The Breaths I have Left

When I was eight, my father gave me a copy of Death Be Not Proud, a book by John Gunther about the life and death of his son Johnny. By the time I turned the last page, and I say this in the kindest possible way, I’d become a bit of a hypochondriac and completely death-obsessed. Not only did I start worrying that every time I got a headache I had a brain tumor (as little Johnny did), but I also became convinced that the end was near. Very near. When my parents walked out the door, I wondered whether I would see them again. When my brother went to day camp, I was concerned he would get run over by a car. I just couldn’t believe that an eight year old had died—and that everyone else would die as well. It didn’t seem fair; it didn’t seem right. Or, as Woody Allen said when asked how he felt about death, “I am strongly against it.”

In my twenties and thirties, I elevated my death-obsession into a spiritual practice. I learned Buddhist mediation, went to graveyards with teachers who were intent on teaching us what I’d known for years: Life is short. People die. You will be amongst them. I travelled to India and saw the burning ghats in Benares. I witnessed how long it took a body, all its bones and muscle, hair and eyes, to turn to ashes. (FYI: A long time. I had to get a Coke halfway through and come back for the rest.) I learned so much from spiritual practice–about ease and loveliness and my crazy mind–but it didn’t dispel my fears of death. If anything, it exacerbated them because I became more aware of the shortness of any life. My life, in particular.

The old saying in Buddhist circles is that this human life is so precious that it is as if each one of us is like a turtle who lives in the ocean and comes up for air every hundred years. Normally, the turtle’s head would emerge through the waves. If by chance the turtle—aka you—puts her head through a bucket that is randomly floating on the surface, it would be extremely rare. Attaining a precious human life is even rarer than that. So, since you have a chance this one precious life to discover who you really are— your true nature—don’t waste a single second.

Talk about pressure.

As I headed into my forties and fifties, people around me were dying or had died. My father, my dear friend Lew, my cat. My aunt Bea. My friend Linda. And every time, it was the same: how could a person (even those with four legs) be here one day and gone the next? Death was so irreversible, so final, so forever—unlike, say, buying a pair of shoes from Zappo’s with a 365-day-free return policy. But then, something unexpected happened: As part of a routine medical procedure, my throat closed, my heart rate skyrocketed, my blood pressure dropped and I had the strange sensation of leaving my body. I was conscious enough to realize that this was It—I was dying. I remember being surprised that it was happening so quickly, and on an ordinary day in September. (I was hoping for harps and orchids and long soulful glances of loved ones when I died, not a cold tinny examination room with a nurse with a purple happy face pinned on her smock.)

Although there were many compelling insights during (and after) that near-death experience, one that has remained with me is the visceral understanding that all my years of being death-obsessed weren’t actually about dying or death; they were about life. They weren’t about fear of the end, they were about longing to be awake in the middle (also known as NOW). I wanted, as the poet Mary Oliver says, to spend my life “married to amazement,” not wedded to regret or exhaustion. After the medical procedure, I realized that death could happen to me on any ol’ day. And that this life wasn’t a dress rehearsal for some bigger better promise around the corner. This was it—and my breaths were numbered. I didn’t know how many breaths I had left, but it became apparent that no matter how charming I was or how many organic pomegranates I ate, not dying was not an option.

Within a few days of being home from the hospital, I made a list what I loved. Of what I would regret not doing if I had died in that examination room. The list was very short and incredibly simple. It included being present with any task, even washing the dishes. It also included writing, being with my husband, spending time in nature, working with my students and being with my friends. I began quitting things in which I didn’t want to participate. I said no to parties I didn’t want to go to, invitations I didn’t want to accept. I quit a graduate program in which I was enrolled, I started working on a book I’d wanted to write for years. I spent time with trees, particularly a maple tree in our driveway. I told my husband regularly what I cherished about him and our life together. Over and over, with each day and each choice, I asked myself: is this something on which I want to spend the breaths I have left?

Five years have passed and I am still asking the breath question. Not always, of course. Sometimes when my husband and I are fighting, revenge, not the number of breaths, is uppermost in my mind. But even then, I can often pull myself back from the brink and remember that, really, we are all alive for about ten minutes and I don’t want to miss a moment. Or a breath.

