HEALTHY LIVING
08/23/2013 08:42 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2013

How Changing The Way You Think About Death Can Transform The Way You Live

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Woody Allen once said, "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." And the sentiment isn't uncommon. Many of us living in western cultures have conditioned ourselves to deal with the reality of death by not dealing with it at all -– not just fearing it, but avoiding the subject entirely.

But changing the way that we think about death can empower us to live more meaningfully in the here and now, according to Koshin Paley Ellison, Buddhist monk and co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, a meditation center and educational facility in Manhattan.

Here are five Buddhism-inspired insights about death that can transform the way you live your life.

Life and death are part of a single whole.

In the Zen tradition, living and dying is happening in each moment -- the inhale is life, and the exhale is death. "The in breath is the first thing we do when we come into this world, and the last thing we do before death is exhale," Koshin tells the Huffington Post.

Buddhism celebrates the cycle of life and death as one, a teaching embodied by Van Gogh's sunflowers. Portrayed in various stages of bloom and decay, the paintings were created as a meditation on the passage of time.

Disease and death are not shameful.

"There's so much shame in our culture around aging and death," says Koshin. "People themselves when they're aging feel that there's something wrong with them and they're losing value... And I've never met a sick person who didn't say, 'Why has this happened?'"

For many of us, a sense of failure and shame accompanies sickness and death. This is even apparent in the language we use to describe disease (for instance, "He lost his battle to cancer"). According to Koshin, this shame can actually become a way of hiding and avoiding confrontation with the reality of our situation -- it helps us to avoid asking the tough questions (How am I going to age? How many years do I have left? How will I cope with these changes in my body?).

"We need to get more interested and more curious about how it is to be where we are now," says Koshin.

A distracted life is not a full life.

Koshin tells the story of a monk he knew who would ask himself, "Are you awake?" to make sure he was being present. If we're not focusing on the present moment, says Koshin, "we're living in a kind of dream, which is almost like a death actually. Being caught up in our thoughts and caught up in activity without the enjoyment of activity is like a death."

But being in the present moment -- the essence of zen -- can help us to not only get the most out of our lives, but also to come to an acceptance of death.

"Don't hold back from your life and don't wait," says Koshin. "That's in some ways the heart of what zen is about and what living is about. Live fully in the present moment but not in the idea of the present moment... Some people think that to be present means feeling peaceful, but to be fully in the present moment could mean feeling sorrow or grief, but really experiencing it."

Accepting what cannot be changed reduces suffering.

The Buddha said that our inability to meet the change that is constantly taking place is the cause of suffering, and a recent study confirmed its truth. Researchers at Deakin University in Australia found that the ability to accept what can't be changed was a major predictor of life satisfaction among older adults living in residential care.

Our culture has a tendency to push away and try to compartmentalize death, says Koshin, because it's something that we've come to fear. A woman who was dying of cancer told Koshin that she was struggling not because of her own inability to accept her condition, but because the people around her were so uncomfortable with what was happening that they couldn't just be with her.

But the more intimate we become with death, the more we're able to accept it.

"We need to move into the fear," says Koshin. "We need to say, 'I can be here, I'm scared out of my mind, but I can breathe and be with it.'"

Death reveals the importance of love.

When faced with death, many people say that they learn for the first time what it really means to love -- and that the relationships they've created are the most important things in their lives.

"When they were dying, it was really about whether the people in their life loved them and knew that they were loved by them," says Koshin. "So many of us are running, running, running; achieving, achieving, achieving, and then when it comes down to it, it's really about the relationships and about loving. It's about learning how to love yourself and the world."

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