I Simulated My Own Death & Here's What I Learned
A few weeks ago, I was invited to the quaint town of Serenbe, Georgia so that I could contemplate my own death. Well, more specifically, I was invited to attend The Inn At Serenbe's exciting-sounding "Taboo Weekend: Sex, Drugs & Death". The event was led by Angel Grant and Michael Hebb, the co-founders of Death Over Dinner, which are dinners meant to help people discuss their feelings and intentions around death with their friends and families. (They're really cool, you should check out how to host one.)
Our weekend began at the end. On my first morning, after a refreshing swim, it was time to experience a simulation of my own death through a death meditation. A death meditation is aimed at getting you to confront your own mortality, as if it were happening in real time, so that you can gain a better perspective of your life. "Meditating on death is really about embracing life," Grant, who led the meditation, tells Bustle. "Death meditation is a fundamental part of my spiritual practice because it keeps minimal distance between my heart and the people I love. I remember that I don't want to be cavalier with time."
Of course, there are other ways you can confront death — "when you get dumped or fired, these are all deaths, opportunities to practice letting go with an open heart," Grant says. "Death meditation is a more gentle way to practice." Here's how.
How To Do A Death Meditation
For a guided approach, Grant offers one-on-one death coaching to reduce anxiety around dying. Grant's guided meditation led us through imagining, for over an hour, that our body was shutting down piece by piece, and that our blood was literally running cold. We were asked to imagine things like losing feeling in our limbs, having trouble breathing, and feeling our heart slow. It was pretty intense — but definitely informative.
You can also follow some of her questions below to have a session on your own (hey, we all die alone, so it's kind of appropriate). To confront these questions, Grant suggests "sitting first in a brief meditation, just witnessing the rise in your body as you inhale and the fall as you exhale. Focus on feeling every sensation that arises, without trying to change any of them. Tension in the body will begin to soften. As you continue to focus your attention on the breath, the engine of thinking will lose power. Most tension arises from our thoughts."
You can lay down in corpse pose, and maybe cover yourself with a blanket so that you're warm. She adds that much like a normal meditation, it doesn't matter how many times you drift off in thought during the meditation; what matters is how many times you choose to bring your awareness back to feeling the breath.
7 Questions To Ask Yourself As You Confront Death
Here are the questions you can consider to guide you through. "Have the questions below written down before you begin meditation," Grant says. "After four to 10 minutes of witnessing and feeling the breath happen in the body, sit down with the questions and answer without taking much time for thought. Write down the first things that arise. Take no more than four to five mins per question."
1. What dreams or goals would be lost if I died today?
Grant suggests you also ask yourself, "What have you been planning to do at some later date, when conditions were right? If life for you wasn't ending now, how could you begin these things now?"
When I meditated on this, I found that my dreams and goals were less professional in nature than creative, relationship-oriented, and travel-based, so I should probably try structuring my life accordingly. Apparently, this is not an uncommon revelation. "If my everyday life is full of things that distract me from the fact that I'm not a permanent fixture on earth, then I'm likely to spend most of my time swept up in what our society at large values — achieving, looking attractive, getting more and more of this and that. None of those things are bad; they're just not what is most important to me if I'm on my dying bed," Grant adds. I expected to regret not having finally written a book, but imagining my own death, I found that I was most concerned with losing the dream of a future life filled with travel and love.
2. Who have I not forgiven?
Grant says you can also ask, "What resentments or grudges are taking up space inside you? Are there traumas or heart breaks from an earlier time in your life that have been influencing the way you are living now? Do you want to hold onto them until your last moments on earth?"
If the answer is that you're not cool with not having forgiven someone, you can take small steps after the meditation to begin rectifying that now. One woman I spoke to in Serenbe said that meditating on this question prompted her to get back in touch with her father.
3. If my life ends in one hour, what am I most sad to be missing?
If you sit with the pain of imagining this — that you really only have one hour to live, really trying to feel it as a reality — you can also try to sit with the grief you might feel about what you won't get to experience.
It's similar to the first question, only this one asks you to especially focus on any sadness that arises. For me, I was most sad that I didn't get to share more of my life with my current partner — which, in a way, actually told me I'm on the right track. There wasn't regret for how I was living so much as a desire to deepen what I was already doing. Again, I was also sad not to have travelled more, which reaffirms for me that I need to figure out a way to make that a priority in my life.
4. How did I block love from coming into my life?
In answering this question, I thought of certain family members who I've deliberately distanced myself from. Grant adds, "When has life been offering you love — in any form —and you've turned away? Why do you turn away? On your deathbed, are you at peace with these decisions?" Again, if the answer is no, you can take steps to begin to remedy it by reaching out or challenging yourself to receive love the next time it's offered to you.
5. What do I want to be remembered for?
Grant suggests you also ask, "What have you done in life to create those memories in the people around you?"
When I asked myself this, I cared more about being remembered as a loving person, a good friend, and an activist than I did as a great writer or editor, which is something to keep in perspective as I consider my goals in life. How can I live every day with that in mind, rather than just thinking about what I "should" be doing?
6. What is undone in my life?
Again, this is similar to the first and third questions, but focuses on where you feel you have unfinished business.
While I did feel that writing a book was something left undone, the only thing I felt truly upset about, once again, was missing out on a future with my partner full of travel and perhaps creating a family, or at least a real home. Imagining myself in my last hour of life, I felt a sadness that time had run out, reaffirming for me that the root of my fear around dying centers on a fear of missing out on more life, not regret for life lived.
7. Who do I want with me as I'm dying?
Grant asks, "Whose presence would add to your peace in your final hours? What needs to be said before you die, and to whom?"
Nearly at the end of my death meditation, this is the only time I began to cry. I pictured my partner right away, holding my hand. What I wanted to say? "Thank you, I love you. Thank you, I love you." That was all there was to say.
The After Effects
I can't say that the death meditation cured me of my fear of death — if anything, I've been thinking about it more lately, and confronting the reality of my mortality more directly. But simulating my own death did put a recent, important choice I had to make in perspective, and has focused the meaning of my life. I also learned certain comforting facts from the meditation, like the fact that your body releases dopamine before you die to make you more comfortable. As Grant encouraged us to imagine, I felt grateful that my body will work, right up until its last moment, to make me as comfortable as possible. But either way, the meditation was a reminder: there's no getting around the fact that no one else can die for us.
Death is, after all, the prepaid phone-card for Life (or perhaps it's the other way around). There's nothing I can do about it running out — but that was all the more reason to call my partner when my meditation was done, and tell him those last words while I'm still alive. Thank you, I love you.
Images: Pixabay; Giphy