Fortunately, I've always been pretty healthy.
I've always felt like nothing was impossible, that I was capable of anything and that the world was mine for the taking.
But, I'll never forget the first time I ever felt mortal.
It was the day I realized I'd eventually die one day, and my life as I knew it changed.
It was the day my ex-fiancé decided to break up with me two days before our wedding. After seven years, my future was gone in an instant.
That day was the beginning of what could have been a bigger awakening, but it wasn't.
I could have stopped to re-evaluate all my choices that had led me to that point and figure out whether what I'd been doing and how I'd even been living was working or not.
But instead, I got stuck in a spiral of self-destructive behavior: drinking too much, eating too much, not dating the good guys who wanted me and running after the “bad” ones who didn't.
I had PTSD, frankly, and while I distinctly remember saying to myself, "You'll get through this because there's no way you're taking your own life," the way I “got through it” for nearly a decade was just clinging onto a cliff's ledge.
I was resilient in the worst way.
I survived, but I was slowly killing myself because what mattered most to me had all been shattered. And I didn't know what to do about it.
I couldn't tolerate having to sit still, be alone and face what had actually happened.
So after realizing my destructive behaviors weren't helping me get better, I surrounded myself with people, sunk myself into work and volunteering and stayed super-active re-creating a life independent of anyone else.
But, I was still missing what mattered most: the joy of living.
What matters most
Recognizing — and perhaps, rediscovering — your joy and what matters most in life is what author Frank Ostaseski talks about in his new book, "The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully."
Ostaseski has worked with thousands of people facing death, many of whom were young people dying during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
He says there are five things we can do now while we're fully alive to prepare ourselves not for just for death itself, but also for living wisely and having no regrets while we're here.
The Five Invitations include "don't wait," "welcome everything, push away nothing," "bring your whole self to the experience," "find a place of rest in the middle of things" and "cultivate don't know mind."
Turning toward tough times
With these invitations in mind, I spoke with Ostaseski about what millennials, specifically, can learn from reflecting on death.
He said part of the issue is that while each one of us will continue to experience pain and suffering in the “normal” course of life, we often (unsuccessfully) try to push our tough times away and cling to inevitably fleeting pleasures.
Because we unwittingly “practice” distraction so much (as I did with booze and food after my breakup), we never just let ourselves be with our uncomfortable feelings. We judge them, unnecessarily declare them to be bad just because they are uncomfortable and ignore the fact that like everything, they won't last forever.
Although we can change our behavior, Ostaseski says our habit tendencies run deep:
We are 'masters of distraction.' We are marvelously skilled in the high art of avoidance. A large portion of our day is consumed with activities that are attempts at protection from discomfort, pain and suffering. A recent survey found that most people interact with their smartphones more than they do with other human beings. Half of the people surveyed admitted to using their phones to escape social interaction, and nearly a third said they felt anxious when they didn't have access to their phones.
Whether it's too much texting or online shopping, our tendency is to reach for something else to make us feel better the moment we start noticing uncomfortable sensations and feelings. We end up wasting a lot of time and energy trying to ignore our vulnerabilities, including our thoughts about dying and why we're even here.
Of phone addiction, Ostaseski asks again:
Do any of these strategies really work? Sure, we get some temporary relief by ignoring problems or substituting a more pleasant experience for an unpleasant one. But when I look closely at my life, I see that such benefits are short-lived. What sticks around for the long run is the habit of self-deception and its negative consequences. Suffering is exacerbated by avoidance. The body carries with it any undigested pain. Our attempts at self-protection cause us to live in a small, dark, cramped corner of our lives. We accept a limited perspective of the situation and a restricted view of ourselves. We often opt for temporary relief over true healing. We choose comfort over truth. We cling to what is familiar simply to reassert control or to fend off what we fear is intolerable.
But is death really intolerable?
Perhaps because we hate feeling uncomfortable so much, we ignore the inevitable until it's too late.
The irony, though, is that if we are able to increase our comfort level with things like illness and death, we can begin to live more fully and meaningfully right now.
Practice, practice, practice
You're in training for everything all the time. What we practice is who we become. So instead of not visiting your auntie in the nursing home because it makes you feel weird or you don't like it, or not going to that funeral or wake, perhaps it's a good idea to try.
You might even feel supported by others who are going through the same loss and be able to approach the whole experience in a friendlier way. Instead of going in there thinking about death, maybe there's an invitation to shift perspective and see it as an opportunity to practice becoming more comfortable with the cycle of life.
It's pretty simple: if we're always running to our phones or the refrigerator when we get upset, it isn't the best practice for that fatal (literally) day when we say bye to life as we know it.
That's why learning how to "welcome everything, push away nothing” and include all the difficult moments now, helps us accept challenging times without making them harder than they need to be later.
Presumably, this helps us tolerate “normal” things that happen to us — life traumas, illness and old age — better. Perhaps it is possible to "bring your whole self to the experience" and "find a place of rest in the middle of things."
When we've been practicing how to be nicer to ourselves, how to enjoy living in the moment and how to be grateful for all the good things we might have been taking for granted all along, we're seeing things with fresh eyes, letting go of old fears, and cultivating "don't know mind."
Ostaseski also says that at a recent talk, millennials kept asking questions like, “How could embracing dying help me understand something about climate change? How can I talk to my grandmother about this?”
He suggests we try to ponder to those questions now and that we don't want to wait to think about these bigger life issues.
Ostaseski also recommends a program called "Death Over Dinner," which encourages younger people to talk freely and frankly with friends and family about what inevitably happens to all of us.
Because in the end, he says, we can live more with more joy when we do.
And it's not just by blocking everything out and “getting through” the day, but by fully waking up to the reality of our lives as they are in all their glory, pains and sorrows.
"Don't wait." By becoming your own woke bae and facing all of life's challenges directly, we'll find real freedom.