Whatever one's walk of life, it can end without warning. Photo: iStock
Whatever one's walk of life, it can end without warning. Photo: iStock

A reminder I have frequently found helpful over the past decade is “No guarantee we will be alive tomorrow morning,” or this evening, or the next hour. It’s a priority-focusing reality check I call the “death-check”, and it pays rich dividends of freedom in life – particularly given my unusual talent for epic blunders.

The “death-check” is my reality check reminding how this lifetime is a limited-edition in time. The objective reality is that death can visit any moment – even more so in our terrorism-afflicted times. The “death-check” delivers a reminder not to waste time, or lazily linger in comfort zones.

In ancient times, this consideration was called marananupassana, or meditative mindfulness about the inevitability, and possible suddenness, of death. This might be an uncomfortable, even disturbing thought process for some, but I find nothing morbid or negative in it – it’s just a way to check our priorities, as in the saying, “Life is uncertain, so have dessert first.” Or, do not dither or delay over doing any good work that we plan to do.

“Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans” was a line found in a 1957 issue of Reader’s Digest, a quote that the Beatle John Lennon more famously and prophetically used in his ballad “Beautiful Boy” in 1980 – in what turned out to be his last album before he was shot dead in Manhattan, New York, that same year on December 8, aged 40. 

The “death-check” simply reminds that death is what can happen to us when we are busy making other plans. 

With the reminder that I am not guaranteed of being alive tomorrow morning, I find no point hoarding acquisitions. Whatever is given is used, shared or donated. So during the past decade I have gotten along contentedly living well out of a small travel bag. What does not fit into this lightweight hand baggage is left on the roadside for anyone to use.

Whenever remembered, the “death-check” ensures there is no insecurity about the future, no generating negativity toward others, or worrying. There is less anxiety and fear when life is reduced to three-month extensions.

Obviously, sudden disasters deliver understanding of the “death-check”, as with Mexico in these difficult times – the earth and concrete walls of certainty collapsing suddenly when the  7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City killing hundreds, during what should have been just another lunch break around 1pm on Tuesday, September 19.

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Routine life in Roma, Mexico City, before September 19, 2017 …

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… the rubble of sudden death across Mexico City, September 20, 2017.

The ‘death-check’ is a reality check reminding me of this lifetime being a limited-edition in time … less anxiety and fear when life is reduced to three-month extensions.

Whether a terrorist attack, natural calamity or in personal life, sudden death delivers stark reminders that nothing lasts forever, everything is impermanent –  like the death of my childhood classmate and friend, aged 12, fatally injured while playing during an annual school picnic.

The “death-check” is not a pessimistic, fatalistic outlook, or hollow philosophy, but practical reality for clutter-clearing clarity in life. And quality life, whatever path is taken, needs conquering fear.

That is why The Walk  is one of Hollywood’s more enthralling works. The Robert Zemeckis-directed Sony Pictures movie of 2015 was based on the true story of a young man who found his answers to life in what seemed his lunatic flirting with death.

“When people ask me, ‘Why do you risk death?’” said Phillip Petit, “to me, this is life.” On the morning of August 7, 1974, the 24-year old Petit walked, even sat, on a taut wire he had strung between the twin towers of the then newly built World Trade Center in New York, as office-goers gawked up in disbelief.

Truly living life needs overcoming fear.

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The death-defying ‘Walk’, New York, August 7, 1974.

A cruel Indian emperor’s reality check 

Walking through life, to understand more accurately or serve the world outside, first needs more accurately understanding the world within –realities about oneself, and the day’s work having precious value because of the death-check.

Better now than later to free my mind from biased conditioning, inaccurate perceptions and delusions that have caused trouble for me and others in my life.

To make efforts to change myself makes more sense than trying to change others. It was during this practical learning process, circa 1994, that I abruptly interrupted my fledgling, promising career in journalism and invested time in long-term voluntary service at the Vipassana International Academy, Dhamma Giri, near Mumbai. During that phase in Dhamma Giri, I briefly met Eilona Ariel and Ayelet Menhami from Israel, on their world tour with a film project.

Two decades later, as an award-winning film producer for that project, Eilona Ariel was among the accomplished people the influential TED Talks invites to share expertise and experience. In the death-filled world of the Middle East, her life’s work helps people bring inner peace into their war and violence-ravaged lives.

A former jazz musician in New York’s Greenwich Village and daughter of a senior Israeli army officer, Eilona’s life changed during her time in Nepal, as she shares her experience:

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For countries and the world to change for the better, the individual first needs to change.

On September 19 at the United Nations, US President Donald Trump called for global “peace, security and prosperity”, but that can be achieved in reality only if more individuals and leaders like him take a reality check within.

President Trump declared that a strong United Nations needed its individual member nations to be strong, but nations can be strong only when individual citizens, and most particularly leaders  invest in the time and hard work needed to make oneself strong.

For this, Trump and other leaders genuinely interested in making their countries stronger, might consider taking a four-hour journey from New York, on Interstate 95 North, reach Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and enter Dhamma Dhara.

There (or in one of the 177 other such independently run centers worldwide) they take the beginners’ residential 10-day training with the reality-check of an ancient, universal practice – a self-dependent path taught without any charges or fees, and shared worldwide for the good of all beings.

Devoutly chanting a recipe is not going satisfy hunger. Deep-rooted change needs hard work and an actual, tangible practice to change negative habit patterns.

More than 2,300 years ago, Indian emperor Asoka (304-232 BC) took  300 days off from his imperial duties to undergo the same life-changing process in Bairath, Rajasthan,  northern India, and learn this timeless, non-sectarian practice that gives benefits now and beyond.

This war addict who was once proud to be called “Asoka the Cruel”, destroyer of the kingdom of Kalinga, emerged from Bairath, returned to his capital Pataliputra, and went on to be called “Asoka the Great”, as one of the most benevolent rulers in history.

This ancient practice called Vipassana through which Emperor Asoka changed himself is being daily practiced by 21st-century people ranging from atomic scientists in India to prison inmates in the US, business leaders in Europe, former terrorists in Sri Lanka, a princess in Thailand’s royal family, and students in Malaysia.

Having nothing to do with any religion, “ism”, cult, or blind belief, Vipassana is a self-study of the mind-matter within – to develop one’s own experiential wisdom and unconditional compassion for all beings.

Meaningful, lasting behavioral change, to change negative habit patterns of the mind, does not happen merely from reading or reciting scriptures from some religious “ism” or the other. Devoutly chanting a recipe might divert the mind temporarily from hunger, but it will not provide the needed nutrition. Deep-rooted change needs hard work and an actual, tangible practice in the tough kitchen of life.

Burmese-born former millionaire industrialist and voluntary Vipassana teacher Sayagyi U Goenka (1924-2013) explained such a result-giving, nature-based practice to cope with realities of life in this interview in Hasselt, Belgium, on August 9, 2002:

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The Vipassana reality check: individual inner peace needed for world peace, and here is the practical way, proved across time, cultures and countries, enabling inner change – for better quality work, relationships, and life in a happier world that we create around ourselves.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.