avatarLuka Bönisch


Death Is Breathing Down Your Neck Right Now

“The man who dies before he dies does not die when he dies.” — Abraham a Sancta Clara

Image by the author

When I was 13 years old, I went through a difficult time. I was caught shoplifting and as a result, was grounded.

That evening being alone in my room, I felt the heaviness of life bear down on me as I had never felt it before. (Seems like I was quite dramatic at the time.)

It was not that I had a bad childhood.

Sure, I had difficulties, as any teenager has. Perhaps I seemed more inside my head than other kids but my parents were loving, I had many friends, was a popular child, and life was generally good.

That night, however, everything felt exhausting. Living felt like carrying a huge boulder up a mountain and I didn’t want to carry it anymore.

Part of the realization was that life always felt like carrying this boulder. Living in itself seemed to have this boulder-carrying flavor inherent. Until then I just wasn’t fully aware of it.

Then, like it wasn’t my own, a thought appeared: “If life gets too exhausting, I can just end my life, and then the struggle is over.”

Although this seems like a serious and scary thought, for me it didn’t feel that way.

Before that, I was never seriously thinking about death, at least not that I remember. But when I had this thought something interesting happened.

It was as if this heavy boulder was lifted off my shoulders.

I wasn’t even seriously considering suicide. Just knowing that death is a possibility was liberating.

I felt like someone had granted me the power over my life. For the first time, I realized that the most important decision was in my hands — to live or to die.

I felt lighter and happier. I felt relieved. After that night I felt more alive than ever.

Without knowing it, I had practiced death awareness.

The Cult of Life

“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” — W. Somerset Maugham

Image by the author

I’m not part of a death cult or something.

If anything I’m part of a life cult. Not really. But I can start one if enough people are interested (send me a message, wink).

Anyhow, death is the obvious great equalizer.

No matter how much ambition, drive, and desire you have. No matter how beautiful, rich, and successful you are. With one swipe of its skeletal hand death will tear down your sand castles.

And if you think you have time, and death will let you finish building your castle before destroying it, think again.

This is part of the illusion.

Death is not some future event. Every day is Doomsday.

Death doesn’t need a huge ceremony. Death doesn’t need a special occasion at all.

There is no moment too mundane for death.

The only question is, are we awake (to this) today?

Being awake can be (and usually is) interpreted in many different ways. But because I’m the only one writing this article I choose the interpretation.

So by being awake, I mean being awake to the mystery that is life.

Okay, still a bit cryptic.

What I mean is no longer living inside the stories your mind is spinning. And instead living intimately in the immediacy of your direct experience.

You know you’re there when a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude starts creeping in.

And that’s what it’s really about.

Often this whole contemplate-your-death business is turned into another short-lived motivational push. Quit the job, travel the world, start the business, write the book, and so forth.

While this is valid, it’s beside the point. It’s very little about what you do or have.

It’s about how you are.

You can have all the blessings the world has to offer and still somnambulate your way around this place. Becoming aware of the immediacy of death is not about chasing your egoic desires with increased fervor.

Death isn’t saying, “Hey, perhaps you should make more money, have people follow you, and be super mega awesome.”

Death is saying, “Stop this silly chase for a moment and ask yourself what’s really going on here.”

The Biggest Taboo

“What is the greatest wonder? Each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest wonder.” — The Mahabharata

Image by the author

The attachment to life is the mother of all attachments, which is another name for the fear of death or non-existence.


Have you ever thought about yours? How about the death of your family and friends?

For many of us, death is a morbid topic. But death isn’t morbid, fear is morbid.

Death doesn’t oppose life, fear opposes life.

Most of us live in societies where death is avoided at all costs, not knowing that the liberation we seek is in turning towards death not away from it.

But death is a great thing to think about. It’s a damn silly thing not to think about.

Don’t be afraid to think about death. It can’t harm your life.

Death is the key to life because death gives life shape and context.

But only when you’re afraid of life do you fear death. And this subconscious fear of death/life is limiting our experience of life in ways we’re not aware of.

You might say that’s not true but reflect on all the risks you have not taken and ask yourself why.

Think about the life you’re living and what’s driving it.

How much of it is driven by the unconscious desire to ensure approval, control, and security? How much of it is about fitting into predefined ideas?

How much of your little time here are you wasting with anxieties, worries, concerns, burdens, etc.?

