Visualizing Death: A surprising tool for positivity

Today we’re dealing with the too-taboo topic of death. This one’s not for everyone, but the Stoics recommended that we contemplate death often. In particular, they recommend that we contemplate our own death and that of those who are most important to us. If this topic makes you squeamish or uneasy…

…it’s only because we’ve come to somehow exclude death from what is natural or to be reasonably expected. But refusal to engage with the reality that we all die – and can die at any moment – can cause us to take great things for granted.

One of the best things we can gain from visualizing death is acknowledgement that we’re still alive, or that someone we love is still alive, and both of these things are awesome. You may find yourself picking up the phone more often, more eager to listen to and learn from what’s happening in others’ lives, or just enjoy simple pleasures that are presented every day.

We can also learn to fear death less. Seneca wrote on death: “There’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing that comes before it—the fear of it.” That doesn’t mean we’re going to like it, but we’ll at least be more comfortable acknowledging its inevitability (barring, of course, crazy scientific advancements that allow us to transfer our consciousness to the machine realm? Well… that’s a topic for a different blog altogether).

So the challenge this week is to spend time visualizing our own deaths. GASP! We’d debated leaving this one until much later in our blog series, but think that it helps to set the tone for what Stoic reflection can offer, and provide perspective that the philosophy isn’t just about enduring occasional physical discomforts.

How it works:
While the practice was often referenced by Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca, there is little in terms of a formulaic approach to this exercise that has been documented. I’ve adapted here, the  approach proposed on the blog “Stocicism and the Art of Happiness.

  1. Rationalize: Spend a couple minutes reflecting on the fact that “death is inevitable and necessary”, as required by nature.
  2. Play it out: Take time to contemplate the event and process “as objectively as possible, without any value-judgements, as if you’re considering your death from a detached scientific perspective, as an inevitable natural event, stripping away the ‘mask’ of catastrophic thinking.” You can do this as a fly on the wall or from a first-person perspective.
  3. Contemplate: Finally, “try to imagine what is under your control, and the extent to which you would be able to exercise wisdom and virtue in the face of death.”

From what I’ve read, the exercise seemed to focus on ourselves and the process of death, but not on externals like the reactions of people we love or worrying about what people might say about us after we’re gone – Stoicism would suggest that we not obsess about these things, as we cannot control them and shouldn’t seek to. The goal is to distill death down to being simply an operation of nature.

Greg’s reflections:
I proposed writing about this topic and bumping it up in our series, as someone very important to me has been given a potentially terminal outlook unless he gets access to and can endure a significant intervention. Using this Stoic technique of visualization and reflection has already helped me to accept what has happened, and to appreciate and effectively use the time that we have together.    I’ve found it very useful and wanted to share.

On my own visualization – the thought of this exercise was definitely more unsettling than sleeping on the floor or taking a cold shower. Before starting, I imagined it as being a bit like when Luke is training with Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back and sees his own face as he strikes down Vader.

luke-face-in-vader-helmet

In reality, watching your own death play out isn’t much different than watching a drama on TV. We inherently know already how this goes, we just rarely make ourselves the star actor.

Rationalizing death was easy.  We eat dead plants and animals all the time.  I considered how death is quite a beneficial thing on the macroscopic scale.  Without it, tyrants might still be in power, the human population would be a lot more pressed for resources.  We might not have ever been born to read this blog!  More people get to experience life on account of us all having to at some point confront death.

I chose to visualize death as David Bowie would have experienced it this week – in a hospital bed, more or less knowing it was coming in the short term. I walked through everything from my sensing dulling, to my heart stopping, to being a fly on the wall as I was wheeled out, and eventually cremated. Something very interesting, is that both Min and I felt a big sense of freedom / relief at the cremation stage of this thought experiment. The atoms in my body would get to go onto all sorts of fun, new adventures, from being absorbed by trees to helping form new animals and people. As I projected further out, it was clear that death is part of a giant system, and not simply a force of evil.

Finally, on contemplating virtue in the face of death, the biggest thing that came to mind is how much more loudly actions speak than words.  I could tell someone to not take life for granted, but if I’m telling him or her in desperation and fear because it’s clear that I myself took it for granted, then it’s not going to be as convincing of an argument.

This is definitely an exercise to work towards, but I think occasionally indulging the reality that death happens is a healthy way to make us less fearful of the unknown, less obsessed with trivialities, and generally happy to be granted each opportunity to wake up to a new day.

Min’s reflections:
On contemplating death as a process – I thought about human birth, day-to-day living and eventual death and realized it’s a completely natural process. I realized because of our ability to think creatively and develop complex ideas, humans have created the idea of immortal life – and applied it to ourselves, because we think we’re special and not really an animal. But, we are animals, and are quite a lucky animal to have all of the mental faculties that we do before our lives come to an end.

One of the things that came up for me in this thought process was that our ever-increasing expectations are one of the biggest contributors to our fear of death. A century or two ago, people didn’t live healthily beyond their 40s or 50s. Now, we expect to live fairly full lives until we’re into our 80s or 90s. Because we are still a short-sighted species that are biased towards the present instead of the future (hyperbolic discounting) we somehow become lazier because we think we have more years for everything we want to do. I.e. “Well, I have lots of time (to live until my 90s) so I can just do this thing I really want to do when I retire.”

We know death happens, but not when. Live your life doing what you love now, not later. We do not know when “our later” will come.

On contemplating my own death – A number of years ago while training for a triathlon, I was rear-ended by a car while on my bicycle. It was a bad accident, I had a whiplash, concussion and tons of scrapes and was left unconscious in the middle of the road by the hit-and-run driver. I re-contemplated this moment, but instead of surviving, as dying instead.

After visualizing my body going cold, I imagined family and friends mourning, and holding a service while my body was cremated. While I looked into the cremation fire, seeing my body being burned away – I felt completely liberated. How beautiful it was, to be completely free. I realized that post death, there’s really only quiet – and knowing that the life I lived until then was full and vibrant made me feel happy.

On virtue and wisdom in the face of death – For this part of the exercise I imagined that I lived until arriving at the hospital and I had a 12 hour window to contemplate. I thought about the joys of everything I’ve been a part of, and the lives I impacted positively. There were no regrets because I simply cannot regret in this moment – the life I had was mine, and thinking about unfairness wouldn’t be of any use to me in this moment. I imagined in that time, seeing my family and loved ones around and thanking them for the wonderful relationships we’ve had – and asking them to live their lives fully, the way they want to.

After this series of reflections, I began to reassess the things that are not worth complaining about, or thinking of. Life should be a joyful experience, and one that creates positive impact. Going forward, I may use this exercise when feeling like I’m getting too anxious about a present-day moment to re-focus and know there are bigger things to look forward to.

Hope we hear of others trying this out too, let us know how it goes!

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