the point is I was living my life the same way as I would if I was dying. I wouldn’t change a thing. If I hadn’t become paralysed and were able-bodied but still terminally ill, I would continue the same life. I may visit one or two places I’d meant to visit (Camp under the Aurora Borealis), but otherwise, my life would remain the same.
However, I would spare no expense to attend further bodywork trainings by living legends in the field. My reasoning is simple, the deeper I delved into Integrative disciplines, the more embodied and Conscious I became. Presence came from embodiment!
Can you claim the same current alignment with your authentic self?
On a side note, my previous bodywork practice was called Embodywork. Its purpose was to embody my clients; to reawaken their awareness in their physical existence through Structural Integration. Generally, the structural bodywork sessions would include simultaneous philosophical dialogue to explore and question their belief habits. At the end of a session, I would give them “projects” as a way to explore another perspective of Being. The session would end with movement and neuromuscular repatterning so that the nervous system would sustain and integrate the physical changes. The result was that clients would often leave more grounded and aware of their physical existence. Most clients would participate in the homework with enthusiasm. As a consequence, many would see their lives change within a spectrum from subtle to profound depending on their readiness to evolve.
A paradoxical shift occurs when we learn of impending death. After the initial shock dissipates and we conclude the seven stages of grief, our psychological shackles seem to disappear. That is, rather than feeling imprisoned by death, we feel free—we feel permission to live.
We become hyperconscious that we have an existence, and that existence requires expression.
It’s a subtle but profound shift in perspective. Normally, we are “busy” with the external and internal noise of our lives. We are emotionally captivated by the apparent urgency in extraneous events and soundbites, often at the expense of embodying our existence.
Think about that for a moment. How much of your precious life essence do you waste on issues of no consequence, benefit or importance?
When was the last time you stepped away from the mental distraction and genuinely felt that You are here; that You exist; that You are here on this planet, in this epoch, in that body of yours?
Often, most people will not remember that they exist independent of their distractions until something threatens their very existence.
I suppose this is why people who undertake dangerous sports or professions claim that it’s the only time they feel truly alive. It’s not the activity itself that makes them feel alive, but the potential for death which reminds them of their existence as a stark contrast.
But perhaps undertaking a dangerous activity or receiving a terminal diagnosis isn’t the only way to feel alive; to feel one’s existence.
Perhaps we could heed the teachings of the wisest, transcendent and evolved men in history for guidance; men like Socrates, Buddha, Epicurus, The Stoics (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca), Schopenhauer, Existentialists (Camus, Nietzsche), Taoists (Lao Tzu) who were repeatedly emphasising the importance of living as if preparing for death—because fundamentally, this physical existence is a clever, but absurd, temporary illusion of reality.
Living as if preparing for death doesn’t mean following and succumbing to irrational impulses, pleasures or vices. Nor does it mean to embrace nihilism and give up trying for anything—you’re not a plant! (Although, even plants reach for the light)
Instead, it’s an invitation to remember and accept that physical death is coming; it has been since your conception and birth. Therefore, to live mindfully of our impending death would require that we live authentically in our daily life. Living mindfully authentic, is a natural consequence of awakening to our physical finitude, and our spiritual immortality.
Whether you see yourself as an immortal soul having a temporal human experience, or that you are nothing more than a finite skin sack of meat and fluids without free-will or purpose (except reproduction of genetic material), living as though you are going to die changes what you place your focus, priorities and attention on.
What you focus on becomes philosophically profound, yet, simultaneously amusing. Rather than seeing everything as binary (black/white, wrong/right, good/bad), you transcend your ego’s insistence on correctness and see things as they genuinely are—arbitrary, relativistic greys within the confines of human sensory perception.
In essence, you start to grow up and truly mature.
Just like Us
Your acceptance of death reveals both your finite physical existence and, therefore, your absolute fragility and ignorance. However, it also accentuates your individual importance by the fact that you indeed exist. Your vulnerability and innocence are owned while simultaneously extrapolated to those around you.
Just like you, everybody is fighting a hard daily battle; sometimes due to fate, often from their own misguided or habitual choices. We’re all struggling and stumbling through our lives. We never have enough experience, information or maturity to feel like we are in control or on track. Both Socrates and the Stoics practiced equanimity by remembering that people err due to ignorance. The rationale is quite straight-forward; if someone truly understood the potential consequences of their actions and their place in the cosmos (rather than the finite, certain and arrogant persona they inhabit), they would not say or do what their misguided impulses drive them to.
