Life’s greatest teacher

…is perhaps the most frightening five letter combination in the English dictionary.


But, in my opinion it is also life’s greatest teacher.

My very first experience of death was visceral.

As I have shared it in my book a few years back: “I had always made sure never to stay overnight [in the hospital]. It’s an impossible place to rest. There is something about darkness that can be very disturbing, and night-time silenced the ward and turned it into an alien place. I couldn’t see my fellow cancer patients but I could sense and hear them loudly.

Raw unfiltered human emotions, begging, pleading or praying. Bargaining for a bit more time, hoping that there’ll be another and perhaps better tomorrow. Begging for more time with families and loved ones, praying that this is not yet the end. Occasionally this quiet would be interrupted by an emergency and a patient would be taken out and gone for hours.

At nights like these I could hardly find the peace to sleep and struggled to process what I saw. I was only 18, but here I was seeing people more than twice my age encounter enormous suffering. I had no idea what to say that might help them. All I could do was observe, seeing and feeling their fear of death: “Please don’t let me die just yet.” I had known from the beginning that my cancer was not terminal, but I couldn’t help wondering how different things might have been. What would or could have I done in their circumstances? What emotions would I have had to face?”

I’ve of course encountered death in other ways prior to this experience, such as losing family members or friends, but nothing had been so visceral as seeing someone take their last breath next to me. Once it happened that on a Friday afternoon, I left the shared hospital room to go home for the weekend and by Sunday, when I returned, my roommate had passed away. Less than 48 hours ago he was still there, living and breathing but by Sunday he was gone.

You could take this two ways: just ignore death and put it out of your mind (which is unfortunately what the vast majority of people are doing) or seek to understand and embrace it. I chose the former and it got me wondering: what is death exactly? So, I went on a journey exploring it.

Death calls

Imagine one day you are sitting at home when suddenly the doorbell rings. A formerly unknown person, dressed in a black tux, greets you and says it’s time to go. You’re standing there perplexed, “who is this person and what does he want from me? What does he mean by time and go? When and where? Is it some kind of practical joke by my friends who are trying to set me up with someone? Anyway, it’s not Halloween to dress up as James Bond.”

You tell him to go away but he is not budging. You close the door and walk away but he is still standing there. You open the door and once again he reminds you it’s time to go. His face is grave (no pun intended) and yours is even more so. Could it be? He nods. No! He just nods his head. “Ma’am, your time here is up, it’s time to go.” But you’re still shaking your head, “You’re supposed to give me a warning, like a week or so!” To which he responds, “But last year you had, let me see, 52 weeks already. And what about the year prior to that?” You’ll sulk a little bit and say to yourself that you didn’t pay attention because in your experience those weeks didn’t matter.

This is of course an imaginary situation but something like 150-160,000 people die each day on the planet. There is no “exit instructor” dressed in tux (yet…) but for these people (who will be you and I someday) taking the last breath is very real.

Death is the only certainty in life. In reality, all you’re doing each day, all your body is doing, is walking yourself a little closer to the grave.

Since you sat down to read this essay, you’re a few minutes closer to your death.

Since you woke up in the morning today, you’re a few hours closer. Life and death are happening at the same time.

This you cannot change.

But if it’s an inevitability why it’s so hard to talk about it?

Try bringing up the topic at a dinner party or at a book club event: “Hey, I read this terrific book about death” (I do by the way, Bronnie Ware’s ‘Top five regrets of the dying’ is one of my favourite ones). You’ll slowly find yourself without company and your future invitations will somehow go missing.

But if you saw that there is no death, there is just life in its myriad forms you’d be liberated from this burden.

What is death exactly?

While we are at this topic, what is life exactly?

Life, at least on this physical planet, is made up of at least two things: a physical form and something that animates it (your consciousness). If you follow it all the way back, you’ll see that through the meeting and mingling of two cells a physical form takes shape in a mother’s womb over a period of time. This physical form, somehow someway, gets animated by something called as consciousness which enters the body. Where does this consciousness come from still baffles scientists. (Don’t worry though, the New Age-y community has a thousand explanations for you.)

