Two years ago, I visited the center of the Tibetan world, the small Himalayan city of Dharamsala, in Northwestern India. In that tranquil place, nestled amid the snow-capped peaks, reside thousands of Tibetans with their spiritual leader, His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
In the morning and evening, hundreds of monks and nuns fill the streets of Dharamsala, walking to and from their study of ancient, spiritual teachings, Buddhist meditations and simplicity of life.
One early morning, I ventured out into the chilly air, walking up and down the steep hills to the main monastery, hoping to observe – and perhaps join – the monks in their first meditation of the day. While scurrying to the sitting room, I encountered (and snapped a photo of) this sign, hanging in a hallway:
The message of the sign hit me because I move only cautiously into the sobering reality of my own mortality. This less-than-buoyant message led me to reflect on how I and other leaders might benefit from pondering the certainty of our individual, physical and mental deaths.
Why Reflecting on Death is Important for Leaders
Consider these four leadership benefits of reflecting on death:
1. Puncturing The Illusion of Specialness
Most leaders believe they are special. Few broadcast this belief. Rather, it is held secretly, to avoid the perception of arrogance. Our view of ourselves as important, influential and indispensable permits us to justify how we move through the world.
We develop intricate rationales in the form of busy lifestyles, full calendars, more emails than we can get to, money and other resources, and a top-of-the-heap status that lures others to our doorstep. They come for advice, answers, solutions, wisdom – they come because they, like us, believe we possess knowledge and experience that they lack. We are in the seats of power.
Thinking about our own imminent demise catapults us from taking these aspects too seriously. Reflecting on death brings healthy doubt about our own importance. Such contemplation enables us to gingerly – perhaps even humbly – descend from our self-made shrines and elevated platforms.
We join the real world – the world where no one is better and no one is worse, where everyone is just trying to do the best they can. We re-engage with our roots, the places we came from before donning our crowns and halos.
In a word, facing our deaths returns us to the land of ordinariness. There, we have the chance to live with our eyes wide open, so that we might see ourselves as we really are.
2. Appreciating the Resource of Time
If accepting mortality has any universal impact, it is that of appreciating a most precious yet widely taken-for-granted resource: time. Death awareness puts a steel fence around busyness.
Talk to anyone who has survived a brush with death. They will tell you what they have told me: “When the end is in front of your nose, you think differently about priorities.”
The questions asked by a death-enlightened individual appear less mundane, more ultimate: What must be done, said or decided before I leave? Which relationships need repairing? Which cutoffs beg to be bridged? What duties handed over to others?
Chaplains and end-of-life caregivers report that apologies and acknowledgments often (not always) come easier for those whose time is short. Pondering that pattern might lead us to wonder what sense it makes to wait.
3. Acknowledging Limitations
With no thought of our own death, limitations seem far-fetched. The language of a bravado culture prevails: “You can do anything you want to do,” “Failure is not an option,” “The sky is the limit,” “The goal is zero defects.”
Understanding the finite nature of our existence does away with such delusion. By its very definition – “the extinguishing of life” – death assures our limitation.
Awareness of this inescapable limitation helps us overrule three fantasies of modern culture: omniscience, omnipotence and immortality. It beckons us toward other important limitations, e.g., we cannot be “everything” to anyone else, we cannot keep burning the candle at both ends without dire consequences, we cannot say anything we want, or do anything we want, we cannot put off aging indefinitely, and we cannot have freedom without responsibility.
Though we like to pretend otherwise, we swim in an ocean of limits. We are not all-powerful. We can be stopped, and stopped hard. Contemplating death gives us the gift of that awareness.
4. Preparing to Die in Peace
Reflecting on death prepares us to die. It is like anything else, such as a music recital, a major speech or a race: practicing beforehand helps us endure and execute the event with less angst.
The denial of death can be attributed to discomfort. Reflecting on – not avoiding – that which triggers discomfort is the path to freedom.
This is the same discomfort that seeks to veil, sanitize and put off old age.
We go to great lengths to “stay young” and to adorn ourselves to look like something different than what we are. In the same way, we don’t like thinking of ourselves as dying. But doing exactly that can ease us into acceptance, and a less anxious old age and death.
As The Dalai Lama has written:
“The more we reflect on old age and death, the more we see it as a natural process. It is nothing extraordinary. If we prepare ourselves in this way, then when such events actually happen, the work of accepting them as a very normal part of our life is already done. We can simply think, ‘Now is the period where my life’s end is coming.’ I think that is a better approach.”
(from, Imagine All The People).
2 Responses to “August 2015: Meditation on Dying”
August 01, 2015 at 6:46 am, Rick D said:
While death can keep us grounded and remind us that no one is exempt from its grasp we still have people willing to follow others. When we strip away the Trump-esque bravado that accompanies the self aggrandizing, what makes a person someone we WANT to follow? Is it Vision? Authenticity? Kindness? Security?
Since we tend to ignore the ordinary what are the key characteristics of those accumulating a following?
January 01, 2016 at 11:59 pm, DJW said:
I am recently retired, at an age most believe to be “too young”. The gift of time has been the most precious, to be able to spend it as I choose without feeling pressure from that which is no longer important. I have looked into many puzzled faces – how am I staying busy, are there a lot of phone calls from work, do I miss it, am I really happy? Separating myself from the importance of the position, disassociating production from self worth, and recognizing that my production was not why my loved ones love me, was integral to making the decision to retire. And a recent family death has reminded me that it can end tomorrow; do and say what’s important today.