Dying to Live
The Guardian recently ran an article entitled, “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” drawn from the observations of an Australian palliative care nurse. The five regrets in order 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 hadn't worked so hard.
- I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Part of the answer must lie in something as mundane and obvious as choice. Clearly choices that were made didn’t answer these needs, or these needs weren’t as immediate, urgent or highly valued as those made during the course of life.
How then can we judge what is skillful and then embody what we value in our daily choices; how do we not lose sight of what we most deeply value? The Buddha suggested that we do what is for our long term benefit. This seems obvious, but in a society increasingly obsessed with the desire to engender and grasp onto the fleeting and the ephemeral, this advice runs counter to tsunami of self-obsession in which we are (willingly) engulfed.
Interestingly, so much of the ability to exercise skillful choice relies on preemptive and skillful avoidance of what is not in our best interests. In an experiment done with four year olds, the ability to delay gratification to immediately seize and eat one cookie when two were available with just a few minutes delay, those who successfully managed to wait didn’t use direct willpower, but avoidance and distraction. They pretended to sleep, sang songs and did whatever was needed to forget or distance themselves from the siren smell of the cookie.
The author of this experiment, Walter Mischel refers to this skill of avoidance as the “strategic allocation of attention.” Buddhism calls this renunciation or the skill of release. So, how to develop this ability? A Buddhist response might be to simply pay attention before the time of death to the very fact of death, its universality and unpredictability. In fact, this practice is shared with a number of the ancient Greek stoic philosophies and world religions.
The practice here is not to develop a morbid or depressive character, but simply to use this practice to strategically allocate our attention toward what is important for our long term benefit. However, in order to do this, we also have to practice strategic avoidance or renunciation, simply staying away from what lures us to the shallows of myopic self-obsession, caused perhaps by the approaching tsunami of our own mortality.
Rather than becoming obsessed with our own reflection in the shallows as a way of attempting to ignore the truth of our mortality, a Buddhist response suggests that we can benefit by choosing courageously to lift our heads up, gazing clearly at the truth of our situation and living a life here and now that best expresses what we most deeply value.