Philosophy as a Training for Death
It is a fact…that those who go about philosophizing correctly are in training for death, and that to them of all men death is least alarming.
Few people know the full story behind the creation of Life Beyond Logic. This blog and the book I’m currently writing on Emerson and Thoreau might not have been possible without a brush with death several years ago.
It was an early spring day. I had just finished class and sat in my office shuffling through student papers. The phone rang. Unlisted number.Read the original post
“Is this Nate?”
“This is Dr. Vaidya. I’m calling about your MRI results.”
“OK.” I had been experiencing some mild dizziness and my doctor decided to run some tests to be safe.
“Listen, the radiologist report shows that there’s an abnormality in your brain stem. They are thinking it is either a glioma or an AVM.” (You can check out what he’s talking about in the above picture. Notice the small black dot in the middle of my brain)
“Glioma or AVM? I have no idea what that means.”
“Well,” he said, “a glioma is a brain tumor – a cancerous growth that starts in the brain or spinal cord. An AVM is an abnormal collection of blood vessels that could begin bleeding at any moment and cause serious problems with brain functioning.”
“Can’t they remove these things pretty easily?” I asked.
“Well, the brain stem is an extremely delicate area of the brain. It’s located at the very center – beneath many layers of brain tissue – so it’s actually quite difficult to get there surgically. They could operate but the risk of complications is pretty high.”
I hung up the phone and felt my heart race. “This is it,” I thought. “I’m dying. This is how I’m going out. A brain tumor!” I saw an image of my wife. I could feel how devastated she would be. I thought about my parents. I thought about all the things I wished I had done. I wondered why I was sitting at my desk grading papers if I was about to die.
They needed two weeks to do a few more scans and get a more accurate diagnosis. And so I waited – facing what felt like an inevitable death.
But then something unexpected happened. The idea of dying at any moment shifted from terrifying to liberating. It shattered my previous perception of time. I now felt a sense of urgency. I felt my mind shift away from nagging thoughts about future classes, articles, and obligations to the raw experience of each hike, each meal, and each night sleeping next to my wife.
The thought of dying ripped away the blinders of obligation, entitlement, and expectation. Worries about tenure and teaching evaluations felt like a joke.
Before this experience, I lived with the assumption of a long life. This assumption gave me an excuse for delaying the things I really wanted. “I would love to start a blog and write a book on living philosophy,” I used to think to myself, “but I should probably wait until next year.” But I could now see – that there might not be a next year.
After two weeks of MRIs and CAT scans. After two weeks of waiting by the phone, I went to my neurosurgeon’s office. He pulled out the scans and slid them onto the light-box display on the wall. It turned out I was fine. The “tumor” was just a harmless abnormality I was born with.
You don’t need to go through all this drama to experience the liberation of facing death. As the French Philosopher Michel de Montaigne recommends, “We should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go.”
What Montaigne recommends is not just a thought experiment. It’s a moment-to-moment way of being.
We assume an infinite time horizon. We delay telling our loved ones how much we care about them. We delay living our deepest purpose. All because we think there will be time.
But there may not be time. You might not be here next year. You might not be here tomorrow.
This week’s experiment is both simple and near impossible. See if you can live each moment “booted and spurred, and ready to go” – open to death at any moment.
One way to practice this is by taking an honest inventory of your life. If there were no next year, what would you do? What adventures would you take? Who would you spend time with? What work projects would you do? For guidance on this, I recommend Steven Levine’s brilliant book A Year to Live.
The second way to practice this is through simple awareness. Remind yourself each morning – “this day might be my last.” This doesn’t mean that you gamble away all your money. The crucial word here is might. It means arranging your life such that you could welcome death at any moment.
I’m curious to know what you think. How would your life change if you lived the way Socrates and Montaigne recommend – with an openness to death at any moment?
As with all of the art of living experiments, it’s relatively easy to understand them. It’s far more difficult to live them. You might read this blog in one moment and say to yourself, “That’s a really interesting idea.” And then in the next, be back to your habitual ways of thinking and acting. That’s certainly been my experience.
To deepen your lived experience of death, I recommend a powerful meditation that the Indian Philosopher Osho talks about in The Book of Secrets. Osho points out that our experience of birth and death corresponds to our experience of the breath.
When you are born, he says, you cannot exhale because there is no air in your chest. The infant’s first breath must be an inhale. Likewise, when you die, you cannot inhale. As he says, “the last act will be an exhalation.”
This leads him to the following practice for becoming more comfortable with death:
“Try this experiment. The whole day, whenever you remember, exhale deeply and don’t inhale. Allow the body to inhale; you simply exhale deeply. And you will feel a deep peace, death is silence…This emphasis on exhalation will help you very much to do this experiment, because you will be ready to die…Exhale deeply and you will have a taste of it. It is beautiful.”
I’ll be exploring this practice and look forward to hearing how it goes for you. Does Osho’s technique of emphasizing the exhales shift your relationship to death?