Today on this “Day of the Dead” holiday honoring those who are gone but not forgotten, I would like to share a few homespun thoughts with you about living and dying.
While the topic of death is a conversation largely avoided in modern America, the remembrance of deceased ancestors and loved ones is a millennia old tradition amongst diverse cultures around the globe. Moreover, in these turbulent times of worldwide strife and tragic natural disasters, nobody’s lacking for reminders regarding the fragility and impermanence of our mortal existence.
Consequently, with heartbreaking human misery, senseless bloodshed and apocalyptic devastation from near and afar daily flooding our senses, it’s essential we make every effort to direct our focus on the upside of life and—while we’re at it—on the upside of death. Whereas doing so won’t eliminate the downside, it provides perspective that helps balance it. A good starting point is to remind ourselves that every day is a gift, each morning a fresh beginning.
All yesterdays should be yesterdays, all tomorrows should be tomorrows. Sufficient is it to know that the way we lived our yesterday has determined for us our today, and that the way we live our today determines for us our tomorrow. And so it goes throughout our life until the day we “join the majority”.
Death is our eternal companion, always nearby, watching, and ever will be until that fateful moment it taps us upon the shoulder. It’s difficult to feel important or irritable when we remember that death is always stalking us. Indeed, a great deal of pettiness is often dropped and clarity of perspective gained when we catch a glimmer of our own death.
The 19th century Yaqui Indian Warrior and Man of Knowledge Don Juan Matus believed that death is the only wise advisor we have. He emphasized the importance of using our death to keep perspective, yet without sadness, remorse or worrying. Don Juan held that the only deterrent to despair in this short-lived existence is awareness of our impending death, and that this awareness subsequently gives us strength to withstand the duress and pain of our lives and our fears of the unknown.
He further advised that no matter what happens to us, no matter how badly we feel, when things are going wrong, even when we believe ourselves about to be annihilated, we need only turn to our death and ask if this is so. Don Juan insisted your death will say you are wrong, that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you “I haven’t touched you yet.”
What’s more, we must stubbornly refuse to live in fear of death, though it’s perfectly natural to fear what we don’t know. For those possessing faith in an afterlife forever reunited with loved ones on the Other Side, the transition from life to death can be less frightening—and for some, even gently beckoning.
Not knowing what lies beyond the veil is yet another piece in this mystical life of ours puzzle. It’s the final surprise. Sooner or later and altogether conveniently, to unravel the mystery of death one only has to die.
On a personal note, I still recall the huge wave of relief I felt as a youngster when a kindly old soul assured me “Death is like jumping out of an airplane with no parachute, but there’s no need to be frightened, because there’s no earth either.” Whoa. Decades later this otherworldly vision continues to bring me comfort.
What’s certain is that death really is the end of the world as we’ve known it. To live with such unblinking awareness of our death is to live with correspondingly acute awareness of the brevity of our life. Enlisting death as our trusted ally can paradoxically serve to motivate us to make the most of our limited time alive no matter how long we shall live.
Few people live their lives with conscious awareness. Many live hypnotized, going through trance-like motions of safely existing. A life lived unconsciously—or rarely leaving your comfort zone by taking risks, making mistakes and pursuing dreams—forfeits its possibilities for joy and success. And in exchange for what, meager returns of stale sameness and the desperate hope for increased security and safety that will minimize suffering and failure? To call such a reality “life” is to confuse existing with actually living.
Life often requires of us to take leaps of faith and to make the hard choices without having all the facts or guarantees that everything will work out as hoped. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Win some, lose some, live and learn from your mistakes. It’s been noted that mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.
Like most things of real value worth having, you have to make an effort to prosper in life. You must choose to take intelligent risks and avoid taking foolish ones, which of course requires discerning the difference between the two and acting from emotional intelligence and mindfulness versus knee-jerk reaction and impulsiveness.
As a species humans are innately hardwired to be risk takers, pushing ourselves and our limits ever further as we follow our passion for increasing understanding, awareness of and dominion over our world, both within and without. It is our very Nature to expand upon what we know to better ourself, to improve our life and ultimately—for anybody who’s forgotten—to fulfill our own highest potential.
The quickest way for jumpstarting this process is to vigorously shake your soul awake! Many of us have apparently gone to sleep without realizing it. And electronic technology has only exacerbated the problem. We have far too eagerly replaced solid relationships and real experiences with flimsy online imitations to the point of ridiculousness. A person would have to be living in a dream-world to think a virtual “Climb a Tree” app could ever replace the visceral thrill of actually climbing the real thing itself!