Just like you, everybody tries to suppress the understanding that everything around us rests on a knife’s edge. We unconsciously know we are one dice roll away from potential catastrophe. Your next flight, commute or drive could be your last. A slip, a twist of fate, a wrong turn, a misspoken word, a careless moment may be what topples the first domino in the cascade towards your physical demise. It may be from your own actions or someone else’s, or a random natural event; whatever the case, be aware that you have no control over the infinite variables at play and influencing you at all times.
Just like you, everybody else is protecting a binary idea(s) they’ve chosen to clothe their sense of self—their Ego. They, like you, forget their persona is no more than an accidental accumulation of habits used to guard against perceived annihilation. Our trait habits are nothing more than opportune paradigms worn as a badge for acceptance to a particular group. You certainly weren’t born with those beliefs, what makes you continually believe they’re uniquely yours except through circumstantial habit? You chose and carry them with the same naivety that a child uses in picking shells at the beach. Do you even remember how, when, where or why you decided to believe and live as you do?
Just like you, people will attack, argue and shame others for the validity of their psychological habit. Attacking, rather than receiving someone else’s experience, is necessary to maintain the illusion of control. After all, if what they believe isn’t accepted by others, do they matter? Rather than being raised and fulfilled by truth, they can only feel elevated proportionally by bringing others down. That’s immediate proof their beliefs are built on a foundation of sand. When one is secure in one’s paradigm, the need to challenge others disappears (similar to bullies and those that can fight. Those that can, don’t. Those that can’t, pick easy targets). Rather, we become curious at what others believe without the persistent urge to change their mind nor belittle them. We remember that like us, there’s more to this person than a singular belief.
We don’t need to become martyrs and tolerate everybody, but we don’t have to make their life harder either. Perhaps we can just enjoy their quirks temporarily as they do with ours.
Just like you, they’ll forget that everything they’ve learned and accepted is relative and dependent on their genetic, geographic and temporal trajectory. If they’ve had a lucky fortunate life, they’ll wonder why others can’t achieve the same. If they’ve had an unfortunate life, they’ll wonder why everyone else is keeping them down. There’s always someone to blame or shame, except the judger in the mirror. When I remember, I always ask myself: “If I had their brain, genes, upbringing and history, would I be any different to who they are?” The answer is always no.
Just like you, most people will defend what they’ve passively learned and been exposed to, rather than actively pursued and explored. Like parrots, they regurgitate words and platitudes as if it was real and of their own making. They’ve never actively challenged their own beliefs nor made a genuine, concerted effort to consider and explore the opposing side or anything in between. Their opinions, then, are no more than a crutch for an empty shell incapable of independent thinking and exploration. There’s nothing inherently bad about this; they are who they are and on their own trajectory. However, it may be important to recognise this phenomenon in ourselves and others lest we forget we may be absolutely off the mark and overstaying our welcome.
It’s no wonder that on receipt of a terminal diagnosis, most people will question their lives, actions and beliefs.
Is it surprising then, that on receipt of a terminal diagnosis, most people become desperate to live authentically for the first time in their lives?
If you were terminally diagnosed, how many of your fervent beliefs would you abandon? When you’re alone, dying and frozen with fear, how much of what you so ardently whine, bicker and worry about would remain relevant or even interesting?
When you’re alone and terrified, do you care more about your persona or your capacity to exist?
The Prodigal Son
Perhaps the ultimate gift of a terminal illness is the invitation to return to authenticity—to become Alive.
It’s a call to arms.
A divine trumpet is sounding the tune of your return home. You are the prodigal son, ashamed and embarrassed at your hubris. You’ve wasted and squandered your inherited fortune (time and authenticity) on banal, frivolous, emotional distractions.
You’ve sold your soul for pennies. With one year left to live, you awaken to the misery of your choices. For the first time since you were an infant, you are aware that you’re alive and existing.
You become present and cognizant of your existence. You have no more time to waste. You’re going home soon. You remember this isn’t your home; this was just an experience—a roleplay that you took far too seriously. As Shakespeare so eloquently said, you’re an actor and the world’s your stage.
Hurry now. Your fortune (time) is dwindling thin.
Are you going to take the mask off and remember who you are? Or are you so enamoured and conditioned by your emotional addictions that exploring who you truly are is more frightening than death itself?
Who would you be if you were truly Conscious?
What would you do, say or think differently if you knew your time here was coming to an end?
Perhaps you could entertain that question with the gravity it deserves, because your time may indeed end much sooner than you think.
What does it matter? Your physical death is certainly coming.
Choose a Conscious life while you’re capable. You may not get another chance.