“Practice Dying.” – Plato's final instructions to his disciples just before his own death

Here are two mundane statements followed by a very shocking one.

Not shocking: I enjoy Toastmasters for many reasons.

But a primary one is because of the new friends I've made. You know, friends like Sal.

Salvador Valdovinos is an exceptionally young and vigorous man of 87 that takes pride in his service to America overseas in World War II. But more than proving his valor and putting his life on the line for his country, he achieved something greater. A gift that very few of us ever get, especially at such a young age.

He achieved peace with dying.

Practicing Dying

And death was lurking around every corner he turned in Europe in the mid-1940s.

Except for the way that Sal tells his story, nothing is out of the ordinary so far. But it's the way he achieved peace with dying that shocked me when I heard it.

You see, Sal practices dying. On a regular basis.

Some days, he gets into his bed at home, closes his eyes, visualizes that he's experiencing the entire process and timeline of his last moments, and embraces death the way most people embrace life.

This is what I learned about simplifying my thoughts and life from a man who practices death regularly.

More of the Story

“Face and accept dying to lead a better and richer life.” – Sal's Toastmasters speech

I don't remember all the details of Sal's speech, but I do remember his words about his stern father. Sal's father was never one to show gentle emotions and lived a rigid life. That is, until it came time for Sal to be shipped off to Europe to serve in the infantry.

Faced with the very real prospect of never seeing Sal again, his father became soft and tender. Never having seen this side of his father and enjoying the warmth suddenly radiating from him, Sal started to understand the positive benefits of dealing with death.

And by the time he set foot on that ship across the ocean to fight the Nazis, Sal had embraced the prospect of death. However, it wasn't until later in life that he started to practice dying.

As a clinical psychologist for decades, Sal has a way of analyzing and communicating what's inside the depth of the human mind unlike anyone else I've met.

I had never considered the relationship between being a strong leader and death until I heard this:

“Leadership is found in embracing dying because you can focus your energy on everything else.” – Sal's Toastmasters speech

I had also never considered simplifying my thoughts by practicing death until he said this:

“Practice how and where you want to die every now and then. The more often you do this, the more comfortable you get with death.” – Sal's Toastmasters speech

I've been striving for years to find simplicity in some of the strangest places possible. But I never thought I'd stumble across it in the speech of an 87-year-old man at Toastmasters.

Seeing the summary of Sal's approach to the practice of dying doesn't do it justice. But it involves a multi-step visualization and sequence of events as he's lying in bed. I know I failed to capture everything properly (as this comes from a memory of a conversation I had with him about it), but this is the high level version:

  1. He loses interest in eating solid foods.
  2. He loses his capacity to fully interact with people.
  3. His family travels to be with him as he approaches death.
  4. He has actual conversations with each family member as he prepares to exit the physical world.
  5. As he drifts out of consciousness, he's fully ready to die and becomes very happy.

Can I just say…whoa?!

In addition to this, I'd like to offer up the way I practiced dying after hearing Sal's speech. And as a bonus, I'll provide examples of how certain cultures practice dying too.

My Uneducated Practice of Dying

Here are the crude steps to my practice of dying. I hope to refine them as I learn more about how other people do it and the reasons why.

  1. I laid down on my bed but didn't get under the blankets. I didn't want there to be a barrier between me and the people who would be huddled around me in my last moments.
  2. With my last words, I expressed why I was grateful for each person who loved me enough to be by my side.
  3. I let my arms loosely fall with my palms facing up, much like shavasana (corpse pose) in Yoga.
  4. My feet flopped open, I unclenched my jaw, and my mouth hung open.
  5. I closed my eyes and put in ear plugs. This was to simulate a lack of awareness of the physical world and to intensify my responsiveness to the mental world.
  6. I got lost in thoughts about the future and how the people I love might experience it. I couldn't justify reflecting on myself or my past because all those things would be irrelevant soon. It was more peaceful and gratifying to think about everyone else.
  7. I breathed at a natural pace instead of trying to force harmony through an intentional pattern.
  8. And then I saw myself gradually losing consciousness until I was no longer part of this world.

It's was an amazing experience the first time I fully committed to practicing dying. I'd highly recommend it and I plan to make it a periodic event.

Examples of Traditional Practices of Dying

Sal's going to share a ton of research on how other cultures and religions practice dying. But in my limited research, I'll offer up just two.

  1. Tibetan Buddhists: According to Ven. Tenzin Palmo, death is a stage of transition. It is, “merely an exchange of a rugged and old body of this life with a new and young body of the next, like changing of your clothes when they are old and worn out. Buddhists see death as a process and not as an end.” The website goes on to say that the dying will “summon their children and explain how they would like them to help them die. They also advise them how to share their legacy and property in a proportionate way. While preparing to leave the body, they ask to invite a monk or a teacher to help them at the prime moment of dying. As per the wishes of their parent, the children will invite the monks to do the rituals for a peaceful dying. These are the eight prayers and chanting of the Medicine Buddha.”
  2. Hindus: Some Hindus practice Samadhi, the highest level of concentrated meditation. The goal is “the complete absorption of the individual consciousness in the self at the time of death.” The Wikipedia article about the topic is fascinating.

Last Words

Practicing Dying

When Plato was asked to sum up his life's work and philosophy, he said simply, “Practice Dying”. His message was to not wait to be transformed until death was knocking on your door.

Osho was once asked to sum up Zen and replied, “Let go”.

In both of these simple two word responses, we can get great insight into how to live an intentional life by embracing our eventual deaths.

So I hope you'll consider practicing dying too now that you've read this.

Bonus: Listen to Smart and Simple Matters podcast episode 103 to hear more on my updated thoughts about practicing dying.



Photo credit: Lake Crimson and Nick Boalch