Allow me to be a little preachy: Far too much time is wasted both on- and offline that distracts us from what’s happening and what really matters, namely living in the moment versus living vicariously, virtually or mindlessly running on auto-pilot. Alternatively, we must remember what it means to be fully human—time-limited as it is—by living with emotionally intelligent mindful awareness of our imminent demise. It isn’t hard to do.
When all is said and done, humankind’s most sacred duty is to embody goodness benefitting all sentient beings, which at heart consists of manifesting Life, Intelligence, Truth and Love in our thoughts, words, and deeds. There is no higher aim, no vaster problem, no greater purpose, no grander glory. And, in today’s mad-dash-paced world, perhaps no greater challenge.
Mindful awareness requires vigorously disengaging from our hypnotic state, and replacing it with conscious right thinking and action that emancipates us from the bondage of ignorance, fear and distraction. Only thusly unshackled can we ever begin exercising free will to make better choices that bring us more of what we want and less of what we don’t.
No matter how long your life, we are all just passing through. No one lives forever. Life is unapologetically short, and death the irremovable companion travelling with us throughout our lifetime. Here one second—poof!—gone the next.
While it may sound cliché, you never know when your time will be up. Death can come to anyone without warning. At best, life is uncertain and death inescapable. This is what makes death the only wise advisor we have. The evidence speaks for itself: There are no survivors on this earth!
Believe it, accept it, be here now and make a choice and commitment to wake up and mindfully live your life before your death touches you. Make it your habit to live and love like there’s no tomorrow because—while our personal expiration date is as yet unknown and hopefully far-off—it’s an inevitability for every single one of us. Knowing we’re here for only a short while gives us all the more reason to make every act count.
There is no guarantee that you will live another minute.
Let yours be a good life, justly lived and well loved, by taking intelligent risks and by reaching out to others with unconditional love, compassion and understanding. Spend time with those you love, and shower them with hugs and kisses. Bestow the milk of human kindness to strangers in passing through a warm smile or friendly greeting. Never miss a chance to engage in acts of unselfish decency.
Do the things you love. When opportunity knocks and you’re hesitant, thump yourself on the head while asking aloud, “What on earth am I waiting for?” Then push and keep on pushing against any fear or resistance until you break through it.
When you have life you have everything. To live with death as your advisor is to live with great enthusiasm, and above all, to authentically connect with people that matter to you. Don’t miss your chance! It will feel so good when you do and feel so bad when you don’t. Circumstances may never again be as favorable or even possible, and life’s too short to live in regret mode. At the risk of belaboring my point, don’t squander your life by living timidly. While it is indeed a risky thing to live deliberately, it’s riskier still to live indecisively.
Make time on this remembrance holiday as well as throughout the year to show respect for your loved ones who walk no longer upon this earth by fondly recalling and praying for them. Take comfort in keeping their cherished memory alive that your love for them will live on always—love truly is eternal.
Why not also give thanks today on this Day of the Dead—and on each and every day upon waking—that you are still here amongst the Living. Say a little prayer of appreciation for all the good in your life. Give thanks for your health, and for the ongoing health, happiness and wellbeing of those you care about deeply. By holding this “attitude of gratitude” everything we have feels all the more precious in this fleeting life of ours.
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The choice to empower your impending mortality as a trusted advisor is your own to make. While this admittedly unconventional concept may seem counterintuitive to some and outright weird to others, making an ally of your death releases your fullest innate potential for living and loving. Eventually, when the end finally does come, may yours be a “good death”—a seamless, painless and peaceful transition free from fear.
Make up your mind to use your death to transform your life, starting this moment. After all, “If not now, when?” There is no future. The future is only a way of talking. What better way to live in the moment with conscious awareness of your impermanence than by honoring and fondly remembering departed family and friends, all the while as you joyously celebrate another day of life amongst the living.
To be sure, nothing could be godlier—or more human.
Michael Ra Bouchard, Ph.D.
* Dedicated to Paul R. Allen. Rest in Peace Dear Friend. *
Michael Ra Bouchard, M.A., Ph.D is a professional mental health counselor specializing in sex therapy and marriage counseling for all sex, relationship and intimacy concerns. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 808. 965. 8800