Longer observation (19): Imagining Ourselves Dying (2): Imagining dying is different than trying to imagine death. Dying is a process; death a state. Here I want to write about a certain type of dying, one where there is no pain, no physical discomfort, and no inconvenience. Here is I am trying to imagine an unusual situation: You find that you will be dying, painlessly, in 30 seconds. I think most people, if they became convinced of this, would be upset. The question is, "Why?"

In this scenario there is no time to make a phone call or to take care of any business on your desk. If you find out you will die in a year, there are a lot of things that you will have to do to get things in order. There will be a lot of work and adjustments to your long term plans.

At any point in time a person has at least three types of goals as I try to capture in the following drawing:


There are short term goals (A's), medium term goals (the B's), and long term or life goals (the C's). Among short term goals are taking your next breath, finding food when you're hungry or liquid when you're thirsty and so on. Life goals might be to marry and raise and care for a family (including grandchildren and great grandchildren) or to write the great American novel or to bring about world peace or a clean environment or to stay healthy and fit (on top of your game). Medium term goals would be anything in between.

This is not meant to be an accurate and perfect list but a working model for the purpose of this article.

Besides goals A-C, there are goals we have to do things that we think will help us achieve an A, B, or C goal. To meet the goal of eating, for example, a person might go hunting or fishing or plant a garden.

Another point is that just because a goal is short term doesn't mean it isn't important or even critical. We have to take a breath every five or ten seconds. If we can't meet the goal of taking the next breath, we die.

Not all our goals are important, and many are artificial or manufactured. Some people feel they must have the next generation of Apple iPhone, but it is impossible to see this as a goal based on a deep need. It is more of a compulsion.

If we return for a moment to the need for air, it is clear that there is a difference between how we feel when we need air and how we feel once we get a deep breath of it. It's true also for food and water and, really, for all needs (and goals), real and manufactured (like the need for a new iPhone). It is a bad, desperate feelings when we need or feel we need something, and it is a good, satisfied feeling when we get a need (or felt need) met. We are, perhaps, never fully satisfied, because we never have all our needs met, but we can feel very satisfied when we reach a goal and are not focused on our other goals.

We can now return to our exercise in the imagination and try to picture what it would feel like to find you will die in 30 seconds. Pain is not the issue. There is no question about having to rearrange your whole life to readjust. You don't have to re-prioritize and change plans to fit into the time left, because, in effect, there is no time left. It is more a question of how satisfied you are. If, at the time you find out, you have been on an unsatisfying search for food because you are very hungry, you might feel frustrated and angry to have to die before you get to eat. If you are satisfied from the angle of basic needs, you might feel frustrated not having time to contact a loved one. Or you might realize you have not met this or that long term goal.

It seems to me it would be this dissatisfaction, more than a fear of death or anything to do with death itself, that would be the most upsetting thing about a realization that your life will end in a few seconds.

I read somewhere that Buddha thought that desire is the source of all suffering, and the above observations and thoughts do not contradict his idea. If, somehow, at the thought of impending death, we could let go of all of our goals, a certain liberation might take place, a freedom from the struggle (with its ups and downs) of life.