We like to believe that we are immortal. Until told otherwise, children believe that they will live forever. But at a certain point in childhood we all learn about death, and that eventually everything that lives will die. Life is a cycle, a wheel that keeps turning whether we like it or not, with birth and death the place where the wheel revolves. But what does death actually mean to us? Does everyone have to die, and if so, when?
Matter and Spirit
On a physical level, everything grows and decays. That is the nature of matter. Life feeds upon life, and everything that lives exists within perpetual cycles. A seed sprouts, grows into a plant, offers flowers and fruits to nourish other creatures, decays, and becomes compost to create fertile soil for the next seeds. Ending physical death would be ending the cycle of life. One living thing must give way for another to bloom in its place. There can be no growth without decay.
But we are not just physical beings. These physical bodies that we believe to be real are only small parts of the vastness of our true essences. The fact that you can read and understand this article indicates that there is some part of you that is beyond your body.
Spiritual traditions speak of death as only a doorway. That this entire physical existence is an illusion, that the physical realm is only the surface of life. And that the essence of who we are is beyond our bodies, personalities, and everything we identify with as solid. When we work with this eternal perspective, it does not matter if our bodies will die, because our bodies are just one small part of ourselves.
You need not be religious to embrace this idea; it can be seen in the ways of nature, too. The Sun sets, and then rises the next day. A particular plant dies, and the species lives on. Winter makes the landscape barren, and everything is revived in the spring.
Not If, But When and How
Embracing our eternal nature may help with existential crises, but it does not end the urge to live forever. And while immortality may elude us, we may be able to affect when and how we die. Of course accidents happen, people die for countless reasons. But many people die from diseases and other causes that could have been prevented. We cannot bargain with death, but we can make our bodies and minds as healthy as possible to perhaps give us more time before death comes.
A healthy lifestyle that includes nutritious food, frequent exercise, fulfilling work we enjoy, a body-mind-spirit connection, close friendships, ways to relieve stress, and time in nature can significantly increase our life spans. Even if it does not delay death, living in this way can help us enjoy the time that we do have on this planet.
Returning to the Breath
In yoga philosophy, there is an idea that the length of our lives is pre-determined by our breath. We are each given a set number of breaths when we are born that will be our lifespan. We may breathe quickly and shallowly or slowly and deeply, but when we run out of breaths we run out of life. Breathing slowly lengthens our lives.
This may be a metaphor, of course, to get us to slow down and focus more on deep breathing. Physiologically, breathing deeply improves circulation, respiration, digestion, posture, detoxification, and mental clarity. These can all help increase life span. So there may be some literal truth to the idea of life being measured in breath.
Breathing deeply also helps us be more present in the moment and more aware of life as it passes by. When we are breathing deeply we are less likely to worry about death, because we are more engaged in the present moment. So it may or may not actually elongate our lives, but breathing deeply does make death feel further away, because we are more focused in the now.
There seems to be a common human desire to be on this planet in our current form as long as we can. We have the drive to do, be, create, contribute, and in other ways make the most of our lives. And while there are no known ways to be immortal, we can live in ways that may increase our longevity. People with healthy lifestyles tend to live longer. Breathing deeply metaphorically or literally improves the quality and perhaps quantity of our lives. And knowing that we will die can inspire us to use the time that we have wisely and well. The amazing paradox is that it might be the very knowledge of our death that propels us to make the most of life.