Ever gone through a near death experience?
Or met someone who has?
Most individuals who have these experiences often emerge with a new perspective, and a greater ‘zest’ for life.
Indeed, recent research has found that near death experiences elicit post traumatic growth, and when paired with ‘existential reevaluation’, can be a powerful catalyst for personal change.
But do you have to nearly die to get this perspective?
Or is there another way?
In this post, we explore ‘existential check ins‘ – three simple thought experiments you can use to cultivate a new perspective, and start a creating a more meaningful life; without having to nearly die in the process.
Memento Mori – Begin with the End in Mind
‘Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.’ Steve Jobs
Great thinkers throughout history have argued that consciously reminding yourself of your own mortality can serve as a catalyst for living a more meaningful life.
This is why, in medieval Europe, philosophers would keep skulls on their desks, or why, in some buddhist traditions, the monks would regularly visit morgs to sit and meditate on the dead bodies.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any skulls sitting around, and I certainly don’t fancy a regular trip to a morg.
So how then do you cultivate this perspective in modern society?
In the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘, Stephen Covey argues that the second habit of people who live highly effective and meaningful lives is that they ‘begin with the end in mind‘ – both on a micro level and a macro level. For example, on a micro level, when starting a project, they visualise the outcome they want before they start, and use this as a blueprint to help guide their planning and next actions.
Covey also applies this principle to the macro, and encourages you to visualise your own funeral and imagine what you want the people closest to you to say about your life.
‘If you carefully consider what you wanted to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success. How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and, keeping that picture in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and to do what really matters most.’
Values play an important role in emotional wellbeing.
When you live in alignment with them, your daily actions feel authentic, meaningful and fulfilling.
Covey’s funeral exercise can be a simple way to uncover your own deepest values, so that what you do every day is aligned with what matters to you most.
The Dinner Party in the After-Life
In his 2017 book: Carpe Diem Regained – The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, Roman Krznaric explores the ancient idea of ‘Carpe Diem’ and challenges you to live with greater passion and intention, rather than just drifting through life.
Described as ‘Existentialism for our times’, the book contains an exercise from neuroscientist David Eagleman that goes something like this:
‘Imagine yourself at a dinner party in the after-life.
Also present are all the other different versions of you who you could have become if you had made different choices in life.
There’s the version of you who was the family man, the version of you who became obsessed with his career and climbing the corporate ladder, the you who spent his life travelling, the you who quit his job to do what he really wanted, the you who became an alcoholic, etc.’
Now that you’ve thought about all the different ‘yous’ that could be at the dinner party – ask yourself; who would you admire and want to go talk to?
And who do you want to avoid?
Knowing which versions of yourself you’d want to talk to is a clue to figuring out what your values really are, and knowing who you’d avoid can help you avoid some treacherous paths further down the line.
‘Eternal recurrence’ is one of the most thought provoking ideas in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
In this thought experiment, Nietzsche gets you to imagine the possibility that you will have to keep living the life you are currently living, on repeat, for eternity.
In other words, after you die, you will be reborn into the exact same set of circumstances as before, and begin again.
When properly considered, the idea of repeating the same life over and over again is a terrifying prospect – especially if you don’t particularly like what you do on a day to day basis.
So, if you knew that you had to keep repeating this life, forever, what sort of life would you need to create, so that existence would be worthwhile?
What work would you do? What relationships would you want? What relationships would you no longer tolerate? What kind of adventures would you want to have?
Often, we procrastinate on taking chances and doing the things that we know would improve our lives because it’s easy to stay in a comfort zone. You can go through the motions, stay in autopilot, and not have to think too much, and still be relatively content.
But is contentment really the point of existence?
‘If you want to understand your existential priorities, consider the difference between lions in the wild and those in captivity. Lions in captivity live longer, they are technically richer, and they are guaranteed job security for life, if these are the criteria you are focusing on.’ Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Entertaining the idea that you’ll have to repeat the same life, on repeat, forever, can shake you out of the comfort trap, and help you to start creating a life that you actually want to live.
Values are as essential to your emotional wellbeing as food and water are as important to your physical health.
But in an age of consumerism, digital distraction and constant busyness, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s truly most important, and fall into an inauthentic way of being.
And if you don’t understand what your own core values are, then the default values of your culture (e.g. consumerism and conformity), will rush in to fill the vacuum, and become your default values too. Perhaps you may want to check out this aspiration review and consider trusting your money with a company with a conscience committed to helping its customers achieve not only their financial goals but also their environmental goals too!
However, every so often a major life event like a near-death experience, or the death of a loved one, comes along and gives us a brief moment of clarity, where we question these values, reassess them, and uncover what really matters most.
It’s at times like this when we start to realise that life is short. We learn to love those around us even more deeply, as you never know when they could be taken from you. It could be tomorrow for all you know.
And if this happens, you need to start thinking about planning their final send-off and how you are going to make it as special as possible. But it can be expensive, which makes it even harder to deal with, especially as you’re mourning. Luckily, there are many different nonprofit organizations and programs, (see here for more information) that can help you when you’ve been faced with the difficult task of paying for the funeral service of a loved one. If you are put in charge of doing the entire funeral service and making all the decisions, such as the right flowers to have, or going through the various caskets, you want to make sure that you are not going over budget as well as making the service special. Fortunately, there are services that can help with funeral planning, from choosing casket colors to helping you decide what type of casket you would like for your loved one, all in the hopes of making this time of mourning a little easier and less stressful.
As hard as it is to get through it, it teaches you one thing. And that’s how to live your life to the full, as you never know when something could prevent you from doing so.
Armed with this new insight, we live more authentically – at least for a while.
But (thankfully) these events are few and far between.
The magic of ‘existential check ins’ is that they allow you to enjoy all the benefits and insights that brushes with mortality can provide; without having to nearly die in the process.
If you are interested in exploring this subject further, join us for ‘A Day on Meaning‘ at The Weekend University. The event will be a full day of talks exploring how psychology can help you uncover a sense of purpose and meaning in life.For more information, please see the event page.