Geneen is the best-selling author of Women Food and God and Lost and Found, and has been a popular guest of Eckhart’s on Eckhart Tolle TV. For more information on Geneen Roth visit

32 responses to “The Breaths I have Left

  1. Ah Geneen. This is so beautiful. I haven’t had the obsession with death you describe, but I was transfixed watching my husband die about 18 months ago. ‘He’ was in the body one moment, and not there the next – so who he was was definitely not the body form! In fact I immediately was no longer interested in that body – it looked like him, but it wasn’t him. Very strong and immediate.
    Since then I have been on a journey, discovering just a couple of weeks ago the peace of presence – timeless, nameless, empty and yet also full, nothing and also everything. Utterly still. This is life. The body/mind just THINKS it is life itself, and goes around trying to prove it to itself! Amazing, and for me, now very funny. Thank you so much for sharing this. xx

    1. Thanks for this, Geneen.
      And I had exactly the same experience as Jane Duncan Rogers when my dad passed over. “He” was immediately not in the body any more, and I had no feeling towards his body.
      I’d like to share what I wrote earlier this year about the 2 years since…
      I wanted to write a lot about my dad today, and the journey of the last two years. See, he suddenly and unexpectedly crossed over two years ago, today.

      I can remember saying to him shortly before, that I dread him or my mom going with a terrifying dread, but that I knew I would be OK. A few weeks later, he suddenly went.

      And I was OK.

      Suddenly and inexplicably, the sun was brighter, the grass so much greener, and I saw the beauty of everything. Life was beautiful. I would cry and my tears would glistening like stars. I realised the truth in what Thomas Carlyle said, “In the midst of winter, I finally learnt that there was in me an invincible summer.”

      A joy that was totally unsupported by my current life situation filled me. I could not stop smiling – at his memorial people must have thought I was on drugs or something. While everyone was crying, I KNEW he was alive and I smiled and comforted everyone, because their pain cut them off from this absolute beauty. That magnificent, eternal part of him was HERE, everywhere. Still is.

      Even now, every day, I know he is around. There is no magical “brush against my cheek” or “whisper in the wind”, but I KNOW – something deeper than a feeling – that he’s not gone.

      Sometimes I still cry, of course! He is my dad and I miss him very much. I wish we could still talk, laugh – both of these we did so much! We explored our purposes here, talked about our struggles, about life.

      One of my birds flew away a week before he went, and I didn’t panic or stress, I just went to look for him, knowing that if I cannot find him, all will still be OK. It was quite a revelation to me that in this panic-situation, I knew everything was still going to be fine.
      I found my birdie, against all odds.
      Many times since then, I have thought, that perhaps I needed that experience for what was to come.

      About five days before he went, in the aftermath of my bird-episode, I had the experience of being two people at once, one frantic and worrying about everything, and the other, looking on with great calm, just observing without judging.
      I told my dad about this, and on the morning he went, he phoned me to say that he’s sure that my experience was the “Real-I” (spirit) looking onto the “Human-I” (ego). It was such a good moment, looking back, that he actually also saw this. Perhaps he needed that to go peacefully.

      And when it happened, I was there within five minutes, not panicking, just incredibly calm, having already phoned the ambulance, and doing CPR on him for 30 minutes before the paramedics took over, working on him so very hard for more than 30 minutes, doing everything they could.
      One of my mom’s friends was there, saying tearfully that this was terrible-terrible, and I said to her that whatever happened, it would be fine. She got angry at me and still argue with me to this day about what I said, and how I dared said that! Because it’s not OK when someone dies!

      Perhaps, yes, it’s not OK when someone dies, but then – they don’t die, do they. They just move into another dimension of Life. They just cross over.

      The evening before his memorial, there was a total moon eclipse, and when I saw the earth completely covering the moon, I realised that the moon was just like my dad. Just because I could not see the moon, did not mean that it was not there!

      Just for my dad: I love you, Dad. Forever!
      Thank you for being the best dad and friend ever.

      1. Thank you for sharing this story about your dad. I love the part about him calling you with insight and wisdom in the morning of the day his body died.

