How To Use Death as Your Personal Assistant

The other day, I was fretting to a friend about whether or not a hair on my forehead was grey or just a variation of its weirdly ambiguous blondy-brown hay color.

“I hope it’s grey,” she said, deadpan.

Jeeeeeeeez, that’s blunt! I thought to myself. Why would she possibly want a grey hair over a blonde one? Grey hair seemed like the first step on the road to my long and inevitable decay; was she basically saying she hoped I was getting decrepit? Before I could respond and protest, she mused further,

“Grey hair is such a blessing. What a privilege it is to age.”

[Sound of gears creaking and cranking as my entire perspective is totally shifted]

My friend looked at me pointedly, leaving the subtext deafeningly silent: and don’t forget: aging is privilege we thought you were going to be denied not too long ago.

In the spirit of October and Halloween, let’s work with this and talk about death. It’s a topic I rarely shy away from with my clients. Why would a health counselor talk about death? Shouldn’t we be focused on wellness and living? And how did this blog post get so morbid?

I know only two absolute truths about my clients, myself, and you, dear reader. The first is that you were born. The second is that you will die.

Death is such a useful tool to find the marrow of your desire; to find out how you really want to live. Often, we avoid thinking about death at all costs, wandering around with that terror lurking under the surface. Avoiding death forces us into an urgency to get things done in the hope that we leave some kind of legacy. It doesn’t take long for this to turn into workaholism to try to show we matter, relationships we know aren’t beneficial to us to avoid being alone, or a refusal to say no, less we face the dreaded Fear of Missing Out.

But if you take the privilege of aging as an act of mindfulness, you can use death as a personal advisor to learn what you truly want.

Try this meditation, developed by Tara Brach. Do it as a meditation practice, rather than a thought exercise; you may surprise yourself with what you learn.

Sit quietly, and let your body settle into itself. Soften any habitual areas of tension — the scalp, the jaw, the tongue, the shoulders. Become aware of your natural breath. Let yourself follow the breath quietly for a few moments. Then, imagine — without worrying how or why — that you will be dead one year from now. Sit with that. What would you do? How would you want to feel? What becomes most important?

Now imagine as best you can, that you will be dead one month from now. What becomes important? One week from now? One day from now? One hour from now? Just a few moments from now? At each place in time, pause for several moments and settle into the feeling, as real as you can imagine, and explore what becomes important to you.

What are you left with in the final moments of your meditation? This is a deep core desire, and you can use that as a compass to orient your path.

The first time I sat with this meditation, I surprised myself. When I had a year to live, I was taking trips all over the place, seeing every person I loved, finally writing my book, dancing in Havana — I was fretting as I tried to jam in every last little experience I could. But as the time whittled away, doing things became less important. When I sat with the idea that I only had a few moments to live, doing stripped away completely and I shifted to wanting to feel peace and deep abiding love.

Thich Nhat Hahn puts it this way: “I’m dying. You’re dying. Let us share these precious moments together.”

In that space, whether my hair is grey or ambiguously brown-blonde disappears from my periphery of Things I Care About.

(But for the record, it’s probably just blonde.)

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