We are scared to lose/mess up this life so we never start living it.

And again, becoming alive by facing death is very little about what you do. This is more fundamental.

As Anthony De Mello says in his book Awareness:

If I can’t get you to cross a street, how can I get you to cross a continent? And if I can’t get you to peep out of your little narrow beliefs and convictions and look at another world, you’re dead, you’re completely dead; life has passed you by. You’re sitting in your little prison, where you’re frightened; you’re going to lose your God, your religion, your friends, all kinds of things. Life is for the gambler, it really is.

Look around.

You see dead people walking around everywhere.

We do and say what we’re told, we question nothing, we lack courage, we “live life” as we’re supposed to live it, and we’re tightly wrapped in our cocoons too afraid to break out.

Sure, we’re afraid of death but we’re already dead so what is there to be afraid of?

What we’re really afraid of is life.

When it comes to living, we assume we still have time left. And when it comes to dying, we assume it’s not our time yet. But in reality, it’s our time every second.

And this is exactly what we can do: Be aware of the ticking steadily moving us into the unknown.

Many spiritual practices claim to be transformative but are not. Death awareness, however, is the real deal because it provides an accurate barometer of your spiritual sincerity.

After all, if we can’t face the most fundamental fact of our own existence, what can we face?

Getting Cozy With the Not-So-Grim Reaper

“For those who seek to understand it, death is a highly creative force. The highest spiritual values of life can originate from the thought and study of death.” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Image by the author

What we need to know is that death awareness is about life awareness, which is about waking up.

It really has nothing to do with dying.

Another thing to consider is that one wake-up call is usually not enough. We need hundreds of wake-up calls, preferably every day and that’s what the practice of death awareness or memento mori is about.

I also want to emphasize that triggering the fear of death is usually not easy.

Here is how you can imagine the level of fear and grief that might arise when you manage to do it:

Imagine (or remember) a loved one dying. Allow the emotions to arise. Then imagine a person that is even closer to you than that loved one. That person is you. (No one is as close to you as yourself.) How intense would the fear and sorrow be if you knew you would die tomorrow?

When you manage to evoke those emotions and feel them in their completion, you’re in for some awesome boons — a previously unknown sense of freedom and peace.

Someone once told me about a hardcore way to confront your mortality.

This guy would take a significant dose of psilocybin mushrooms. Then he would take his shovel and walk into the woods. There he would proceed to dig his own grave and when he was done he would lay in it.

Of course this is a tad too wild for most people but for him, it did the trick.

If you’re not into digging your own grave, which I understand, there are other ways to go about it.

Essentially, there are two aspects of practicing death awareness.

The first is to face your own death. Here are a few examples of how you can do this:

  • Before every meal, be aware that this might be your last meal.
  • While doing anything, be aware that someone died doing exactly that same thing.
  • Whenever you’re afraid to take a risk, imagine you were to die tomorrow.
  • Regularly spend time in a graveyard.

The second aspect is to face the death of loved people (and things). For most of us, this will hurt more than facing our own death, at least superficially.

Many of us cannot bear to even think about the death of a loved one. But to the degree that we’re unable to think of (the) death (of other people), to that degree we’re already dead.

So the solution is to face the death of loved people (and things) now.

Take the people most important to you one at a time and imagine they are dead or lost or separated from you forever. In your heart to each of them say thank you and goodbye.

You will experience pain. But what follows is a disappearance of clinging.

Then a solitude will arise which will expand until it envelopes everything.

In that solitude is freedom. That solitude is aloneness, not loneliness.

You no longer depend upon anyone else for your emotional needs. The capacity to love is born.

You will be able to enjoy things, people, and experiences on a non-clinging basis free from anxiety, tension, and insecurity. Free from the fear of loss and death.

That’s a tremendous thing.

But hey! In the end we will all die anyway, so it’s really a non-issue. And since we will all die anyway, it can’t be that bad at all.

Death is breathing down your neck right now, so why not turn around and make friends with it?

“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” — Michel de Montaigne

Check out my website for more of my work: https://mindfulled.com/

If you enjoyed this article, consider trying out the AI service I recommend. It provides the same performance and functions to ChatGPT Plus(GPT-4) but more cost-effective, at just $6/month (Special offer for $1/month). Click here to try ZAI.chat.

Life Lessons
Self Help
Spiritual Growth
Recommended from ReadMedium