    2. Jane, I was so intrigued by your post. My husband was killed by a drunk driver almost 5 years ago as he stood beside his stalled truck…well off the road. Because of the investigation, his body was sent for autopsy, and I told the funeral director that when it returned I wanted to see it…. although they tried to change my mind. I knew I needed that for acceptance of what was. When I approached his body, there it was, but I knew it wasn’t him. My children said, you can kiss him if you want to, and my reaction was so extreme I think I frightened them. I said, ” No, I just can’t, I just can’t.” What I couldn’t say is “That isn’t him.” It was his precious smile, his wonderful expression of love…..but it wasn’t him. I remember a kiss that I gave him earlier the day he was killed as he lay reclined back half-asleep in his chair. THAT was real, HE was there. Now….. Now I Know and Believe that he exists, (WE exist) …. but I so miss his arms holding me tight; and the strength of his physical presence. So my grief is for what I no longer have, although I know that HE, WHO HE IS, Exists…. somewhere…and we are still connected spiritually.

    3. Dear Jane,
      I was delighted to read your message, I too have recently witnessed the passing over of my Best’s Friend’s beautiful Mother. It was an honour to be witness to such a special occasion indeed. The family were given a copy of Micheal Barbato’s book, Caring for the Living and Dying… was marvellous. He also has two others, Reflections of a Setting Sun, and Midwifing Death. Michael had been a Palliative Care Doctor for 20 years, his wife teaches Yoga…so for both there is a very Spiritual feel in all their work. After having lost a baby many years ago, a Journey of Discovery took place…. Best wishes to you and your lived ones, Chris Bennett

  2. Thank you Geneen for making me laugh…..and cry at 6 am – perfect start to any day. I can so relate – love everything you write.. xxoo

  3. I turned sixty this year and, like Geneen Roth says “people around me are dying or have died”. More and more I’ve been thinking about my own mortality and what will eventually take me down. Recently I’ve been diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Although my death isn’t necessarily imminent I thought I had a clearer idea of how I’ll probably die.

    Then I read this above excerpt from The Breaths I Have Left and I’m blown away. Geneen Roth’s account of her near death experience put everything in much clearer perspective for me. After reading this I have experienced my own epiphany about the breaths I want to appreciate.

    Thank you so much Eckhart Tolle TV for this present moment reminder.

  4. Geneen,

    Thank you so much for continuing to inspire (breaths — no pun intended)…
    Almost 20 years ago I read, When Food is Love. Even now, you are still at it, helping and sharing. I appreciate you!!

  5. Thank you Geneen,
    I read this article first thing this morning and it has reminded me about being truly present in my own life and really seeing, hearing, feeling my husband, pets and other family members and friends. I particularly liked what you said about not wasting breaths on things that do not matter. Thank you for helping me to become more aware of life.

  6. Cultivating attitude of gratitude is the key to the ocean of unconditional divine love called life. It works slowly in the beginning then you start to feel nectar like divine bliss from every part of your life and start to see gigantic ascended miracles unfolding within and without when the compassion starts to over flow from your mind, body and soul. It washes away all regrets and complaints because there is only time to see and experience the divine bliss most of the time. I am sure when I leave this temporary temple of divine I shall merge into the infinite living temple of divine bliss for ever. Godblesss. Wowguroooooo!!!

  7. Geneen,
    You have no idea how much your words are helping me. Spiritual growth’s been very important in my life and sometimes I spend more time “meditating” than actually living my life. I used to be very active but for problem in my muscles I stopped and now I am trying to recover that feeling of love for life, not a longing for heaven if, as you clearly said, we will die anyway! Life is here and now to be lived, enjoyed and experienced…thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. Nice article and this is surely something I often think of. I was thinking of the analogy of the turtle popping up from the ocean, being lucky enough to pop into a random flaoting bucket, and this represents the infrequency of human life. OK, so we know it’s precious. The article then says that life is about life and nothing beyond that. So when this turtle goes down, not to surface to a long time, is that then irrelevent? I mean if life is only about the moment (nothing more), then it really doesn’t matter what you do with your breaths. You could go on a spending spree, a trip, rob a bank, have wild sex. But to any spiritual seeker you know that diversions of this type only provide tempoarary pleasure. But if all that mattered was this short life span (nothing more), then maybe it would make sense to grab the tempoary pleasures. My point is that there is a continuity here, There is an evolution. There is a connection to humanity, to nature. That is what’s precious, not the ego self. And a sensitive being would then choose wisely in the broader context. Also, as the turtle submerges to some other world, and surfaces again some day, then isn’t his fate determined by the conditions and habbits in his mind? Perhaps another reason to choose wisely. So this is more than just “the moment”, even though it is the moment that is the gateway to the “all”.

