Most of us live our busy lives forgetting the simple fact that at some point, we will die. We live in a constant state of denial, in which we have subconsciously and willfully pushed this reality out of our minds. We think we have all the time in the world. How would our relationship with life change, if we were to change our relationship with death?
How do you picture your death? Somehow, we don’t really believe it’s going to happen. Not to me. But it will.
We see ourselves ideally as having lived a long and fruitful life, many many years from now, serene and fulfilled, surrounded on our deathbed by loving family and friends holding our hand, as we slip peacefully away into the unknown world. But the truth is, none of us – no matter what our current age – knows exactly when our turn will come, or how it will manifest. It could be far more sudden, shocking, and out of the blue than we choose to acknowledge. Anything can happen. This isn’t meant to instill fear. It’s simply a reality check, and it’s meant to instill gratitude. We wake up every day not really knowing if it will be our last, but we trick ourselves into assuming it won’t, and so we spend our day “sweating the small stuff”. What if we were to wake up instead recognizing that each precious day could be our last? Because it could. None of us has any idea what fate has in store for us.
Yoga teaches us gratitude for the moment through an appreciation of our breath. When we experience our fullest breath, we are imbued with Prana, the life force. We too easily forget that without life-giving breath, we would expire almost instantly. Living beings can live for a while without food, and for a short time without water, but not for long without breath. Breath is the number one thing we need on the priority list of staying alive.
I had a wake-up call last month in the wake of the terrible wildfires in Northern California. It was nothing compared to those who lost loved ones, their homes, and their livelihoods. But to me, it was a turning point. October 12th went from being a normal day filled with normal concerns about unimportant things, to a day filled with black smoke permeating the air with the worst recorded pollution on the planet, including Beijing. You couldn’t see outside. It looked like the end of the world, with dandruff-like ash raining down all around. I couldn’t get a full breath. My lungs hurt with a dull, pounding ache, and my throat closed up. I couldn’t speak. People’s noses were bleeding. It was a somber, scary day in the Bay Area. My entire focus in an instant shifted from whatever it was I had been concerned about, to just one thing: taking a full, clean breath. Nothing else mattered. Nothing.
I will never ever take my breath – or clean air for that matter – for granted, ever again. Experiencing that suffocating, panicky feeling, I can’t believe that I ever smoked cigarettes in college to look cool. I can’t believe I ever prioritized anything at all over my health. Having experienced not being able to walk outside, inhale and take a breath, changed me. I realize now that I would one hundred percent rather be dirt poor and homeless on the street with the ability to take in a full breath, rather than the richest person in the world with lung cancer or emphysema. No amount of money can buy back your breath when it’s gone.
It’s no accident that the final pose, and perhaps the most important, of all the asanas that we practice, is always Savasana, or “corpse pose.” We lie flat, feeling each part of ourselves melt into the earth and become one with the ground beneath us. Our eyes roll back into our skull and upwards toward the third eye center. Tension leaves our body until we are holding onto nothing, including the breath, which morphs from the ujaii breath that we have maintained during practice, to a soft, passive drift. Savasana isn’t nap time. It’s a deep, profound meditation, in which you empty yourself and allow the universe to fill you. Skipping this pose negates your entire yoga practice. Without it, your nervous system doesn’t have a chance to re-boot. Savasana is the experience of kinetic understanding on a deep, cellular level, of surrender.
I want to start practicing now to be ready for death whenever it might choose me. Of course I hope it’s many many years from now, but the fact is, none of us knows. I don’t particularly like the idea of being caught off guard without having done the work of acknowledging my mortality; embracing it, so that I may live fully and freely in readiness at all times. The taste of life becomes inexpressibly sweet, delicious, and precious when seen through this clear lense. If I truly live each day as if it were my last, would I complain less? Would I notice and appreciate more beauty around me? Would I choose to spend my time more wisely in ways that feed my soul? And when my time comes, will I be at peace with a life, no matter how long it was, lived fully and completely from the depths of my soul? Will I be able to surrender in that instant, to peacefully let go?
This simple exercise of meditating on my own death, facing it head on, and welcoming it as a part of and a continuation of my life’s journey, allows me to experience my life here on this plane in a newly enlivened and hyper aware state of consciousness. It helps me to see what is and what is not important, what are “first world problems”, and what is and what is not serving me on my quest for enlightenment and peace. It imbues me with indescribable gratitude for the gift of life. Whether you do or do not believe in God, or in an afterlife, is immaterial. We all will die. The question is not when. It’s how.