I May Die Today
I am all too familiar with this dynamic—I’ve managed to have the same New Year’s resolution around weight for more years than I can count.
Why are we so bad at doing what we know needs to be done?
I believe it’s a matter of urgency, or more accurately, the lack thereof. The years can come and go with no progress at all because we do not feel the absolute need to change.
My spiritual tradition recognizes this and recommends meditating on death to overcome our inertia around personal and spiritual development. Specifically, it recommends contemplating how the time of our death is unknown. Thus, the message I’ve attached to my morning alarm: “I may die today.”
But if I were to die today, there is little I could do to improve my lot. Would some middle ground work? Like imagining that I have only a limited amount of time left, and then figuring out the most important things I need to do before I die?
I do believe that holding death in our minds is key. Indeed, any significant change we make involves a dying of sorts; an older, outdated version of ourselves is consigned to the dustbin of our personal histories, and we reemerge, phoenix-like, with new perspectives, new directions, new practices and, practically speaking, new lives.
This message has found me in the last several weeks. Just today I had lunch with a healer, Priya Lakhi, whose friend described Lakhi’s work as a “death doula” in that she helps clients go through the process described above.
And last month I had lunch with psychotherapist and author Dr. Toni Galardi. Her book, The LifeQuake Phenomenon, is about huge personal upheavals—dramatic changes in career, relationships, where one lives and loss. Her metaphor for the Dark Night of the Soul? The “Cosmic Barbecue,” and her description involves apples and an oversized grilling spit; the apples were not for pigs.
A key idea Galardi presents in LifeQuake is that we need not endure these heart-stopping, soul-wrenching times as if we were being roasted over a roaring fire. There are signs that cataclysms are near, and we can choose to avoid them and be proactive in changing.
And yet, the vast majority of us continue to sleepwalk through life, knowing that we should do certain things but not feeling the heat enough to act. We all have heard about dramatic turnarounds others have made when confronted with a life-threatening illness; many have made sudden and drastic lifestyle changes and have beat cancer. But Galardi’s point is that many could have prevented their days of reckoning if they had been living healthier lifestyles all along.
So what would it take for us to act now? Will imagining that we only have X amount of time to live help? How much time should that be? Personally, I find 18 months is good; not so short as to completely freak out, but not so long as to completely ignore.
But we’re still left to wonder if our imagination is strong enough to light the fire we need. Will we feel the urgency?
For me, the words that have had the greatest impact have not been “I may die today,” but a metaphor that one teacher concocted. In speaking to this issue of making big life changes that we know should be made, Gen-la Dekyong of the New Kadampa tradition said, and I paraphrase: “Imagine you wish to go to Chattanooga, but you realize you’re traveling south on 75. When would be a good time to turn around?”