Existential Meditation: Mortality and Life Design

Existential Meditation: Mortality and Life Design

Psychology November 14, 2014 / By Taylor Kreiss
Existential Meditation: Mortality and Life Design

Recent studies suggest that contemplating mortality can help us design and live a better life.

"What is my purpose in life?"

"Shouldn't I know what I want by now?"

"Man, my Facebook friends seem to be living so well… Why am I not partying in a giant room with flashing lights and music so loud I can’t hear the groupies vying for my attention?"

All the classic concerns of a generation Y yuppie. I’ve experienced each of them. Fortunately, I discovered an elixir for my 20-something blahs: Existential Meditation (EM). EM has helped me tap a well of positivity that has changed me for the better. I’m writing this article because I’m confident it can do the same for everyone.

4 Objective reasons to make a habit of Existential Meditation:

  1.  Extraordinary ‘livers’ and intellectual rock stars like Tim Ferriss, Steve Jobs, Nietzsche and Tyler Durden have credited contemplating mortality with helping them design and realize their life paths.
  2.  EM is based on recent research in Terror Management Theory and data collected by hospice workers. Renown psychologists and social scientists argue that focusing on mortality primes you to help others, gets you proactive about your health and compels you to re-evaluate your life’s goals.
  3.  Neuro-scientific research has demonstrated that meditative exercise reconfigures your brain for the better.
  4.  My friends and I have found the practice highly effective.

(Hyperlinks at bottom)

A quick note before we get started:


“Carpe diem”

“Everyman dies but not every Man truly lives.”

We hear these lofty clichés daily and they don’t motivate us to get off the proverbial couch. For this practice to work, you’ll need to jolt yourself with vivid visualization and intense introspection. Existential considerations lead to more meaningful living, these questions and concepts are not just idle ponderings, they have the power to prioritize and transform. This is practical Philosophy and Psychology helping you determine what you ought to do to live a better life.

Existential Meditation:

1. Truly living

The data is clear, people on their deathbeds wish they had done things differently. And the science tells us that doing things differently now will not only delay death, but also make you a healthier/happier person. Consider the following.

Here are the top 5 regrets of the dying (as recorded by hospice workers):

1.“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

2.“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

3.“I wish I had let my self be happier.”

4.“I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.”

5.“I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of doing what others expected of me.”

This information sheds light on what it really means to live a Good life. Dying people don’t wish they had more money or that they had twerked on Robin Thicke at the VMAs. They dream of more enjoyment and authentic pursuits with the people they loved. If we are to live well, we’ll need to re-evaluate how we’re currently living and pursue valuable goals, purpose, friendship and happiness.

Here, list four goals you could work toward tomorrow that would haunt you if you died next year.

(No need for hours of deliberation, just list what pops into your head.)





Wait…. Are “Get rich” and “Be famous” on there?

Sigh. Remember the 5 points above? We need to set the right goals before we get motivated to achieve them. Is it a new job? A trip abroad? Finishing that creative project?

Whatever your aspirations, EM just helped you determine four things you should work towards. It can be difficult to find direction in life, but this quick exercise distills what is truly valuable. You have some goals, now we just need to energize action.


“The longer we wait around, the faster the years go by.”

-Broken Bells

They may sound a bit grave (pun lamely intended), but the following mantras are meant to attune you to the dire urgency of living a good life right now, because you may not have tomorrow.

  • Sit comfortably, breath deeply and focus on your impermanence.
  • Let your mind settle on the fact that death isn’t just some abstract concept. It’s a tangible reality that you confront every moment of your life. Don’t fear the reaper, but know that he makes you finite. The hard truth is that if you don’t act now, you may expire without flourishing.
  • You may not have 1000 tomorrows to chisel that 6-pack. You can’t be certain you have another year to visit a temple in Thailand. You may not even have tomorrow to finish this article (which is hugely important of course). Do you want to spend your limited time being anything but happy and successful (whatever that means to you)?
  • There will be a last moment of your life and in it you’ll want to say you lived well, so don’t waste your most precious resource: Time.
  • Do one thing today that works toward the goals you listed in part one and you will be working toward living your good life. Feel proud that you are taking active steps to live a more philosophically satisfying existence. Tell your friends.

Read through Existential Meditation whenever you would like to re-prioritize or if you need to summon motivation to get up off that proverbial couch. Focusing on these thoughts for even a few minutes a day will prime you to get out and live the good life.

Well, that’s the end of this Oughtological guide to Existential Meditation for Lifestyle Design. Try EM for a week and email me your experience. You may feel driven to achieve. It may bring you to the realization that you need a more meaningful job. It may just help you pause to savor the moment…Or I ‘spose you might find that it’s a total waste of time. Whatever the case may be, you tried something new and experimented a bit.

If you enjoyed this post and want more content like this, like my facebook page: Oughtology 

The Science:

Ted Talk:Regrets of the dying and How living well extends your life.

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2012, April 19). How thinking about death can lead to a good life.

When Death is Good for Life – Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management

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