The famous Tibetan poet Milarepa once said: “My religion is to live – and die – without regret.” I remember writing that quote down in my journal with a big star next to it that said, “me too!” It’s been almost 4 years since I wrote that down. I recently came across a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing and it made me pause and reflect on the way that I’m living.The book focuses on the observations of the author Bronnie Ware, working as a nurse, caring for patients who were in their final weeks of life. She compiles a list of the top five regrets that people have when they are dying. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,” she says, “common themes surfaced again and again.”
Here are the top five regrets of the dying:
1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
This part of the book reminded me of a quote by Alan Watts that goes like this: “When a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique.”
2) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
I don’t believe there is anything wrong with hard work. In Buddhism, there is a teaching about the danger of the 3 poisons: Desire, Aversion, and Delusion. The teaching of the three poisons essentially states that we are delusional when we think that the only way to achieve happiness or peace is by getting the things we want (desire), and avoiding the things we don’t want (aversion). An example of this would be thinking: “when I finally have XXX, then I’ll be happy.” (XXX: more money, bigger house, slimmer body, a better job, a boat, fame, power, etc…) or the opposite: “if I can just avoid XXX, then I’ll be happy.” (XXX: cancer, job loss, death of a loved one, divorce, gaining weight, poverty, etc…) I believe the regret of having worked too hard is probably tied to the delusional thinking that working hard was going to be the key to obtaining something that would ensure happiness. The reality is that happiness was there to be experienced all along, regardless of the circumstances.
3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
I was reminded of another quote that I really like by May Sarton: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
I’ve tried to develop a habit of randomly calling friends and family from time to time to tell them how much I appreciate them. It’s also nice to have regular lunch appointments with the important people in my life.
5) I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
The concept of choosing happiness reminds me of a great Zen story: A man once asked his teacher: “I want happiness.” The teacher said first remove “I” that’s ego. Then remove “want” that’s desire. See now you are left with only “happiness.”
Ask yourself: What regrets do you want to avoid? What are you willing to change in order that you don’t have these regrets while you’re still alive?
About me (Noah Rasheta): I love Buddhist wisdom. A lot. I love working with others to make the world a better place as I study, embody and teach the fundamentals of Secular Buddhism – integrating Buddhist philosophy + modern science + humanism + humor. I also run secularbuddhism.com