Simple question, how do you want to die?
We’re not asking about car crash vs. cardiac arrest, we are talking about the last several decades of your life as your body slowly goes to pieces and your brittle bones disintegrate into dust.
Who will be around you? How will your dwelling look? How will you spend your time?
If you’ve visited an elderly person’s house lately you may have noticed: decaying furniture, old photos, walkers and canes. Walking with mincing steps afraid to fall and break a hip. Most American elderly have surrounded themselves with pictures of the glory days and friends long-dead and they shuffle around a dark house, full of dead memories, eating cereal and waiting to die.
Americans like to think they will never age and actively fight it with anti-aging this and wrinkle-free that, but this is an adolescent attitude. . . much healthier is the Buddhist death meditation, where you meditate on the image of your slowly rotting corpse, eaten by worms and flies and eventually moldering into dust, nothing resembling your physical form. This helps you realize the impermanence of all things especially your body.
Here’s the harsh truth that nobody in America likes to think about: eventually you will get old and collapse and die, and they will put your body in a box and put the box in the ground and it will all get eaten by worms and disappear and become soil.
And in 1,000 years nobody will even remember you existed.
Oh, but not me! You think. They will build statues to me that will last 1,000 years because I am going to invent X! Or make so much money nobody will forget me. I will be in the history books next to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. (Really?)
Or, not me, you think, because of my CHILDREN. I already have 4 kids and they are turning out beautifully. I will raise them up right and they will each have 4 kids and so on and so forth and therefore my genetic legacy will live on. And people will remember me as someone’s great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Except those family genealogies won’t last, nor will the genetic code. Sure it might last a few thousand years, but what about it? The ‘you’ of today will be long gone and depending on your beliefs your immortal soul will either be reincarnated, suffering or celebrating in Heaven or Hell, or simply in non-existence. And what then?
Spend 10 minutes today envisioning the last 20 years of your life. What do you want it to be like?
Will you be giving back? Will you stay relevant in your family’s life, or let yourself be carted off to a nursing home like human waste?
Will you have wisdom that people want to hear? Will you be involved with the younger generation, helping them?
Or will you be irrelevant and boring?
The point is that building a legacy is not the point; NOW is your legacy. What are you going to do NOW so that in 30 years, you won’t be doddering around a dark empty house, staring at old photographs of dead friends, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?
Here is what I envision when I do the Death Meditation and project myself forward to the age of 70. As I get older I live a simpler and simpler life and spend more and more time in meditation. I am in a community where I resolve disputes and listen to people. I speak probably fewer than 100 words a day. I live in the simplest possible place on earth, maybe just rocks and a few trees around me, I eat very little and only vegetables. I take no stimulants or suppressants.
This is an Eastern conception of age. It’s no wonder I am drawn to it because Americans treat their old terribly, warehousing them out-of-sight as if it were shameful to grow old and didn’t carry any benefit of wisdom or learning. In older, wiser cultures, the elders are treasured or at least respected. Not so in teenaged America, which may have run out of time to grow up.
In Tibet and Bhutan, men in their 70s and 80s are happy, stout and continue working . Many men are continually and joyfully working until they day they die. I would like that end. No pictures, no drafty old house. A clean stone monastery, swept clean of cobwebs every day, filled with high mountain sunlight filtering through thin mountain air. Gongs and light sleep. Smiling child monks. And every day, laughter.