Once the two are firmly established both go on a mission to expand. Your physical body expands (maybe not the best use of words) obviously, for some it never stops despite the diets, and your mental/emotional bodies (really your psyche) develops something called as your identity. This is me, this is not me, this is mine and this is not mine. Attachments, possessions, identities, behaviours, that sort of stuff.

Now that you’ve established both, you live in what you call as your life. Don’t get me wrong though, experiences and emotions are the juice of life. Imagine if nothing happened while you were here for 70-90 years. Like being on Mars and watching a never-ending sandstorm. Boring! But it is very important to keep them in the proper perspective.

Death really shows you that you’re neither your body, nor the mind. It takes all of them away in a brief instant. You might be rich or poor, a man or a woman but in one brief instant you’ll be no more. Your physical body is just a loan from Mother Earth. Your physical body grew because of accumulation of her bountiful produce, and she will claim every last piece back on your way out. There is no DHL service to the otherworld. Your identity is also just a game of the psyche, nothing much to do with existential reality. One day it’ll also fall away.

Life or death

The reason why I view death as life’s greatest teacher is because in reality it is not teaching you about death, rather about life itself.

What death is telling you is that your life, as it is in a physical form is very finite. You can eat the healthiest food, you can run a marathon a day, you can supplement the hell out of your body, it’ll all be in vain at some point in the future.

The question is do you want to wait until death comes to realise all of this or would you care to embrace it today? You can fool around all you like at some point you’ll be no more. You’ll exhale once more and there is no more inhalation. Life is very robust but in many ways it’s very fragile.

Would you value your life as much if it lasted forever? I don’t think so. Although it doesn’t stop some people living their lives that way.

Carpe diem

How would you be if somehow, it’d be announced that you’ve seven days left to live? Would you worry about your petty arguments? Would you care that your car got scratched? Would you care so much that you’ve lost a little bit of money investing in cryptocurrencies? Your uncle’s alt-coin shouldn’t be considered investment advice anyway (just joking, it’s a serious topic!) Would you rather be loving towards others? How much attention would you pay if you knew death was in the neighbourhood? What changes would you make to your life if you lived with this knowledge every day?

Much has been said about “carpe diem”, and its younger cousin “YOLO”, but in my opinion much has been misinterpreted. The original translation means something like “seize the day”. No, it doesn’t mean put all your life savings into a newly listed SPAC. No, it doesn’t mean putting all of it on red and hoping for the best outcome. It simply means paying utter attention to how you’re living this 24-hour period called a day.

There are really only two things within your control of your life (really only one, the second is half-half): what is your experience of life (how joyful, loving, blissful are you on the “inside”) and how impactful is the activity you’re conducting on the “outside”. That’s it. If you break life down to its essence that’s all you have. Carpe diem simply means doing your best with both on a given day.

Contemplating death

One of the most potent practices I have found was regularly contemplating death. The reason for that is we often forget that we’re going to die one day. We were born yesterday and going to die tomorrow. In this existence which has been around almost 14bn years, our 70-90 years is a tiny occurrence. It means a lot to us but it’s almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Having a regular reminder can be very liberating.

This can take many forms: visiting cemeteries, spending time in a hospice or with people at the doorstep of death or certain meditative practices. The list goes on. At first, it’s going to be scary. I mean who in their right mind want to think about their death, especially when they’re young. But in essence, the more willing you are to come to peace with the fact that death is staring you right in the face the more liberated you’ll be. Not aloof but liberated from the minutiae of life that takes a constant toll on your attention and experience of life.

Just look at how much time most people dedicate to the needs of their psyche. Where to go to school, what job to take, who to marry, what kind of car to buy, where to go on holiday, what clothes to wear, who to hang out with, who to not hang out with, what to eat for dinner, what newspapers to read, what TV series to watch, where to send the kids to school. On and on and on. The needs of the psyche are incessant and if you look honestly the vast majority of people’s life is spent on this. There is nothing wrong this is, I’m far from being judgmental, but do you see that these questions have very little to do with our experience of life itself and at best have an impact on our comforts and conveniences. That’s it. Yes, it’s important to do our best with the outside world, yet in an instant death will take them away.

