As a holistic psychotherapist and yogi, I found Bronnie Ware’s insights into the five regrets of dying people most elucidating. She was a palliative care nurse for years. By listening to her patients before they died, she was able to glean the five regrets many of them took to the grave.
The first one, and the most typical, was: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
The yogic ideal is to be true to yourself. Of course, that entails a certain amount of awareness. If you are avoiding ways to look at your life, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, you will have a hard time living an authentic life. By taking the time to cruise your own heart, brain, and actions, you can learn what makes you tick and choose work, people, and activities that have a greater chance of bringing joy and fulfillment.
The second regret: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
One of the essential teachings in the most basic yoga practice is balance. Even if someone’s work was deeply meaningful to them, spending all your time on one thing does not make for a very fulfilling life. Men, especially, regretted not spending more time watching their children grow up and enjoying their spouse’s company.
By carving out some space every day to be with the people you love, studying something for your own development, savoring a cup of tea, allowing a hug to linger, looking out a window, taking a walk, listening to the birds, watching the clouds, dancing, meditating, hearing live music, playing a game with your children, or anything else that is done for pure enjoyment, you rejuvenate yourself. Ask: Have I explored all five senses today? If not, seek out ways to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear something that nurtures your body, mind, and spirit.
The third regret: I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Lack of assertiveness is a surefire way to ensure you will not get what you want. No one can possibly help you if you can’t express your desires and preferences. Luckily, assertiveness skills are fairly quick and easy to learn. It helps to understand the difference between three things: aggression, assertiveness, and passivity. Aggression is demanding what you want, passivity is keeping silent about your desires, and assertiveness is kindly asking.
Even if you were brought up to believe that you don’t deserve to have your wishes granted, you can reverse that inner mantra by starting to act assertively in small ways. In time, your confidence will grow as you see how most people like pleasing others, whether it’s the dressing on the side of your salad at a restaurant or more affection from a spouse.
Keeping peace by staying silent only breeds resentment and, ultimately, harms relationships.
The fourth regret: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
It’s easy to allow modern technology to deceive you into thinking time on Facebook or incessant texting equals real time with friends. It doesn’t. If you want to release a cascade of endorphins in your brain, spend more time with people whose company you enjoy. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.
“In the end it all comes down to love and relationships,” Ms. Ware says. She seems to imply those relationships must be with people. I disagree. They can also be with animals, nature, music, and art, among other things. That said, we are all connected molecularly and have a natural affinity to relate to each other. Depriving oneself of closeness with others can lead to feeling isolated, disconnected, and lonely.
The last regret: I wish that I had let myself be happier.
How does one let oneself be happier? Interestingly, it is often through mindfulness. Pay attention to everything that gives you joy. Stop reading this for a minute and jot down all the little things that you liked in your day, so far. Maybe you were comfortable in your clothes, sat down and had a good breakfast, read an interesting article in the paper, exercised, meditated, talked with a friend, heard a favorite song, laughed at a joke, finished a project, or felt good in your body. No matter what challenge is assailing you, there are always positives you can appreciate.
While there are many ways to squeeze more joy out of life, they all require some effort. Choosing to find joy and actively focusing on everything that might create happiness in your life is up to you.
Iris Murdoch once said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” The person who pays attention to all the little treats in life, and consciously includes them daily, is far happier than the one who takes everything for granted or thinks only big experiences such as trips, degrees, grandchildren, and promotions are the only things capable of catalyzing joy.
These five regrets have one thing in common: they show a failure to appreciate how living fully means allowing oneself the opportunity to experience as much as possible. That means different things to different people, but being engaged, open, honest, and present seems to underlie each one.
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