Want to Thrive? You Have to ‘Die’
Words by Sean Hotchkiss
A couple summers ago, I was on a men’s retreat in the North Carolina mountains. And for the first day, all of us guys talked animatedly about how we wanted to be better men: more fulfilled in our lives, more skilled in our relationships. We made big promises, and set big intentions for how we wanted to show up when we returned to our jobs, families, friends and communities. By morning two, everyone was feeling great. Until we heard a knock at the door, that is, and fourteen faces swung around to see a tall, dark-cloaked figure dressed as the grim reaper tread into the living room, dragging his scythe. I remember my stomach sinking at the symbolism.
“Gentlemen, you just had a sudden heart attack,” our facilitator announced as Death pointed at each of us one by one. “There was no chance to put your affairs in order, no chance to say goodbye. You're dead.”
Without getting too deep into the details of the next several, long hours, let's just say the experience of “dying” that day was the highlight of the retreat. There's nothing like death—even a fake death—to shine light on the things you wish you'd done differently in your life. Most of us are familiar with the classic death bed regrets: I wish I'd lived life more truer to myself ... hadn't worked so hard and had the courage to express my feelings. But what if you could have an experience of putting those life changing realizations into play right now?
Ever since that shocking experience in North Carolina, I've been using death as a motivator for men in my coaching practice. And it produces epic results. As Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine writes in A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if It Was Your Last, “How soon will we accept the opportunity to be fully alive before we die?” Here's five ways on how we can go about doing just that.
Identify Where YouWant to Go
The coaching relationship with me begins with visions: I want to hear a man's dreams, and where he hopes to go. This is where we set the roadmap. Most men come to coaching feeling stuck and stagnant in their lives, so before we begin our journey together, I need to know what you envision for your life in its fullest expression: Do you want to feel more fulfilled in your job? More connected to your partner or spouse? More creative and productive? Active and fit? Relaxed and peaceful? Identifying where you want to go sets the stage for the coaching journey we'll embark on together.
Death to the Old
After creating this exciting plan for how you want your life to look, what could be more jarring than promptly dying before you get to live your vision? That's what happened to me several summers ago, and it's something I recreate for the men I coach. Through a symbolic experience of dying, we are confronted with the very regrets that people experience on their death bed, but we get to do it while we're alive. Questions I ask men to answer include: Who have you not forgiven? In what ways did you play small (safe) in your life? What generational traumas and/or harmful patterns persisted with you? What do you wish you'd done differently?
This experience of dying is usually quite powerful, and often creates reverberations of grief, regret, hope and passion for weeks and months following the experience. In our work, we always allow these emotions to simply exist. To sit with them and fully experience them without trying to change them. These emotions, after all, will become the fuel that we create our new life with.
Ritual is our friend, here: Consider making a list of all the things you want to let go of, and burning it (preferably under a full moon, or by a fire with trusted friends while talking about the past and sharing any regrets you have.)
Dying is like a clean slate. Many of my clients report feeling more alive and energized in the weeks and months following their “death.” One client reported having more sex with his wife. Another stopped caring so much about petty disagreements at work. Yet another reported: “It sounds f%$king crazy, but it really feels like the past is gone. I can be anyone I want to be now.”
Identify YourPurpose or ‘Why’
Part of the rebirth process is identifying who we want to be as men at our cores. What do we stand for? What do we value? Has it changed at all since our initial visions and since reflecting on our life and subsequent death?
In personal growth and self development circles, the word “purpose” can have a weighty stigma. That's why I like to start small with questions like: What do you love to do? What are you curious to explore? What have you struggled with and overcome? Why are you here?
On this level, things get simple, and the simpler things are, the better. For example: I love to surf. I love to make people smile. I love to create funny videos and send them to my family. I love to help my clients. I'm here to make art. I'm here to help struggling people get back on their feet.
Create Habits toSupport Your Realizations
All the death bed realizations in the world won't take hold if we don't create habits to ensure we're taking action on the ah-ha moments. This is where support comes in: a men's group, trusted friend, coach or accountability partner can be helpful here for cementing the lessons you've learned through your own death and turning them into life changing transformation.
Remember, learning to honor ourselves and feed our souls is more than a New Year's Resolution or even a 31 day adventure of self improvement, it's a lifelong pursuit. But symbolically kicking the bucket to the man you once were can speed up the process dramatically. In the immortal words of Blue Oyster Cult: don't fear the reaper—he may just ending up saving your life.
Your odds of dying from a lightning strike in the U.S. are one in 246,566. That’s actually much better odds than winning the Powerball lottery, which is closer to one in 292 million.