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.

Socrates,
Screen shot 2011-06-25 at 9.47.03 AM

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.

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“Hello”

“Is this Nate?”

“Yeah”

“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?

 

Update: Breathing into Death – A Meditation
posted June 29, 2011 by Nate

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?

Responses

  1. Terri Besaw says:

    Hi Nate,

    Your story and writing was memorizing and it brought back many memories of when my son was extremely sick and in the hospital for days. You story has inspired me to write that experience and share it on my blog.

    Thank you

    Terri Besaw

  2. Nate says:

    Right on Terri!

    I’m so glad to hear that you found some inspiration in this story. I’m sure everyone has had similar experiences and I find it helpful to consider their power to shift us toward deeper ways of living.

    Thanks!

    Nate

  3. Hi Nate,

    I had a similar experience a few years back. While not quite at jarring as yours, an inconclusive brain MRI suggested the start of a potentially difficult disease. Turned out the only problem was that the doctor never read the actual films and just looked at the report…and a second opinion determined the first doctor was nuts.

    I remember that was a really difficult time for about a month for both my wife and me. It’s amazing how something like that can really give you a different perspective in life…and also reinforce many of the good decisions as well. I remember thinking at the time that I was so grateful for my wife, since I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather be with at a time like that. It sounds like you also have an amazing relationship with your wife…it brings so much joy to life.

    Glad to have found your blog and looking forward to reading more!

    Warmly,
    Dave

    • Nate says:

      Dave,
      Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’m glad that everything turned out OK and that you were able to use the experience as a catalyst for growth.

      Nate

  4. Steve says:

    Excellent post, Nate, and really valuable reminder of the importance of keeping priorities in mind– it brought back reminders of a similar two week wait I had to go through while medical tests were being processed and having to accept the very real possibility of very bad news.

    It seems like one of the hardest challenges is balancing this moment-by-moment way of living with a way of living that also seeks to work toward long-term goals (e.g., tenure). It seems like either mode alone is easier than finding a balance between the two. Of course, both of those are better than a mindless reactivity to experience. But have you come across guidance for finding a balance?

    • Nate says:

      Hey Steve,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it seems like finding the balance between these two options is the real trick. Aristotle liked to call this the “mean” state. It’s that state in between excess and deficiency, in between blowing all your money because you think it might be your last week and becoming so obsessed with future goals that you postpone important relationships or creative projects.

      Aristotle had an interesting technique for finding that balance. I call it “overshooting the mean.” The basic idea is that if you find yourself on the side of deficiency (say you never live in the moment and postpone everything for the future), then Aristotle would encourage you to overshoot the mean. He would recommend living in the state of excess — getting even a bit irresponsible — until you feel your center of gravity shift to that mean state.

      It’s a really cool idea. And now that I think more about it, it’s probably worth doing an art of living experiment on it.

      Thanks Steve,

      Nate

  5. Sue H says:

    Thanks Nate.

    This was new info for me and made me even more grateful that you’re out there writing, thinking, blogging, living.

    Like Steve, I think often about where to strike this balance. I think I often live with this edge in sight, and sometimes I wonder if it might be too closely in view. Then I remember that someone needs to take out the garbage and do laundry eventually.

    I do like the concept of the “mean”…thank you (and Aristotle) for that. Though I think it presupposes clarity about knowing when you are in deficiency or in excess. Sometimes that’s not so apparent in the moment.

    Anyway, I counted my breaths walking to work today (2.5 miles). I don’t necessarily recommend breath-counting at 5000 feet as a means to presence while you’re speed walking (in retrospect), and I noticed that I was wondering if I was “doing it right” … breathing too much, too short of breath, miscounting. I thought that was interesting, if not amusing. I absolutely will not disclose here how many breaths that was!

    s

    • Nate says:

      Hey Sue,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts on this. I agree with your insight on Aristotle. It’s often difficult to figure out whether we are living out of excess or deficiency. I wonder if there is a modified version of this where you could poll your friends or spouse to get some additional information. You’ll know that you might be off base if your assessment is radically different from those who know you best.

      Thanks!

      Nate

  6. Charlotte says:

    Keeping perspective is something that I try to do although it is so easy to get caught up in all the day to day things (which are of course also the things that make life special!) I feel lucky to have had two wonderful people in my life who changed my outlook on things dramatically.

    My dad and my fiancee died within a year of each other. I was in my mid twenties and people remarked that I was “strong”. But really I was lucky. Lucky to have been born to my dad – a kind and loving dude. And lucky to have known Kyle – another kind dude full of joy. I wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t loved them both. I also wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t lost them. It was a roller coaster – a tragic, exciting, excruciating, heart-opening and heart-crushing time.

    So when one of my little boys asks me to listen to his story again, or play a game I try to say yes more than no. But I could definitely shake things up ;) Thanks for the thoughtful reminder!

    Charlotte

    • Nate says:

      Charlotte,

      Wow! Such a powerful story. It’s so inspiring to me that you were able to find the gift in an experience that on its surface appears utterly tragic. It sounds like you had amazing times with both men. Thanks for sharing your story.

      By the way, I also really enjoyed your blog! Just checked it out for the first time. I’m excited to follow what you are up to in the future.

      Nate

  7. John Wilson says:

    “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”

  8. The stories that were told are all powerful and I am grateful for you sharing them with each and everyone on here.

    When I was 2.5 yrs old I had my first encounter with death. My baby brother had died in his cot. I found him and had no concept of death then. All I remember is the quiet acceptance of him being gone. No attachment of feelings other than observing his change in body temperature. Only the outside world, i.e. my family, gave it importance and I soon caught on to it.
    What I am trying to say is, than perhaps as children we are more in touch with life beginning and ending than when we have been conditioned as adults.

    I think about death often, not in a morbid way, but in the inevitable consequence of our existence. I live the cliche and attempt to live my life fully and in awareness of its ending. I tell people how I feel as much as I fond appropriate, I value honesty, integrity and compassion.

    With regards to the breathing meditation, I found it curious to hear, that Osho focuses on the exhale. I often observe my exhalations and just stop breathing until the body wants to inhale naturally. It is quite amazing how still the mind becomes and how much more space you seem to have….just my observation.

    And thank you Nat for a really interesting blog and experiments! I am always looking forward to them at the beginning of the week!

    Warm regards
    Maranne

    • Sorry about the spelling mistakes!:)

    • Nate says:

      Thank you Marianne for your thoughts on this. I agree with the idea that children give us an insight into an alternative way of viewing the world. They approach everything with what they call the “beginner’s mind” in the Zen tradition. No fixed stories. Just an openness to explore the possibilities of each event and situation. It sounds like you were there at 2!

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