How would you live if you knew when you would die? What if it was tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year? We spend a lot of time worrying about the future, thinking about what might be, could be, or should be. We set new year’s resolutions, make 5 and 10-year plans. And don’t get me wrong I’m not saying they can’t be helpful, but (and I’m guilty about this) we also tend to spend so much time worrying about the future that we forget to live in the now.
I recently spent some time with a very inspiring young woman, Mohini, wise beyond her years, who has a very severe case of muscular dystrophy and knows her days are numbered. She is only 18-year-old. Spending time with her, I was so inspired and moved by how instead of bemoaning her fate, she accepted it with equanimity and uses it as a catalyst to focus her priorities on what is truly important. And maybe that will vary for each of us depending on where we are on our paths, but I think we all have things we know we spend to much time on or too much time worrying about at the expense of focusing on those things that truly matter. Maybe that’s going deeper on our spiritual path. Maybe it’s spending more time with our loved ones. Maybe both. Chances are it’s not working or worrying ourselves to death. So, with that said here are a few thoughts I have on how we can better live in the now, to the fullest, as if today might indeed be our last day in this life.
1) Focus on what gives you joy. And note here I’m talking about true, long-lasting joy, not fleeting pleasure or happiness that lasts a moment and then is gone. Joy. I recently read “The Book of Joy” a conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama and a few of the things that really stuck with me in how to build joy were compassion, gratitude and forgiveness.
Compassion: When we’re busy worrying about tomorrow or second-guessing the past, chances are we are very focused on ourselves. Compassion (which starts from ourselves by the way) takes us our of our own heads and connects us with our human brothers and sisters. When we are compassionate to our neighbors, we are grounded in the present moment, connected.
Gratitude: Focusing on gratitude takes us out of our heads, those heads that may sometimes have a bit of a “woe is me” pity party going on and reminds us of the things we do indeed have to be grateful for. It reminds me of something my tennis coach used to tell me as a teenager – well you’re not the best in the world but you’re no longer the worst either. So no matter what your challenges are and while you may not be the healthiest or most fortunate person in the world, I guarantee you also aren’t the worst off either. If you’re currently alive and breathing that is something to be grateful for.
Forgiveness: Holding grudges, holding onto past hurts as difficult as it may be to let them go, maybe we can start to a little if we put it into a little perspective and think is this really something I want to still be holding onto at the end of my life? Whether the person or situation we need to forgive is someone or something or perhaps even our very selves…
2) Spend time in nature. When we reflect back on our lives are we going to think “oh I wish I had spent more time in front of a computer, working…” Probably not… On the flip side, it’s doubtful we will think “oh dang, I wasted so much time in nature, being in the present moment…” There is simply something both so magical and grounding as spending time outside, the sun and wind on our faces, the earth beneath our feet. Could you integrate a little more time outside into your life? Even just spending a few moments each morning outside, just breathing.
3) Reflect on death. While not an aspect of being in the present moment per se this is a meditation that the Dalai Lama practices and I found very intriguing. The Dalai Lama spends time each day meditating on death, imagining what it will be like at the time of death so that he is prepared. This is not unlike a slightly more intense version of bringing to mind a situation that upset and then going through that experience and maybe how you could better respond in the future. It’s a rehearsal so to speak. Another version of this would be reflecting on nearing the end of this life, and reflecting on what we would have wanted to have accomplished, what kind of difference we would have wanted to make. Are we doing those things now? And maybe we’re not ready for such an intense meditation and that’s ok too, but we can simply reflect how we want to live our lives, making the most of each day and having gratitude for simply being alive breathing.
4) Spend more time in community with the people you care about. Again, similar to spending time in nature, chances when we’re reflecting on our lives we won’t regret that we didn’t make enough money or achieve enough “success” but maybe we’ll regret the relationships we let die, the friendships we didn’t cultivate, the connections we didn’t have time for. Connect, spend time with those you love. If today was your last day on this earth, would you spend it working or surrounded by those you love? Of course, I’m not suggesting to not work, but merely to see where the balance of your energies are. And even in your work, perhaps reflecting, is it meaningful? Are you connecting? And outside of work are you valuing your relationships? Maybe that’s even as simply as calling a friend to tell them how much you care and value their friendship.
There’s a reason people who have near death experiences often come back inspired to take life by the ropes, tremendously grateful for their second chance. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t need to first have a near death experience to have that feeling?
“The tragedy of life is not death but what we let die inside of us while we live.” Norman Cousins