On Living and Dying Day 6 by Karuna

Am I Contributing to My Living or My Dying?

by Karuna of Living, Learning and Letting Go

In 1996, I was on an airplane that “fell” 25,000 feet in about a minute’s time. For the next two hours we did not know if we were going to live or die. Since then I have had a sense that I am living on borrowed time. I think I was supposed to die that day, but Grace prevailed. Now, I see every moment I live as a gift and remember that tomorrow is not promised. I have a strong desire to live in a way that allows me to die without regrets.

When I was a new psychotherapist, I assisted in a therapy group led by Delphine Bowers.  She used to ask clients if the actions they were thinking about doing would “contribute to their living or their dying.”  That question has stuck with me for almost 30 years.


I believe I am contributing to my dying, instead of my living, when I am:


I am great at getting things done. There was a time in my life when I was working three jobs, going to school, and raising two children. Throughout my adult life, I have generally been unwilling to stop “doing” unless I get so sick that I can’t do otherwise.

In the last few years, I have made great strides in stopping that behavior. Still, it is not lost on me that I have back problems which have impacted my level of activity since mid-February. While 97% of the time I am resting and doing what I know I should do,  I still find myself saying, “Oh it’s okay if I plant a few seedlings.” Or I do other minor garden work when I know I should be avoiding all leaning over and bending down. What will it take for me to learn this lesson?  I shudder to think of the answer.


I used to obsess about anything I wanted to say for so long that I often lost the opportunity to say it. I also obsessed about things I did say, analyzing my words looking for errors or wondering if I had said something that made me look stupid. While I stopped those behaviors decades ago, I believe that overthinking is still the most common way I make myself miserable. And it is certainly the source of most of my stress. If I am offended by something, I may fixate on it. Worrying about the future also leads me to overthinking. The fact that I avoid mind-slowing spiritual practices, such as meditation, perpetuates the problem.


I have long been aware of my tendency to overdo and overthink. In fact I have written about those behaviors before. (Recovering from Overdoing, Stay in the Present and Stop Thinking!) In the last month, awareness of another way I contribute to my dying has resurfaced.

Emotions like anger, sadness and fear are meant to show us that there are problems we need to deal with. If we feel the feelings and address the issues, the emotions are likely to flow through us. If we repress them, we probably won’t solve the problems and we may become depressed, anxious or sick.

I have long been conscious of the fear in my body, but I used to bury my anger so deep that I didn’t even realize it was there. Now I feel the anger at the time it is triggered. My new awareness is that I am repressing my grief.


Stuffing Grief

When I was growing up, a frequent message from my father was, “If you are going to cry, I will give you something to cry about.”  If I didn’t stop crying, I was usually spanked or sent to my bedroom.  I learned it was not okay for me to express my sadness.

When I met Amma in 1989, grief began to erupt from inside of me. Generally that grief was not associated with any conscious memory. Even though I didn’t know what it was related to, I often had a sense that I was releasing the energy from traumas that had occurred earlier in my life. Sometimes I wondered if some of it was coming from other lifetimes, or if it was some form of “universal grief.” That spontaneous release of tears, which usually occurred during Amma’s programs, went on for several years.  Letting them pour out felt very healing.

Then one day someone teased me about my tears. My childhood programming took over and I shut them down so fast it was mind-boggling. From time to time, something will still bring up that deep well of grief inside of me, but for the most part it is nowhere to be found.

A week or so ago, there was a moment when I felt sadness about my back pain and the resulting physical limitations. I shed a tear, or maybe two, before a firm inner voice said, “It’s good that you felt your sadness, but that is ENOUGH.” I saw that my father’s message was still operating within me. Certainly no healing can come from releasing one or two tears.

When I heard the news that Prince had died, I started crying, and I cried on and off throughout the week.  The grief I felt was so deep, very similar to the level of emotion I experienced during my early years with Amma. While Prince’s “Purple Rain” album and movie, and especially the song “When Doves Cry,” was important to me in the 80’s, I hadn’t followed his career after that, other than taking my children to his 1988 Seattle concert.  Even though I didn’t understand my level of emotion, I was aware that the tears I shed felt cleansing and therapeutic.


I believe that overdoing, overthinking and stuffing my grief are the three biggest ways that I am currently contributing to my dying.  I know it is important for me to continue working on these issues and to keep the “Will this action contribute to your living or your dying?” question in mind as I make day-to-day decisions as well as when I consider long term decisions, such as when to retire.

I have no way of knowing whether I will live one more day or one year, five years, ten years or more.  I am committed to making the most of every moment I have left in this lifetime.




Karuna is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington.  She is author of Getting to Joy and Letting Go of Suffering.  You can find more information about her at KarunaPoole.com or on her blog Living Learning and Letting Go



Written for the On Living and Dying series.  If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more info here: 365 Days On Living and Dying.  But first leave a comment and let Karuna  know how you feel about what she said, and be sure to visit her over at Living Learning and Letting Go when you’re done.


Featured image by Karuna

About the author

I am recently retired psychotherapist who now spends much of my time working as a forest and habitat restoration volunteer.

For decades, I have focused much of my attention on watching for and learning the lessons life sends my way. I share my stories and reflections, both past and present, in my blog Living, Learning and Letting Go.


  1. Love this post mom. I was thinking, as I was waiting for your post today, how many of the things that I consider living add to the dying of the physical body, but would still be considered living in your assessment because it is adding to the joy and purpose of life. As we are all dying a little bit everyday, the way we choose to live is determining the way in which we are dying. But when it gets to the point that you can’t plant a few seedlings then it must be time to review the way in which you choose to live and die. Thanks for getting my thought motors rolling.

