How Meditating on My Death Changed My Life

“In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a dark woods
Where the straight way was lost.”
— Dante Alighieri


This has been a year of existential crisis for me. A year of realizing, in a guttural way, that I will die one day and I have no idea when that day is or what will happen after it.

It began after I attended a week-long silent retreat with the spiritual teacher Adyashanti. For the most part, it was a very sweet, gentle and uneventful retreat. However, just about as soon as I returned home everything started to turn upside down.

My whole life I have felt unafraid of death. I've come close to it more than once and still never experienced a fear of it. But after this retreat, I began to encounter my humanness in new and confusing ways, including facing the very sureness of my death. And for the first time, I was scared.

Death came, not as a thought or an idea to contemplate, but as very real and terrifying experiences that shot right at the core of me initiating panic at times, dread and depression at others.

In the end, what was born of these experiences was maybe the most precious gift I could have ever been given: The ability and cause to really ask myself, in a very deep way: What is important in my life?

I kept seeing my life from a backward perspective, one of being at the end of my days and looking at the line of my life. Was it of value? Was I of value? Did the people I love know that I loved them? Did I spend enough time with them, showing them that love? Did I contribute anything to the world? Did I live selfishly or did I give? Did I do more good than harm and right the wrongs I could? Was I kind? Was I brave? Did I live in a way I believed in? Did I do everything I wanted to do?

Once these moments of crisis began to diminish, I realized what an important tool looking at life in this way was and started to use it consciously as a meditation. Each day I would ask myself: if today is my last day, where am I in alignment with my values and where am I not?

These questions began probing into the very center of my life. Such a frank and honest reflection showed me exactly where I needed to make changes. When in the past a lot of these changes were avoided by saying that I didn’t know how to make them, or I couldn't because I had responsibilities that kept me bound, this time it was clear they should not, and could not, be avoided. They must be made at any risk. And so began the upheaval of my life.

The more I looked, the more I saw that my feelings of being trapped in a system I did not like or agree with were bullshit. I had choices, they were just scary ones.

I began talking to my husband about what it would look like if we just said fuck it to all the things we were doing that we didn’t really believe in. What if we left it all, what if we just followed our hearts and lived in the way we felt called to? What was really the worst that could happen?

As we allowed these questions to unfurl, giving them space to breathe and come to life, all the trappings we had felt confined by started to give way. Our life began a slow unraveling, opening the door for us to blaze our trail.

We have chosen to take this leap, together, for the love of our family and its deepest well-being. I, so that I may find peace in my soul. If my final day were to come tomorrow, I would not be satisfied with having lived in the box that was given to me -- or even only part in it. I want to blow the whole fucking box to bits. I need to know what happens when I do that.

I want to know that I was brave and bold and paved the path that was meant for my heart to walk -- not half-assed, not only partly, but wholly, completely, totally, no matter how thorny or overgrown or intimidating the road may be.

I want to reinvent myself and my life as many times and in as many ways as I have to until I know that in those final moments I will be deeply and utterly satisfied with what I have done here.

In just six short weeks, my family and I will be leaving everything, taking to the road for two months and then going to the Big Island of Hawaii. Practically speaking we have no idea how most of this will unfold and are quite literally taking it one moment and step at a time.

It is all a great mystery and a grand adventure -- and that is something deeply nourishing to my spirit. I have seen Life support this journey in so many ways already and I know we will continue to be blessed in equal measure for our courage and our faith along the way.

While I don't have all the answers, I can tell you that I am listening hard to the questions now. And I know that they will lead me to where I need to go. My task is to allow myself to be moved by them, to be penetrated by the reflection of my life -- and my death.

Elizabeth Lesser puts it beautifully,

When you tire of your own constriction and you open, come what may, to the flow of life, you and your soul become one, and you feel a river moving in you, a joy... Yet so often we resist the pull of the river. We tune out the call of our soul... Perhaps if we quieted down and asked the soul for direction, we would be moved to make a big change. Maybe that wild river of energy, with its longing for joy and freedom would capsize our more prudent plans, our ambitions, our very survival... The soul always speaks, and sometimes it speaks loudest when we block its flow, when we live only half a life, when we stay on the surface.

So now I ask you, If you were to die today, what are you at peace with? What would you change?

Answer that call -- whether it's with a baby step or a giant leap, for god's sake, answer that call.


(This essay first appeared on Rebelle Society, March 14, 2016)