Since death alone is certain and time of death is uncertain, what should I do?
– Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs
Sometimes you read a book and you know it’s going to be life-changing, but you just aren’t quite open to it yet, for whatever reason. Instead of “the teacher will appear when the student is ready”, the teacher showed up a little early.
That’s how I feel about Stephen Batchelor’s book Buddhism Without Beliefs. I read it earlier this year and, having never truly pondered my own death before, I couldn’t quite absorb one of the central themes of the book: comfort with death as a path to inner tranquility.
I’m attempting to warm up to the idea by adding the above Tibetan meditation on death to my morning routine. It might sound dark and gloomy, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Batchelor himself explains why on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. The above link takes you to the follow except (click on it – his accent is awesome):
The weird paradox is that the more you ask yourself that question — “Death is certain, its time is uncertain, what should I do?” — this brings you back to a very vivid sense that you’re alive. It intensifies the sense of aliveness, in terms of how you see the colors, the shapes, the leaves, the flowers, the — whatever impacts you visually, from the ears to the nose to the tongue to the body to the mind — it is a kind of intensifier of being alive. A kind of — almost a celebration of being here at all.
And that is infused not only with a sense of wonder, but also with a sense of possibility, a sense of responsibility, that in what you say, think, do, this may be your final legacy on this earth. That, to me, is where this reflection leads me. And it’s with me — I wouldn’t say every single minute of every single day. I also have moments in which I’m not particularly proud of how I speak or act or think. But broadly speaking, I find myself constantly returning to what’s implicit in that question. And that has made my life, I think, very full. I’m deeply grateful for the practices that this tradition has brought me. And I very much hope that others, too, will find value in these ideas. And it will allow their lives, too, to flourish.
On the other hand, in this responsibility to leave a legacy, we should guard against taking ourselves too seriously. Naval Ravikant really sums this up on the Tim Ferriss podcast in this excerpt that I’ve played over and over again:
We’re not really here that long, and we don’t really matter that much. Nothing that we do lasts. Eventually, you will fade. Your works will fade. Your children will fade. Your thoughts will fade. These planets will fade. This sun will fade. It will all be gone. There are entire civilizations which we remember now with one or two words. Sumerian. Mayan. Do you know any Sumerians or Mayans? Do you hold any of them in high regard or esteem? Have they outlived their natural lifespan somehow? No. I think we’re just here for an extremely short period of time. From here, you can choose to believe in an afterlife or not. If you really do believe in an afterlife, then that should give you comfort and make you realize that maybe everything that goes on in this life is not that consequential. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, you should also come to a similar conclusion. You should realize that this is such a short and precious life that it’s really important that you don’t spend it being unhappy. There’s no excuse for spending most of your life in misery. You’ve only got 70 years out of the 50 billion or so that the universe is going to be around. Whatever your natural state is, it’s probably not this. This is your living state. Your dead state is true over a much longer time frame. When I think about the world that way, I realize it’s just kind of a game.
Which is not to say that you go to a dark place, and you start acting unethically and immorally. Quite the contrary, you realize just how precious life is and how it’s important to make sure that you enjoy yourself, you sleep well at night, you’re a good moral person, you’re generally happy, you take care of other people, you help out, but you can’t take it too seriously. You can’t get hung up over it. You can’t make yourself miserable and unhappy over it. You just have a very short period of time here on this earth. Nothing you do is going to matter that much in the long run. Don’t take yourself so seriously.