    1. There is no doubt that having my activities limited for so long has given me cause to reflect on my life. My back seems to be getting better every day now so maybe that is an indication that I have learned a significant part of what I have been “supposed” to learn from this particular “lesson.” I need to be careful I don’t rush back into overdoing and cause both the lesson and the back problem to flare up again.

  2. I had the same messages from my Dad – and always found it hard to express my grief – then discovered that all you have stored up will come rushing out in a torrent from just one small trigger…

    1. What you said is so true. When our feelings are bigger than what is called for in the here and now it is because they are attached to something from the past. We needed to “stuff” the feelings then so they may come pouring out in the here and now like an exploding volcano.

  3. So wonderfully written and on point. I couldn’t agree with you more. So many of us push our feeling aside, over analyze things and just make ourselves miserable. I love that you are so self aware and push to adjust yourself as well as help others.

  4. Finding the middle ground between living too much outside ourselves and internalizing too much of our life is a challenging exercise in peaceful existence. The balancing act of being, allows us to be joyful and meaningful at the same time. Some years ago, I found a tiny technique that has had a great impact on my peace .. simply, it is what I call the six month rule. When I am faced with a conundrum, problem, situation or whatever and my mind is bent with dealing, I apply the question…. Will this be important to me in six months? … If it is, then it is worthy of some consideration but within reason. If it is not, then whatever it is, is not worth another moment’s worry. I find that ninety percent of most issues suddenly have little worth and I put them aside. Sometime, that takes a little work but with practice, easier and easier. Peace of mind and peace of existence follows and flows more easily.

    We all struggle with our programming, and all the little socializations that come with complex society, especially one that puts physical worth ahead of worth of being. All of us find ways to either deal with, ignore, or deny in our search for peace of being. Religion is the most common structure that satisfies this need socially, but more often than not (in my opinion) fails in the greatest need, and that is peace of being and the acts of compassion for all others. Too often, it devolves into dogma and rules that mask peace with illusion, making it ever harder for us to find ‘being’ personally…. especially in a society that worships ‘individualism’.

    I admire your ‘event’ reminding you to take each moment as a gift.. an act of being .. worthy of every moments awareness. It is things of this nature that sometimes shock us into not taking the world and life for granted. Hopefully, we live long enough to reach understanding and turn that into action that allow peace and compassion to carry us to the inevitable ending we all face … and to do so with welcoming joy rather than fear.

    Thanks for sharing. And thanks for getting my sweet love into this avenue of expression and sharing.

    1. I really like your technique about asking if something will be important to you in 6 months. I am going to try that too.

      Many years ago I gave away most household items that I hadn’t used in the previous three years and didn’t plan to use in the near future, unless there was some reason the item was really important to me. This past year I changed that criteria to two years. I love the increasing simplicity that results from decreasing stuff.

      Your technique will do something similar for the mind!

      I love that she is so into blogging. It was my son Sreejit that gave me that gift.

  5. Thanks Karuna. I enjoyed reading your article….very insightful and helpful. Good for me to be aware of overdoing, overthinking and stuffing my grief as I definitely do all these things.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the article and that it raised your awareness of your own behavior. May we both continue to progress in these endeavors! 🙂

  6. Wow!! This is amazing, Karuna!! I am glad you are listening to your body. I am trying to as well now. As for over thinking and worrying…I am working on that. My mantra and other mantras have helped me actually with that. My father would say, “J.C. you are a cry baby…you’re just as stupid as your mother.” That did not stop me one bit…I just cried more…haha…I cried out of sadness as well as rage. I am like my mom for crying but I do stand up for myself a lot more. I do get teased by family, friends sometimes too…but I was so used to seeing my mom and Grandmaman cry easily…I accept it as part of ME:) My daughter would get angry at 9 when I cried at her choir concerts …I cried because it was beautiful. I earned every wrinkle on around my eyes:) I really enjoyed your post, Karuna. It has inspried me to free write one tonight and will edit it tomorrow.

      1. This first will be free write like steam of consciousness. I am tired and blushed my isotope but tomorrow will Judy edit forking mistakes. It is raw. The one I do say Tournesol will be more thoughtful .

  7. I found your article very inspirational and thought provoking. Sometimes it takes a near death experience, a major health challenge or something drastic to happen in our lives to make us realize that we are all here on “borrowed time”. What are we “doing with our time” is something to truly consider…
    I really like the question “are we contributing to our living or our dying?” We are conditioned to be
    “doers” running around through life achieving and accomplishing to feel a sense of worth and we seldom remember that we are “human beings” and not “human doings”. We forget to savor the precious gifts along the way, to take our time to enjoy the miracle of life all around us and to be truly “present” instead of overthinking, over-worrying and over-doing. All these actions are usually focused on re-enacting the past or getting disturbed about the future, while the present is passing us by….
    Thank you for the inspiration, I think that this question will stick in my mind for years to come!

  8. “I believe that overdoing, overthinking and stuffing my grief are the three biggest ways that I am currently contributing to my dying.” The way you worded this grabbed me. Like an aha moment. I think about how my overthinking (as you described it) contributes to my lack of well being. I had never connected with how it contributes to my dying. All those little deaths, like little tears in the fiber of my being. Thank you for writing this piece. It all resonated in me.

  9. Reblogged this on Stop the Stigma and commented:
    Are living to live a good life or are your choices and behaviours bringing you closer to death? A personal and brilliant testimony by a friend, writer and a person who lives and breaths compassion.

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