Life, Death, and Mindfulness: The “Before I Die” Wall

Thinking about death clarifies your life.

– Candy Chang

 

Impermanence. Change. The constant flow of not knowing. When people speak of trusting the universe, they’re partly talking about that double-edged habit humans sometimes have of trying to either control or evade the ever-shifting sands beneath our anxious feet. The power that lies inside the act of handing over the reins to our inner guide is immense; asking for direction from within is one of the greatest tools we have to achieve true freedom and access our sacred creativity.

 

Trusting the universe

Knowing that the universe is supporting our very essence also allows us to live with lightness, accepting that while we don’t know what’s around the corner, everything is perfect exactly as it is. If this sounds like a little bit of a stretch to you, try some mindful practices like meditation to get deeper in touch with your inner mind’s eye. Seeing past the surface layer of our existence into the subtler realm of energetic vibrations is an ongoing heart-opening experience that can enhance mindfulness, and it’s worthy of pursuit.

Before I Die is a recent public art installation that evokes many of these multifaceted ideas in a single, simple premise. A blackboard is resurrected on an outdoor wall with chalkboard paint, in a public space, with the following words: “Before I die…” Following this provocative, half-finished statement is a series of blank lines encouraging participatory involvement, inviting strangers to fill in the blanks with their personal thoughts. Beginning in 2011, the project has since flourished remarkably: “Currently, over 350 ‘Before I Die walls have been created in over 60 countries and in over 25 languages.”

Candy Chang’s public art installation has come a long way from its humble beginnings, encouraging people around the world to live their best life. Photo courtesy of www.mymodernmet.com.

Inspired by life… and death

Inspired by the death of a loved one, artist Candy Chang started this project with a small beginning step: “She painted a side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood of New Orleans with chalkboard paint and then stenciled in the words, ‘Before I die I want to ___.’ Anyone who happened to pass by could share their deepest and most personal thoughts.”

The impact of the death of someone close to us can have a tremendous amount of effects, both visible and invisible — mourning, grief, anger, sadness, and fear can easily, inexplicably dance alongside feelings of relief, hilarity, love, and peace; this messy soup of emotions manifests without warning or reason, dispersed in tsunami-like waves and gentle lapping tides along a non-linear timeline that feels equally abstract and real.

The artist thoughtfully notes her own emotional process around death, mindfulness, and its role in conceiving the art piece:

“Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.”

Writer Maria Popova notes that many of the statements on the walls aren’t particularly profound, nor original; but the beauty lies in the very virtue of the fact that these simple, run-of-the-mill statements reveal themselves as universal desires — written in colorful handwriting upon a public chalkboard, no less. To love, to marry, to be brave, to travel, to cure disease… the walls become bright, bubbly proof that the overarching aspiration to fulfill our emotional and physical needs is ubiquitous among humans the world over, and encourage mindfulness in our pursuit of these things during day-to-day life.

These blackboards show us how common our most fundamental desires are: to live peaceful lives, full of love, health, and happiness. Photo courtesy of Candy Chang and www.mymodernmet.com.

Public vs. private spaces

“Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives.”

The nature of the wall’s public space encourages the type of simple generality that the personal thoughts mostly demonstrate: the many adventures, dreams, and hopes that our hearts yearn for are surely too deep, too complex, and too lengthy to be written on a cramped single line, surrounding by others’ colorful scribbled longings.

While I find the wall incredibly inspiring in its success to bring people from disparate backgrounds around the world, under the shared umbrella of thinking about, and sharing, what life’s innately mutable essence means to us at its core, I’m personally more interested in delving a bit deeper.

 

Personal action

I want to explore between the layers of what this ethnographic art piece passionately celebrates and reveals about our unified human condition. If people were encouraged to answer the same with question with more time and space, would tinier, more delicate truths be exposed? I don’t know.

I’m going to embark on a project inspired by these thoughts — should it turn out to be fruitful in time, I’ll share some of the results.

Pausing for a moment to ask ourselves this death-related question can have an ironically positive effect on our hearts and minds, and create a sense of optimistic perspective. When we re-frame how we see the world, we gain clarity in our everyday lives — what matters, what doesn’t matter; what we want more of, what we want less of; what we want, and need, to do with ourselves.

What do you want to do before you die?

 

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

― Walt Whitman