From The Under 35 Project: “Life Before Death”

Jennifer Horton explains how meditation helped her transform her fear of dying into the aspiration to wake up and really live.

Jennifer Horton
15 February 2013
Photo by David Cohen

Late at night, when it’s dark and the world has gone to sleep, my mind begins to wander. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s the silence or the lack of sunlight, but at these times, I have a tendency to get somewhat philosophical, and before long, I find myself entertaining thoughts of my own mortality. I think about the fact that one day, I will no longer be here. I will cease to exist. My world will go dark. During the light of day, such thoughts seem silly and incomprehensible, but in the cloak of darkness, they terrify me. My inevitable demise feels shockingly real as my throat constricts and my stomach feels hollow. I wonder if anyone else ever thinks about this fact — that in 100 years, none of us will be here anymore. There will be new people in our places. Perhaps they’ll contemplate the same thing.

Thinking of my nonexistence in this way often stirs up an incredible panic: “But I have so much left I want to do! I’m not ready to die!” I’m gripped with fear and a strong sense of urgency. All of the ways that I waste time and hold back in my day to day life flash through my consciousness and I’m disgusted by my poor use of this precious gift. I vow to make the most of every second from now on. To forge ahead and do something meaningful with my life. Then I fall asleep. The morning comes. And I forget.

I came across a quote the other day by Bertolt Brecht: “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life,” and it occurred to me that when I get so worked up during these morbid late night ponderings, it’s not really the idea of my own death that scares me. It’s the fact that I feel like I haven’t yet LIVED. I spent a great deal of my youth running from fears I didn’t know how to face. When I wasn’t busy running, I was building walls to protect my fragile soul. There are seriously big chunks of my life I don’t really even remember because I was so good at numbing out and avoiding. It’s only recently that I’ve stopped running and started tearing down those walls. It’s a slow process, and I’m afraid of the curtain coming down before I’m finished. Afraid of squandering my one shot at this cherished life. In the past, I wasn’t so frantic, because, well, I wasn’t terribly excited about being here. I didn’t exactly NOT want to be here, I was just kind of “meh.” I was too busy being afraid to see the wonder that was right in front of my eyes. My only concern was not letting the fears overtake me. I was blind and asleep.

But I’m not sleeping anymore. I’m awake. And my eyes are wide open. Thanks in large part to my discovery of mindfulness and meditation a little less than a year ago, I no longer walk through my days in a drunken-like stupor. I see my thoughts, I see my actions. I’m not always proud of them, but I see them and I accept them (most of the time…). I’m aware when I start putting walls up again, of when I’m running not out of joy, but out of fear. (Maybe not right away, but I catch on eventually.) I can’t always stop myself, but at least I’m not traveling blind. I can see where I’m going. Even when I neglect to make time for formal meditation, I strive to touch base with myself throughout the day, whether by pausing to look around at my surroundings, taking several deep breaths or simply checking in with my five senses. A red light on the way to work is now a chance to pause and reflect.

I suppose I might still be considered young, but I feel like I’ve lost so much already. Years of my life gone to who knows what. I don’t want to lose any more of my years to running away — to putting up walls. I want to run towards life, not away from it. I want to carpe diem. I’m hungry. I’m still afraid in many ways, but my hunger is now greater than my fear. I want to live the rest of my life in such a way that when it IS my time to leave this Earth, I won’t be afraid anymore, because I’ll have lived.