One City

One City

A year to live

by Davee Evans

It is time to contemplate the uncertainty of my death. That’s a specific project of mine for 2010: to imagine that this is the last year of my life. In doing that, I’m planning a series of contemplations to work with each month, inspired by Stephen Levine’s book “A Year to Live”. His book describes a similar exercise he and his wife Ondrea held in 1994 — also from January through December — imagining they had only one year left. They contemplated fear, gratitude, and unfinished business.


Then just this week I learned a friend has cancer. That’s becoming my first contemplation. It can come at any moment.

I’ve had some interesting reactions from friends and family to this project. My dad got immediately uncomfortable and wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving up on reasonable, longer-term plans. He’s quite practical like that. I assured him that this was only a contemplative exercise. Many friends have applauded the project. Some have cautioned however that this project might ‘manifest’ my untimely demise. That’s a popular word out here in California, “manifest”. I’m not a fan of the term — sounds like magical thinking — but I’m trying to be more open. My intention is not to manifest my early death, but to manifest more awareness of the preciousness of life and to manifest greater appreciation for my community and loved ones. I am also aware that fear has a deep effect on me: from relationships to making me not want to look at death at all. I’m afraid to think about other people’s death. I don’t think about mine at all. This is going to bring up fear for me.


This week I learned that a friend has cancer, a type which historically gives one a year to live. Fortunately, great advances in the last ten years have changed his prognosis for the better. But there is uncertainty. I can feel the fear well up in me just thinking about him now. So yesterday I visualized that it was me instead of him. First there was a persistent pain. Not too bad initially, but it didn’t subside. Eventually I was popping twenty advil a day to get by. Finally the day came when I was sitting in my doctor’s office and his face went white as he looked at the x-rays. It’s metastatic cancer. It is time to get my affairs in order.

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posted January 8, 2010 at 2:08 am

Creative commons tomb stone photo by “Dave or Atox” on Flickr:

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The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

posted January 8, 2010 at 10:00 am

If it’s something you’d regret not doing before you died, then you’d better do it now.

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posted January 8, 2010 at 11:31 am

No kidding, and yet I’m constantly thinking that I’ll have more time…

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posted January 8, 2010 at 12:41 pm

On the rare occasions when I contemplate my own death, it gives me a sense of urgency that, ultimately, doesn’t translate into meaningful action. It’s so much easier to turn on the TV, go out for the night, or get lost in something else than to handle these difficult questions. Best of luck in your contemplations!

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your name

posted January 8, 2010 at 6:10 pm

the last paragraph feels icky to me. you can’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to be in that place. recently I’ve heard from several friends facing dire diagnoses and learned of the death of one friend who’d been out of touch. their situations break my heart and make me aware of the preciousness of life, far more than imagining my own death. when I die, I won’t care because I won’t be here. but I will feel the loss of these dear friends deeply.

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posted January 8, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I’ve tried meditating about my death. I’m fairly comfortable with it at present, but I don’t think about how I will die or what my body will endure. Looking at it from the perspective of one year to live is scarier. Instead I think about the experience of being without a human body. What I experience is probably good for me because it always brings me back to the wonderful opportunities I have to live my life more fully in the present. In death mediation, impermanance becomes real so living in the present becomes important. I think my emotional life is more stable because of it and I’ve given up a great deal of worrying I used to do.

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posted January 9, 2010 at 5:18 pm

I have meditating for many years and have contemplated having one year to live. 3 days ago I had a brush with sudden death in the emergency room – my body convulsing, airway closing, bright lights, people running around and yelling, “She’s going into shock!” My first reaction when I realized they given me medication I am terribly allergic to was ironic humor mixed with anger – I actually laughed and cried with frustration simultaneously. Then as I went into spasms, my only thought was that I could lose my beloved husband, and without saying goodbye and my heart broke. As if somehow having him there would have allowed me to take him along, to take a piece of his depth and strength with me. Surprising – I thought my mind would go towards the guru, the yidam, my practice, but it went right to this very grounded, worldly, love relationship, which today I am appreciating.

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posted January 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I was diagnosed with cancer in April of last year. According to everything my oncologist originally told me, I should have died at least three months ago. It is occasionally overwhelming to feel like I’m living on borrowed time. Additionally, since I am only 32 years old, I find myself wrestling with a sense of injustice that is hard to dismiss.
However, I’ve come to see this perception of injustice as a manifestation of self and of fear for my sense of self. I spent several months meditating on death (when I figured I’d die on the operating table, as it were), but now I’m concentrating on the self/non-self duality. I have found that to be extremely comforting.

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posted January 18, 2010 at 2:27 pm

thank you all for your further comments. it’s encouraging for me to hear and this contemplation project is going to be difficult i’m finding.
@kim thank you so much for that moment. i can feel that longing so clearly when i read your story.
@PaduanBenedick thank you so much for writing, and sharing your current contemplation about dying. my father once asked what this whole reincarnation thing was in buddhism, and i suggested that it might really be calling into question the idea of birth to begin with – that we come from somewhere else and then leave to go somewhere. faced with your situation, i think i would hold the same contemplations. my favorite short clip about this notion was done by the south park animators, to a short lecture by Alan Watts that they called “Appling”:

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Bruce Watson

posted June 14, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I learned the first of May that I have pancreatic cancer. Statistically, I have 1 – 3 years left to live if I take all treatments available.
The shock and numbness I felt when I first heard the diagnosis has diminished but little over the past month. In fact my biggest spiritual challenge right now is breaking free of this paralyzing fever dream that has enveloped my life. In the midst of this confusion, only one thing is clear to me: my limited time will be wasted if I do not focus on others. My wife and children first perhaps but by no means last.
I live on a small island that, as far as I can tell, has no support groups for cancer patients. Even though I have absolutely no qualifications for doing so, I am planning to try to start a group myself. If I can break out the fog, that is.

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posted June 30, 2010 at 1:29 pm

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