You are going to die.
This is not revelatory. It is a fact. What is also true, for most, is the uncertainty. You don’t know when or how your death will arrive. Are you prepared?
Preparing for death is a practice of life.
I recently watched one of my favourite bands (The Cure) live. I’d waited 35 years to see them and they did not disappoint. They’re old now but they played with the enthusiasm of youth. The show was meant to be an hour and a half. They played for two-and-a-half hours; a double encore. When they finished, I was finished. It was a good night but, as my mother would have said, “all good things must come to an end”. Yes, even The Cure.
A few days later a family friend was describing how her husband, who had been in a critical medical condition, had come back to life. She said it was his encore. He’d seen the infamous white light and chose instead to return to earth.
The problem is many of us don’t get an encore. When the curtain drops, that’s it. Kaput. Overs. Sometimes the curtain drops slowly. We watch it coming down on us or on those we love, and it’s painful. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We get angry, vicious, regretful, morose, to no avail. The curtain keeps dropping, and we haven’t had our encore. So, what’s the antidote?
We have to live our encore now, while we still can. That way if the curtain drops, we’re prepared. There are some rules though. 1) Encores have to contain some of your greatest hits, your best traits. They have to make you and others want to bop along. 2) Encores have to be conscious. They can’t fall in haphazardly all over the place. That’s not an encore then, it’s a mess. 3) Encores happen when people beg for more. They want more of you. 4) Encores are celebratory. You are celebrating the wonder that is you, and it’s so good you keep coming back.
Please don’t confuse an encore with immediate positivity or gratification. These are great if you have them, but they are prone to bouts of ephemerality. Encores are for every occasion, happy or sad. They occur in silence or frivolity. They can be lonely or they can be full of others.
Let’s be clear – the encore I’m talking about here is a metaphorical one. It means you being present in your life and not you wishing your life would start happening. An encore is where you take a stand, return to your stage, and perform. You show up. And it can happen right now.
An encore mentality is important because, as my mother would say, all good things must come to an end. Including you. Rather than spending your energy worrying about finding a cure to death, be more like The Cure and play a double encore. The crowd will love you. But, better still, you’ll love yourself.
An acquaintance enjoys detailing clay on his BMW. Detailing clay is a resin compound that removes contaminants from paintwork. He can spend an entire day preening his car – a large, metallic object – so it looks unspoiled.
Initially I couldn’t think of anything as uninspiring. It seemed a fool’s paradise; to waste time on something so materialistic. But I was missing the point. So what if he’s obsessed with his car – he’s happy while doing it.
My realisation came when I was putting together yet another compilation. On the outside my obsession seemed useless, but for me it was a stolen moment of serenity. We all have our detailing clay fixations; things we do that mean so much to our wellbeing but look stupid to others.
The problem is we tend to vindicate our choices while judging others. Making compilations is wholesome, claying cars is vain. That’s why when I saw pictures of this acquaintance hunched over his BMW, I became sardonic. I didn’t realise what he was doing was the exact same thing as me just in a different format. It’s only after I thought of him looking at pictures of me sitting hunched over I-tunes on my laptop that the penny dropped – I was him.
Happiness and quietude are the goals here – a place to meditate. If you can find calm from the mad rush of the world and you enjoy doing it, then that’s your thing. Placing weight on good or bad only hastens to muddy the waters.
Certain words are ‘priming’ words; they prime other people to become defensive and angry. For my wife and I the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ have the unintentional power to turn a disagreement into a full-blown argument. A typical example is, “you never care about me,” which is clearly untrue as we care about each other immensely. A more emotionally congruent statement would be, “I don’t feel cared for in this moment.”
Priming words can spin people off the axis of the real issue. We all have them, and often they’re attached to core fears or beliefs. I, for instance, am a deeply considerate person so saying ‘I never care’ can injure my values. And as much as it’s my job to un-prime or deactivate these words in me, I feel we, as a species, could become more mindful of how we speak.
Which leads me to my point – “I told you so!” If there was one phrase I could remove from our language, it would be this. Not only is it severely priming, but it’s also reactive; we only say “I told you so” after the fact. It’s single purpose, it seems, is to prove whoever is saying it right and make the other person feel bad at a time they need support.
Instead of being right, let’s be resourceful. “I told you so” primes a person into defence. This is wasted energy. Rather let’s use our words to prime a sense of restoration, upliftment, and renewed hope.
When I played live music as a singer-songwriter, I did it without a band. It was me and my acoustic guitar, which meant every mistake or off key vocal was exposed for the audience to see and hear.
The biggest problem I had to overcome was anxiety. My fear of looking stupid in front of people pushed me to overexert my vocal chords, and by the fifth song I was hoarse. Typically, my gigs were short.
The answer lay in breathing. When I was anxious my vocal chords tightened, my breathing apparatus faltered, and I unconsciously reversed a vital rhythm. I learned that rather than focus on playing the song (which I’d rehearsed and knew blindfolded), I needed to focus on my breath.
When was the last time you thought about breathing properly? Being mindful of your breath is an indispensable, and underdeveloped, human ability. The reason is breathing comes so naturally, we’re mindless to it.
To access our potential, we have to think like good singers. Here’s a quick exercise: - Wherever you are right now, tune into your breathing. If you’re sucking in your tummy and sticking out your chest on the in-breath, you’re doing it wrong. By reversing this order you’ll start working with your diaphragms natural movement. Next, picture a loop moving up your back, round the skull, down the front, and behind the pubic bone. Now, send your in-breath up this loop and your out-breath down.
This is mindful breathing, and your success depends on it.