People have asked me what keeps me motivated to work out. My answer is, “I want to be harder to kill.” That answer is based partly on my years of martial arts training and the philosophy of bushido– the way of the warrior. According to the Bushido Shoshinshu, the first thing that a samurai needs to do is to keep death in mind at all times. This makes plenty of sense for a professional warrior– their business is death. But the practice of being aware of death, of overcoming the fear of it and realizing how quickly life can end, can help us live longer and better.
First, the idea is to keep death in mind– to be aware of it– not to fixate on it or be afraid of it. There is a difference between keeping death in mind and being preoccupied with it. Remembering that your time is limited shouldn’t be a source of anxiety or an excuse to indulge in risky or unethical behavior.
If you’re aware of your own mortality you’re actually less likely to die doing something stupid. For example, if you know that car accidents kill many people or that a particular city has a reputation for murders, you are more likely to drive safely or to avoid walking alone in that city. If you really know that you’re going to die and you have no choice in the matter, you’re more likely to take actions that will help to prevent your own death.
Similarly, if you know that bad habits like smoking, eating poorly or not working out can lead to your death, you’re more likely to not smoke, to eat well and to work out. People who indulge with the excuse of “life is short, might as well enjoy it,” are in the denial phase of the understanding of death. They’re proving that life is short by shortening their own life.
Also, If you are aware that everybody else is going to die– and could die at any moment– it puts things in perspective. Petty quarrels and arbitrary hierarchies aren’t important. Your boss and your subordinate are all equal with you. And every time you see your friends and family, if you remember that it could be your last meeting with them, you will appreciate them more. Keeping death in mind is the refusal to be complacent or to take for granted the good things in your life.
In the gym, we often say that we’re not working out to live longer, we’re working out to live better. If you think about it, this is the essence of keeping death in mind. Live not just a long life, but a good one.