“A wealthy businessman who was passing through the Polish town of Radin. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity of seeing the leader of the generation, he went to visit the Chofetz Chaim. Upon entering, he was struck by his sparsely furnished home. Unable to control himself, he blurted out, “Where is your furniture!?”. the Chofetz Chaim responded by asking where was his furniture? The businessman, somewhat surprised, explained that he was only passing through. The Chofetz Chaim explained that he too, is only passing through…”
There’s a concept in Buddhism of dying before you die, it’s about letting go of attachments – status, money, achievement, possessions. When we die, we will of course let go of all of that, but the real challenge is can you do that before you die?
At first, thinking of death can be scary, difficult and tearful. I think in part because as a culture we don’t talk about it. Whereas we compliment youth, pride ourselves on health and celebrate birth; we view ageing with disgust, sickness and disease with horror, and death as unspeakable.
Of course not all deaths, or the manner in which they happen are something to be celebrated. However, by not talking about death, even in the worst cases, we make the subject a taboo.
Personally I think there can be a lot of benefit to our present lives by often contemplating death. It help puts things in perspective.
When it comes to physical possessions many mummified Egyptians were buried with treasures because it was believed they could be carried to the afterlife. When I don’t currently own something I want or something I have gets broken or stolen I try to remind myself that this too is all temporary. I can’t take any of it with me when I go so why bother stressing over it now? Sure the physical or financial pain of losing something hurts, but we don’t have to continue to suffer it. Just like the Rabbi mentioned above, we are all merely passing through, renting our lives, our bodies temporarily.
This letting go also applies to our intangible attachments – to relationships, our egos, our thoughts and beliefs about who we are.
We all want to do better, to achieve more and be successful. Life’s chaos will always conspire against us but remembering we are one day going to die when we’re stressed about running late or crying over spilt milk, whether literally or metaphorically, can help us question whether this thing we’re worrying about is really that consequential.
Another benefit of regularly contemplating death is that we can potentially avoid the common regrets of the dying. We can let go of others’ expectations of ourselves, we let go of striving to get ‘one more thing done at the end of the day’ and we can let go of what other people think of us (spoiler alert: people aren’t thinking about us 99% of the time).
By remembering the fragility; the ephemeral, transient and impermanent state of all these things encourages us to express gratitude for all of those things now. To not take them for granted or regret not saying or doing the things we wished when we could have.
When we endeavour to keep our lives small and simple, we naturally elevate what’s important to us. We can enjoy more of life now rather than later, tomorrow or when we have this thing or when we’ve achieved that goal.
For those struggling to remember this fact there’s an app called WeCroak. The WeCroak app is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying: to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.
Each day, the apps sends you five invitations to stop and think about death. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death. When they come, you can open the app to reveal a quote about death from a poet, philosopher, or notable thinker.