The reality of death is something that we all consciously try to avoid. Rarely do we openly discuss the topic with friends and family unless it is something like arranging a funeral or sorting through the possessions of a person who just passed away. Even then it can be difficult and we often have to force ourselves into talking about the grim fate we’ll all eventually face. Whenever thoughts about death enter our minds, we quickly search for any possible distraction to keep us from thinking about the ones we’ve lost or the ways we may eventually die. Avoiding these conversations and thoughts, however, doesn’t change the fact that the impermanent nature of life guarantees that we will one day perish.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be negative and scared of death. Instead of looking at this fact from a grim perspective, we have the ability to use the reality of death to our advantage. By understanding the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and ignorance, we can paradoxically find life-affirming ways to think about death and use the truth of fate to enhance our lives.
Impermanence and Ignorance:
None of us can deny the fact that death is a very real part of the human experience. While many in the Western world like to consciously avoid discussing this truth, Buddhist theology is largely built upon the fact that everything in this world is impermanent in nature. Not only will there be an end for each of us, but on a more nominal level, the process of dying and regeneration is taking place all the time. Your body at the microscopic level is in a state of constant transformation. Your thoughts, perceptions, and emotions are constantly changing depending on your experiences, decisions, and actions. Western scientists would undoubtedly agree with the Buddhist idea that nothing, including ourselves, is as solid, fixed, or real as we believe.
When the Buddha was teaching throughout India and Nepal thousands of years ago, he went to great lengths to explain the process of human suffering. He told us that when we grasp for things to be a certain way and try to control variables that can’t be controlled, we inevitably will suffer because of the impermanent reality we are faced with. Even though we inherently know that nothing can last, this doesn’t stop us from operating and acting with an ignorant perspective.
The wishes and wants of our egos are foolishly based upon the idea that what we crave will last forever. We also attach ourselves to impermanent phenomena while assuming that we can will our way to any outcome that we desire. This way of living, however, is ironically the very reason that we do suffer. The revered Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us,
It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer I wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
In the Western world, the reality of death takes on such a negative connotation because of the greater population’s ignorance towards the impermanent nature of life. The suffering and distress that are caused by death are largely formed out of the ignorant and irrational idea that the road will continue on for eternity. Therefore, if you are going to use the reality of death to your advantage, the first thing that you must do is wholly and openly accept impermanence as the ultimate reality. Once you have done this, you can then begin to look at death with an honest perspective and creatively find ways to think about your time-bound reality to increase your levels of freedom, motivation, and contentment.
3 Ways to Use the Reality of Death to Your Advantage:
Regardless of the situation that you find yourself in, there are particular ways that you can use the reality of death to your advantage. We can look at 3 uniquely different life situations and show how an individual could consciously use the truth of death to propel them toward higher levels of happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction.
1.) Let Go and Start Again:
The reality of living not only guarantees death but also ensures that there will be troubling and turbulent times. Throughout various periods of our lives, we will certainly be faced with immense obstacles, challenging circumstances, and painful situations. For example, we may lose a loved one prematurely, we may suffer with bouts of depression and anxiety, or we may have to deal with a devastating divorce. When you are faced with any challenging emotional, physical, or psychological problem, you have the ability to use death to your advantage.
It is not easy to face troubling circumstances without feeling overwhelmed, but by reminding yourself that everything in this world is impermanent, including your fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and regret, you can lessen the burden of feeling hopeless. A proverb from the Democratic Republic of Congo probably sums this up best:
No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.”
By consciously thinking about the reality of death and the impermanent nature of the negative feelings that you feel in rough times, you can free yourself from the grip of destructive thoughts and emotions.
2.) Act with Purposeful Urgency:
You can also use the reality of death to your advantage by consciously reminding yourself of the fact that the time you have to make a positive impact on the world is undeniably time-bound. The late great Vipassana Meditation teacher S.N. Goenka thoughtfully told us,
A human life is of limited duration, with limited capabilities. It is important to use one’s life to the best purpose.”
Unfortunately, western societies greatly overvalue material ownership and financial wealth even thought these things hold limited value in the grand scheme of things. Instead of using death as a motivator that propels you towards riches and fame, you should use it as motivation to make a difference in the lives of the people that you come in contact with.
It is important to not become overly eager to participate in the game of undermining other people which is a byproduct of the competitive and cutthroat societies that we live in. Remember that at the end of your life, you certainly will be most proud of the positive impact that you had on your friends, family, and community. Instead of tirelessly pursuing status and paychecks, focus on acquiring meaningful relationships and experiences.
3.) Enjoy the Time that You Have:
Every day that you wake up, you should pay especially close attention to the date on your calendar. The vast majority of humans senselessly treat practically every day as ‘just another day.’ The reality that we are faced with, however, tells us that we only get one opportunity to live the day that is. By reminding yourself that there is only one opportunity to live on July 27th, 2023, you will naturally become more focused on finding happiness and fulfillment regardless of your situation and circumstances. Since today is the only day that we have, it is imperative that we do our best to find the most joy and fulfillment in it.
To fully use the reality of death to your advantage, you may want to start reflecting on the fateful fact of life on a daily basis. One way that you can do this is by asking yourself a number of situationally relevant conscious questions to remind yourself of the reality that you are faced with. For example, if you are struggling to overcome negative emotions, you can ask “What is the deeper reality of these feelings?” and consciously point to the fact that they are impermanent. If, however, you aren’t feeling motivated to make difference in the lives of others, you can ask “Why is it important that I work towards making the world a better place today?” and reflect on the limited amount of time that you have to make your mark on society.
While asking questions such as the ones we just looked at can help us in a variety of ways depending on our circumstances and situations, there is one all-important question that we all should be asked every day. To vastly improve the levels of life satisfaction that you live with, you should make it a habit to undeniably ask yourself “Why is this day a gift?” which will help you remember that you only get one chance to live it.
By taking the time to reflect on the reality of death in this way, you will eventually be able to relinquish your need to control situations, feel more motivated to turn the world into a better place and begin living from a place of contentment and compassion. By consciously and creatively using the reality of death to your advantage, you undoubtedly will experience higher levels of happiness, satisfaction, contentment, and compassion. Instead of avoiding the topic of death, you can serve yourself quite well by reflecting on the truth of impermanence each and every day.