In an excerpt from his new book The Comfort Crisis, journalist Michael Easter travels to Bhutan to learn about how confronting death head-on can lead to a more fulfilled life
by Michael Easter
In his new book, The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter investigates the connection between modern comforts and conveniences and some of our most pressing problems, like heart disease, diabetes, depression, and a sense of purposelessness. Turns out, engaging with a handful of evolutionary discomforts can dramatically improve our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. One of those fruitful discomforts? Thinking about dying.
Death has always been the most uncomfortable fact of life. And as modern medicine, comforts, and conveniences have given us more years, we’ve seemingly become less and less comfortable with life’s only guarantee. Roughly seven out of ten Westerners say they feel uncomfortable with death. Only half of people over 65 have considered how they want to die.
After someone dies we’re encouraged to stay busy to take our mind off it. A dead person’s body is immediately covered and sent to a mortician where it is prepared to look as youthful and alive as possible before one final, hour-long viewing, after which it is dropped into the ground of a perfectly manicured cemetery.
But new research is showing that death awareness is good for us. For example, scientists at the University of Kentucky had one group of people think about a painful visit to the dentist and the other contemplate their death. The death thinkers afterward said they were more happy and fulfilled in life. The scientists concluded, “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts.”
The country of Bhutan has made it part of its national curriculum to think about death anywhere from one to three times daily. The understanding that we’re all going to die is hammered into Bhutan’s collective conscience, and death is part of everyday life. Ashes of the dead are mixed with clay and molded into small pyramids, called tsa tsas, and placed along heavily trafficked areas like roadsides, in window sills, and public squares and parks. Bhutanese arts often center around death; paintings of vultures picking the flesh from corpses, dances that reenact dying. Funerals are a 21-day event where the dead body “lives” in its house before being slowly cremated over fragrant juniper trees in front of hundreds of friends and relatives.
All of this death is doing anything but bumming out the Bhutanese. Despite being ranked the 134th most developed nation on earth, extensive studies conducted by Japanese researchers have found that Bhutan is among the world’s 20 happiest countries. But what you probably don’t know is how morbidity contributes to their feelings of happiness. And neither did I.
After four flights across 48 hours, 14 time zones, and 9,465 miles, I stepped off an aging 737 onto a runway 7,333 feet above sea level at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport. THE thin air filled my lungs as the sun illuminated the surrounding snow-capped Himalayan foothills. I was there to find out how Bhutan’s uncomfortable intimacy with death might improve my life—and maybe yours too.
I’d arranged to meet with a host of characters, including government leaders who study happiness in Bhutan. But the most compelling men I met with were both leaders in the Buddhist faith.
The first was Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi. He knows as much about death as a living human can. He’s one of Bhutan’s leading Buddhist thinkers, and he’s found a niche in the study of death and dying. The Khenpo is the author of a 250-page book called “The Fine Art of Living and Manifesting a Peaceful Death.” And unlike many of Bhutan’s monks, the Khenpo is intimately familiar with what ails people in the West. Before he dedicated himself to his spiritual practice he lived in Atlanta, with a girlfriend who was the Dalai Lama’s translator. He, I thought, would be able to get to the heart and consequences of the West’s fear of death.
My boots kicked up a low-hanging dust as the Khenpo’s cliff-side shack came into view. It was wooden, tin-roofed, and in the shadow of Dakarpo. Dakarpo is an ancient Buddhist monastery built on an outcropping that overlooks the Shaba valley. Fifteen or so people walked clockwise around the white, fortress-like monastery. They chanted as they carefully stepped around its rocky terrain. Bhutanese mythology says a person will be cleared of all of his or her sins by circumventing the Dakarpo 108 times. Each lap takes roughly 25 minutes. The full 108 takes most pilgrims about four full days, a relatively small fee for absolute absolution…