Past Tense – the Art of Being Dead

Photo by Mitja Juraja on

BLUF – First Rule and Past Tense are basic mental frameworks to help us understand life via two sides of the same coin – mortality. On the one hand is a biological imperative to perpetuate life as we know it. The other holds recognition of needs beyond the self, when we are taken out of the equation. Together these two offer useful perspective on decision-making. Past Tense is a periodic exercise uncovering existing connections sans us.


The last post postulated about the First Rule – the important goal to stay in the game. This week we are looking into the concept of past tense – as in your having expired. Mortality is a concept many struggle with, coming to grips with eventual cessation. Past tense is different as we consider decision-making for ourselves, our roles, and our importance as we involve ourselves in the world around us. Anyone having brushed against death can tell you, the perspective shifts significantly in how we interpret the world. Whilst we may slowly come back to the first rule and more self-driven interpretations, the realisation of a world without us and its continuity gives pause – as we see better paths for others and organisations may be found if our own considerations (and ones regarding us) weren’t factored in.

The Art of Being Dead: As an exercise, take a moment and consider what happens after you are removed from the picture. After the mourning period (and yes, there will be one) life goes on. Relationships adjust to account for the loss, as the role you played in someone’s life either is filled by another, or is internalised by the individual. In the same way, organisations you worked with or for find someone else to take your place, or distribute and incorporate your work into various others’ workstreams. Your memory may be marked in smaller ways – a habit maintained or newly acquired – but otherwise your processes join you in the ashes to ashes category.

Stepping back to sort priorities/ process: In looking at what will change in your absence, it is possible you recognise some changes worth making which would be beneficial now. Readjusting the processes to not include your participation might make things better. This gives freedom to examine and recognise what are higher priorities, achievable with time and resources you currently have available. Stepping back and setting aside the ‘you’ component of the decision helps frame what an issue truly needs, not what you need within the issue.

Death of ego: In keeping with the concept of Past Tense; stepping back to remove yourself is part of what Zen practitioners consider the Great Death – intimating the cessation of the ego. The Great Death is assessed to allow one to lead a fuller life; unfettered by self-interests, there is an observed abundance of compassion and simplicity in decision-making. Whilst not advocating the personal investment required for the Great Death to take place, Past Tense is a simple, yet similar construct – not requiring your ego ceases, but rather considering what could work better without your being part of driving it.

Connecting the pieces: Looking past your world as central, you can see other connections, many of which you uncover as having been very close. Forest and trees close. As you start tracing how these newly uncovered connections could be implemented, many feel a sense of larger purpose and deeper satisfaction. Not only does one uncover connections, but becomes part of the larger whole in doing so and understanding a new sense of self. It’s different than realising how small you are in the infinite, rather understanding it moves without you – better and worse.

Making decisions and taking actions in this state is something beautifully different.


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