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Life Is Too Short Not To Write Your Own Obituary

17/01/2016 6:48 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Close up on the hands of a young woman as she is writing in a small notepad at a wooden table

"Why?" People ask me all the time. "Why would you want to write your own obituary? Isn't it morbid, scary, depressing?"

No. It's exactly the opposite.

David Bowie's death this week pushed the subject of mortality to the forefront of many peoples' minds. We're all going to die. We know this. Even multifaceted creative innovators, larger than life, pulsing with talent, end up dead. And yet we still don't fully believe it.

I'm a writer. I've written lots of stories over the years, real and imagined. But the process of writing my own obituary has proven to be the most profound narrative I've ever attempted. Writing your own obituary is life-changing (yes, it's that big).

When I sat down to write my obituary, I asked myself questions I rarely stop and ask in the crazy hum of daily life. My default mode is busy; goal-oriented ambitions, a list full of others' needs. I live in a culture, as you do, that takes some pains to deny the inevitability of dying and death.

So to sit in a quiet space and ask myself these questions was deeply healing. These were questions ranging from sentimental to soul-searching to silly: "Which is your happiest childhood memory? Your worst? Do you have any enemies? What do you carry in your wallet, pocket or handbag? What is the one thing you would like to be remembered for?"

At the end, I felt as if I was somehow much more than the forward-moving trajectory of my life, from birth to childhood to adulthood.

Writing my own obituary allowed me to examine the relationships I've had in the past with family, friends and lovers -- and to either let go gracefully or make a conscious effort to maintain those I care about. Consequently, the close relationships I now have are by active choice and are sacred. I try to infuse them with honesty, warmth and love, moment by moment. Of course I also fail, again and again. But the quality of intention is now there and it grows with each fresh attempt.

Often we're at crossroads in our lives, uncertain which way to go. Writing my obituary illuminated my path and clarified where I want to be, in every sense. Anything or anyone you're confused about, at odds with, ashamed of... it all magically burns up in the writing. Like pure alchemy, the dross of your life turns into gold. In the process, you feel a real sense of the precious nature of your life, of how miraculous it is to actually be here, at this point in time. Thus, your future choices become more defined, washed clean by this new clarity.

What constitutes a mindful and meaningful life? Writing my obituary distilled and refined what really matters to me. And, of course, the clichés all hold true: family, close friends, authentic and heartfelt connections. Simplicity. Peace and contentment. Those transcendent daily moments that come unplanned, unbidden. The ordinary that often contains the extraordinary. In this realisation I've come upon a deep well of joy. Not happiness, which can always contain its flipside, sadness and loss, but unadulterated joy. True joy lies in being okay with whatever arises. It doesn't mean we don't complain and kick against what we dislike, it doesn't mean we don't try to change situations. It means beneath it all, there is an opening and softening, acceptance and a taste of surrender.

Writing my obituary lightened things up. I don't need to struggle and strain so much anymore. I am enough right now, the way I am. My flaws, my idiosyncrasies, my fears and my hesitations are part of my life's history. I can see the bigger picture from a higher vantage point now. And I can rest more easily in that larger, more expansive view. Yes, I still have short-term goals and long-term ambitions. Yes, I still plan, sometimes obsessively. But the heaviness and hard slog isn't there any more. I'm going to die eventually, so what am I here for in the meantime? I'm here to grow, to awaken, and to enjoy myself. It's that simple -- and that difficult.

In writing my obituary, I saw that I have no regrets. My moments of humiliation, anger, irritation, betrayal -- they weren't mistakes. They were necessary. Maybe even more imperative than triumphs and accolades, gains and praise. They were part of living fully, of learning and unlearning, of getting better at letting go. And they will continue.

I now feel the rich, juicy reality of knowing that I can't predict when I will die; that this could be my last decade, year, week to live. And there is an immense freedom in that. A great spiritual teacher once said that if we can 'die' before we die, we then find there is no death.

If today was your last day, what would you do? I don't think I'd be sitting down and writing my own obituary, but I'd be really glad I already have. And I plan to rewrite it regularly, until the words run out in the end.

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