A storm approached. The clouds turned black and camp was over two hours away. After many failed attempts, I gave it one more last ditch effort to capture the beauty of the frozen abyss. In it’s own right, glacier caving high in the Himalayas on the Annapurna Glacier presented a formidable challenge. Attempting to immortalize the experience through pictures proved to be even more demanding.
Finally, the perfect shot. Or at least the best I could do with the limited light and the tight space. There was no time for another one. Korbindra, my Nepalese guide, and I crawled out of the darkness into the remaining light that pierced through the foreboding skies. Three hundred feet away, two assistant guides waited with our packs. All that remained now was a short climb down an inclined wall of ice.
We had to move fast. The storm was not the only concern. Just above us, giant rocks laid precariously on the lip of the ice cave.
I began the descent, carefully placing my ice axes and crampons on each step to avoid slipping. Although my skills on ice were mediocre, I managed to get down safely and rushed away from the danger zone.
Suddenly, a thunderous crash. The massive boulders slammed onto the very path I was on less than a minute ago.
My heart rate skyrocketed. “Holy crap,” I whispered to myself. Any slower down that wall and I would have been crushed.
Almost instantly, my fear turned into joy as I became acutely aware of my own mortality. In that moment, having felt the brush of death, I came alive.
Regrets of Dying
Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” He started a multibillion-dollar product line – the iPhone – shortly thereafter.
Our mortality is our most powerful ally, yet most of us live every day blissfully ignorant of its presence. We move through our entire lives without even contemplating the reality that it will one day end. Why else would 80% (according to several studies) of Americans be unhappy in their jobs and choose to continue working in those very same jobs?
Sleepwalking through life, we push all our dreams and desires to ‘someday.’ But someday may as well be never. It is not without reason that cemeteries are the wealthiest places on earth. For they are filled with millions of unwritten books, unsung songs and unfulfilled dreams.
For most of us, only when we come close to claiming our place in the earth do we start to discover the treasures that live deep within us.
Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse in Australia, spent years working with people during the last 12 weeks of their lives. While caring for her dying patients, she recorded their final regrets and found common themes that she documented in a book titled, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”
Three of the top five regrets were:
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I didn’t work so hard my whole life.”
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret?
The question is not meant to simply trigger the age-old cliché of “live every day like it is your last.” This question is intended to have you actually look into the future and picture yourself on your deathbed. Visualize your family around you. Picture them staring into your feeble frame. Really immerse yourself in this reality. From there, ask yourself that question.
Using Death as a Motivator for Life
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
Ancient samurai warriors believed that every day one must meditate on their inevitable death and consider themselves as dead. Their ideal practice involved picturing themselves dying in battle, drowning in an ocean, burned by a fire, falling from a cliff or any number of ways a person can be killed.
There is nothing morbid or morose about either of these practices. Death is simply the other side of life. Within its embrace lies the most powerful impulse of the human spirit, the desire to live a meaningful and passionate life.
I have lost many friends to drugs and war. One of my closest buddies in the Marine Corps was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. To this day, I wish it had been me instead of him. But there is nothing I can do about it now except honor his memory. Remembering his death gives me the strength to live my life to the fullest and help others do the same, especially when things get tough. If I was meant to live and he was not, then I must prove to myself that there is worth to my life. His death continues to help me give meaning to my life.
My own encounters with the grim reaper have only reinforced that meaning.
By learning how to die, I have learned how to live.
Buddha himself said, “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.” And he was enlightened.
If a multi-billionaire and an enlightened being both agree about the validity of a practice, there must be something to it.
By embracing death, we gain perspective on life. The power of perspective reveals that the highs of life can never be as high without the lows. Without one or the other, life becomes nothing more than a static line. Something like the one that you see when a person’s heart stops beating.
Meditating on death is simply the act of acknowledging the end in order to fully appreciate the now. Thus bringing passion back into life.
For it is only when we risk losing something that we truly find its value. And what could be a greater risk than putting all that is, our very existence, on the line for something grand?
Reigniting the Inner Fire
After working in a 9-5 job for almost one and a half years, in March of 2012 I finally quit when I noticed myself dying. I took $15,000 of the money I saved up, which was almost all of it, and spent one month dragging a 190-pound sled across 350 miles in temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees on the second largest icecap in the world in Greenland.
The constant misery and the daily struggle brought me closer to life. It allowed me to feel the pulse of life course through my veins. Although death was not a regular concern on the icecap, it did present itself as a threat in the form of crevasses early in the expedition and polar bears during the end of it. Nonetheless, the suffering proved to be a worthy companion of death. Both provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the joys and comforts of life. Collectively, the experience reignited the fire within me to embrace my life and create my own destiny.
I returned home from the expedition with little money and built two businesses from the ground up. I have been living life on my terms ever since.
Whether it is quitting your job to build a business, running a marathon or traveling to unknown parts of the world, any worthy endeavor requires risk, struggle and sacrifice. Some of these things may even terrify you. But ask yourself, is the fear of the unknown stronger than the most powerful of fears, the fear of a wasted life?
To help you answer that question, here are some steps to take to reignite your fire and embrace the most powerful impulse of the human spirit, your mortality:
For starters, practice the meditation mentioned above. Simply sit down, close your eyes and concentrate on the meaning of death. See your own death and feel the impact of it. The time it takes to practice this meditation is less important than the emotion it produces within you. It is vital for you to really feel what it means to be at the end of your life. That emotion will drive you to make the changes you want. Once you awake from this meditation, take one action to drive your life forward, so that when you do reach that point in time many moons from now, you will be able to answer, “No, I have no regrets!”
For those of you wishing to take it to the next level, get out there and actually experience the presence of death or its close counterpart, suffering. Take action to put yourself in situations of discomfort and risk. This could be in the form of deep sea diving, skydiving, mountaineering, traveling to unknown parts of the world, running a marathon, anything that pushes you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Within the unknown, you will find infinite possibilities to value every single moment you have on this planet. First, you must take a leap.
The choice is yours.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the question I proposed above:
If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret most?
Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Author Bio: Akshay Nanavati has spent 7 months in Iraq with the US Marines, quit a corporate job, traveled to six of the seven continents, explored some of the most hostile environments on the planet and now he works for himself. Through Existing2Living he helps others push their limits and live lives filled with joy and passion.
Photo by: Hartwig HKD