  9. It is apparent that there is no satisfactory end to the story of “me”.
    In the Silent Surrender to Now comes the realization that there is no separate self, only a story the mind is telling which is based on a lie from start to finish. There is no need for a story in the Silent Realization of Presence.

  10. Reading this makes me want to have a near death experience.

    But I’m a hypnotherapist who’s specialized in past life regression. I witness death on daily basis. It’s all about re-identification.

  11. Thank you for the shared articles. I too went through a life threatening experience. Once out of hospital and home I could not wait to get back to work,sport,entertaining etc to prove to all I was well ( a survivor)
    As time went by I realized I was chasing my tail and forgot what is important in life. To everyone’s shock I quit work and spend precious time with my darling husband and our children. Whether we are gardening,walking or traveling it is all appreciated.
    I still get friends who “work” and continually ask me what did you do today/ the week??? What they don’t realize is I too “work” at fulfilling my day/ week enjoying each moment.
    I thank you again for everyone’s shared experience. And to thank my precious friend, Wendy who posted this on article on “Facebook” to be shared by all.
    Be at peace and live each moment.

  12. I failed to mention the importance of friends who contribute to the tapestry of my life. They are always there when in need.
    Kindly add to my previous comment.
    Kind regards

  13. Geneen, thanks for making me appreciate what this life is. To say something about where i never crossed, should i tender temporary application to go briefly and retrieve back for me to tell how and why people who passed away never come back like my mother when am teen including my Dad who left too 8yrs ago. May there souls rest in peace. Amen.

  14. My beloved died almost a year ago. Below is something I wrote a few weeks after his death…and yet, I know he did not die…he came and told me so in a dream a few months ago. Sometimes, as much as we like to rationalize the death experience, there IS that sense that they are gone…and to just be with the experience…not adding layers or stories to the feelings…just being with the vast emptiness of their departure…then the unfolding is allowed Its space to reveal the true nature of death…opening us to the true nature of life. At least, this has been my experience.

    December 16, 2012. Keith died three weeks ago today.

    It seems a long time – and no time at all. In fact, time seems collapsed and it was only a moment ago in this ever shifting, changing universe, that I was holding each of his fingers and clipping his nails.

    What grace the weeks were with him before he passed. The symbiotic movements between the two of us. No words were needed. Only the listening and the stillness – or the music and the singing. The moments were intuited within the deeply held space of presence.

    Timelessness together before he left leaves behind the essence within. And yet there is nothing static or unchanging about that presence. It simply is a part of the breath that breathes me, a part of the heart that flutters awake in gratitude.

  15. Thank you so very much! I have followed you for many years and this morning, in your post, you have touched the deepest, most sacred part of my being. Thank you and love and light

  16. I read most of the the above comments And I can’t help but think That they are missing the point. It is not about connecting with someone who has died or what happens after you died Or finding out that you are sick it is about appreciating what you have when you are here. I work as a professional organizer, and I try to tell my clients all the time about understanding what matters to them. I ask them to write down what they love that they do that is free. (Many have issues with attaching happiness to things) When I ask them a bout the things they love in life that are free there is a common denominator to them. Sunrises, sunsets, thunderstorms, the first snow. We all have the opportunity to appreciate these amazing gifts And yet most of us take them for granted. Please do not take these amazing gifts for granted. Contact with the world and love the amazing things it has to offer. This is how you will honor and maximize the breaths that you have left in your life.

    1. When I read my old happiness journal the other day I was struck by this same thing. More often than not, my happiest moment of the day was something like laughing over something silly or spending time hanging out. Appreciating the smell of someone’s wood burning fire or the way the water felt when I went swimming. You are absolutely correct about letting go of stuff because that isn’t what makes us happy.

  17. Geneen,

    Thank you for this article. I read it at least once per week and ask myself daily if not hourly if this is how I want to spend the breaths I have left.

    The other thing I do to ease my anxiety about my teenager is to remind myself the purpose isn’t to avoid dying, but to really be alive during whatever time we have here. This helps me let her go out in the world when all I really want to do is wrap her in bubble wrap and keep her home safe with me.

    I am thankful for your teachings and for Eckhart Tolle for teaching me the power of now.

  18. Dear geneen, Very lovely post. I am extremely grateful and loved reading your post. I am reading “The power of now” . I feel very happy..Love to read more posts of yours….

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