I cannot tell you how many adults I’ve met who were very uncomfortable to talk about death. “No, I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s switch subjects”. And I’m thinking to myself, my god you had at least 40 years to get comfortable with the fact that someday you’ll be no more and you’re still not there yet.

But I understand.

It is very hard to live with such level of awareness, especially when most of us are fooled by our senses into thinking that only our body and mind are real.

There is nothing to get

So, the problem is not death. The problem is that you’re not living your life as it was intended to be, and you think death is taking something away. The problem is that you think that life is a game where you are supposed to get something. This is the biggest marketing lie that has ever been crafted. The only real thing is your experience of this very life itself.

There is nothing to get and there is nothing which is yours. This body is just a loan, you’ll have to give it back. Your memory, psyche and other mental accumulation will fall away once you die. “Your house” will belong to your children if you pass it on. Same with your car. Or your company. Your wife will not be your wife once you die. You’ll be no more so there is no more marriage between the two of you. She’ll be a woman who was married to you before you passed away.

I know these are not easy things to look at but if you lift the layers of unawareness, slowly peeling them away layer by layer like an onion, you’ll get to be at more of an ease. You’ll see clearer. You might even be more joyful once you understand the great game that society is playing at large. Everybody is chasing something, which they think will make them happy but once they get it, they’ll want the next thing. Everybody is worrying about what they’ll get and what will happen to them. This never ends.

What will happen to me?

This very thing, what will happen to me, is what separating you from enjoying this life. Can’t you see that? Your psyche is engaged with all the tiny details that might go wrong. It is trying to protect itself and make the outside world happen in a way so that it’s safe. But there is no safety in life, just the benevolence of life itself. Yet, it is very hard for a separate individual to grasp. In reality, it is part of life. Experientially, though, it is fighting with life. After you’ve read this essay on death for so long, you know what will happen to you.

You’ll die. This is guaranteed.

So, now that you know what happens at the end why don’t you try to live your life to the best and highest possibility you can. Birth and death and largely not within your control, also not all the things that happen to you in the middle, but your experience of life is 100% your making. Any experience of life comes from the inside. Somebody might make you feel loved or happy but love and happiness are not on the outside. You’re not breathing in love or happiness. Your body is generating chemicals that your psyche understands as love and happiness.

Death is not in your way of enjoying your life…you are!

This is the deal here on planet Earth, maybe on other planets it’s different. You were born one day and another day you’ll die. Death is clearly showing you that everything is passing through time and space. Just as you are. The sooner you understand and embrace this the more joyful and impactful your life will be. Death is not taking one iota away from your enjoyment of life. It is entirely your doing. If you’re miserable, you’re doing it to yourself. Something on the outside might be grim but that shouldn’t necessarily determine your inner experience. This is the highest possibility we humans can aspire to, that our experience of life is entirely in our hands.

Now, you might think: so I’ve to change my life circumstances. I’ve to move, switch jobs, find a new mate, take up a new hobby because there are so many things I haven’t experienced. Don’t! This is not a midlife crisis type event. You don’t have to change your life, that’s not what this is about and again it is the game of the psyche. At first, just be with this realisation that one day I’ll die. In between now and then I want to live whatever is left joyfully. Experience every moment and every bit of juice of life to the maximum.

Now you’re in harmony with life! Once you’ve a new perspective your old circumstances might remain, but they’ll not be old to you. Rather, you’ll discover something refreshing in otherwise-perceived mundane circumstances. Life will tickle you in so many ways you’ll not believe it. And the best thing is you do not even have to go anywhere. Your life on the outside might change as a result but even if it doesn’t, you’ll be okay with it. Simply because you understand the great game and you become an expert at playing it.


I wanted to refer back to Bronnie Ware’s wonderful book called ‘Top 5 regrets of the dying’. You’re probably wondering what these 5 regrets are. Well, here they are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so much
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

My favourite books on death

  1. Sadhguru – Death
  2. Bronnie Ware – Top 5 regrets of the dying
  3. Peter Barton – Not fade away
  4. Mitch Albom – Tuesdays with Morrie
  5. Phil Kalanithi – When breath becomes air
  6. Michael Singer – The untethered soul (Chapter 17)
  7. Tibetan book of the dead (Bhardo Todol)