William James provided a nice little description of neurotic behavior: Imagine it's winter and you’ve woken up in an ice-cold room under a nice warm blanket. You have a few options. You can get up and start the day or you can stay in the warm bed for the day. You also have a third option, the neurotic option, of staying in bed but unable to enjoy it, wondering if you should have gotten up.
We’ve all been neurotic at some point, and it robs us of the opportunity to enjoy the moment for what it is. It robs us of the chance to live as fully and joyfully as we otherwise might. We’re under the shadow of some sort of ubiquitous low-level suffering that has us questioning our decisions right up until we’ve made them, plus some. Its mantra: “Maybe I should have …” is familiar to most of us and we know it to be both unpleasant and unfulfilling. For some of us it’s also unremitting.
So, what to do, what to do?
Different forms of therapy can help. Meditation can help too. So can other practices we borrow from the world’s contemplative traditions. I’m thinking here, in particular, of death contemplation. That’s right, one of the most reliable methods for overcoming that low-grade, annoying neurosis is to contemplate the very fact that we will die.
Buddhist traditions, in particular, encourage us to reflect on our mortality and to accept it. The bottom line is this:
One day there will be an out-breath not followed by an in-breath, and that's it.
Thinking about this (and I mean truly thinking about this) has the remarkable ability to cut through nonsense, slice up neurosis, help us see which decisions truly matter and, in turn, free us to enjoy the present moment. When we contemplate and meditate on our mortality we are reminded that, yes, this moment does matter; this moment is a gift and, no matter what's happening in it, we get the most out of it by turning up fully and completely for life.
In a way, reminding ourselves of our mortality can help us challenge not only neuroses but also unhelpful habits. How? Well, simply put, some of our unhelpful habits are just a waste of time. Mindless TV watching, for example, is a form of "killing time." Hardly a fulfilling way of utilizing the limited number of breaths we’ll have on this planet. Remembering our mortality puts that in perspective.
Death contemplation doesn’t need to be macabre. You don’t need to goth it up (but you can if you want to). The bottom line is that this life will end, and does anyone say on her deathbed, “I wish I spent more time on Facebook”?
We can’t avoid death, and remembering that allows us to make more of life, take in more of life and offer more in this life. So, whatever you’re doing (even if what you’re doing is being neurotic), try to enjoy it, try to immerse yourself in it — you won’t get that moment back, so you might as well dive in fully while it's there.
If integrating a little death contemplation into your daily meditation ritual is something you’re keen to explore, you’ll find gentle and staged guidance in sources such as “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.” Or, you may wish to play with this approach on your own. At the end of your meditation practice — during your buffer zone as you transition back into your daily activities — you can bring to mind just the simple notion that your time here will come to an end. Contemplate that everything that’s precious to you, everyone you love, everything you’ve worked toward will also die. Then, using that insight as the canvas against which you make decisions for your day, ask yourself what’s important right now, what’s your next move and why (in the grand scheme of your life) does it matter?