My father is ill. He’s 89 and has lived a long, eventful life. He lived through World War II as a teenager in Germany, wondering if he would have to fight in the war. Life became a battle for survival. The possibility of death was always near. And yet, he tells stories of how enriching his life was. Yes, the possibility of death was near, but that seemed to simplify his life and focus his attention on what was important in life.
He immigrated to the US after the war, struggling to find work and raise his family. Throughout his life, he focused on meeting his challenges with courage. Now, at 89, he loves the simplicity of working in his garden, eating foods he’s grown himself, and enjoying the silence of the farm he lives on.
Death can advise us how to live. When death seems far away, we tend to focus on the shallow, unimportant aspects of life. We focus our attention on achievement, creating security, and building comfort. Even though these are important, they aren’t as important as living each day with courage, to face life’s stressors, learn, and build stronger relationships.
We have a strong, unconscious tendency to be motivated toward living a comfortable life. Doing that shifts our attention away from being present for the stressors that life will present to us today. Making the shift from achievement motivation to learning-based motivation helps us live each day with courage.
An integral part of the warrior’s approach to life has to do with using the reality of our death to inform how to live our lives. Don Juan teaches Carlos Castaneda this throughout Carlos’ apprenticeship. In The Fire From Within, Carlos reflects on one of don Juan’s lessons about death.
“Don Juan had drilled into me that warriors live with death at their side, and from the knowledge that death is with them they draw the courage to face anything. Don Juan had said that the worst that could happen to us is that we have to die, and since that is already our unalterable fate, we are free; those who have lost everything no longer have anything to fear.”
Think about it. If we truly accept that death is inevitable, then our attention isn’t distracted to fear of death. That acceptance frees our attention to focus on the present moment, on whatever challenges we currently face. It aligns our attention to live courageously. Accepting death is a macro example of accepting smaller stressors in life and climbing. Accepting death and stress aligns our attention toward learning-based processes; actions we take today. Doing that simplifies our lives and clarifies what’s important: relationships over things; learning over achievement; being primarily motivated by stress over being primarily motivated by comfort.