In Bhutan, thinking about death is as much of a daily ritual as eating or praying. This is no passive, late-night rumination; but an active practice that involves meditating on death five times a day. “That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan,” wrote author Eric Weiner in a piece titled ‘Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness’ for BBC Travel.
“Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair?” he wrote. “Some research suggests that, by thinking about death so often, the Bhutanese may be on to something.” He goes on to talk about a 2007 study at the University of Kentucky, which asked two groups of students to complete stem words such as ‘jo-’ after contemplating a painful visit to the dentist and their own death. The group that did the latter ended up with the word ‘joy’ more than the other. The researchers concluded that ‘death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts’.”
The world’s greatest thinkers have always reckoned with these big life questions. In the 17th century, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza recognised two ways of looking at death: egotistically and eternally. In the latter perspective, that of the ‘higher consciousness’, you’d arrive at your insignificance in the larger scheme of things; a thought that can be more liberating than terrifying.
In a 2021 podcast, author and life coach Jay Shetty invented the five stages of coping with change that you can’t rush. “Monks never demonise or glorify anything, they neutralise it,” he says. “Neutralising it means you expect it to happen. You learn to develop the tools and practices that help you manage it and navigate it, rather than expecting it to never happen.”
Why do we not reckon with change? Accidents have always happened, relationships have always fallen apart, our dearest ones have always passed on. Is it because change almost always feels like it is for the worst? The Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh once said, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Shetty interprets this as: “We have this attachment to familiar pain, we keep going back to the same pain, and we want the same pain, because it gives certainty in our life.”
In our pandemic-ridden world, we’ve certainly gotten familiar with uncertainty. Change comes from unexpected quarters. Beyond the existential and the philosophical, perhaps one tangible way to cope with this is to make financial arrangements — to break out of received thought patterns of superstition and suspicion around things like death and divorce, and consider the numbers.
In India, prenuptial agreements aren’t seen as legal binding contracts in a court of law as they are considered opposed to public policy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t consider one as a guiding text; or make personal arrangements to secure your financial future should the worst happen.
Reportedly, only 17% of millennials had bought term life insurance policies in 2020. Life insurance has traditionally been a widely accepted tool for end-of-life planning; and if you prefer more goal-oriented investments with greater benefits, there are all manner of DIY instruments to leave your dependents comfortable.
No one likes to contemplate their death, but it is essential when we hit a certain age. Estate planning, while not a common practice in India, is also something to pay attention to, no matter the size of your wealth. Drawing up a will may seem daunting, but to do that, and review each year, can anchor you to life and your relationships; and at the very least, avoid ugly legal battles when you’re gone.
Whether it is a detailed plan that even factors in how you’d like your organs donated, or simply a notebook where you’ve assembled all your passwords to financial accounts, it is the thought and action that matters. The bottom line: Acceptance of the inevitable, inescapable, unpredictable can stand us in good stead. “Carpe diem”, as the Roman poet Horace wrote in 23 BCE, which was an exhortation for something deeper than its association with the FOMO of today, suggests:
“Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more? In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away. Seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.”
Nidhi Gupta is a freelance writer and editor based in Mumbai.