We are being given an urgent call. Our culture is changing faster than we can keep up. We are watching the collapse of institutions, systems of belief, and even much of life on the earth. We watch as we are called to let go of the past and face an unknown future. We see death everywhere but have no idea how to deal with death, which in our culture has become an almost taboo subject.

The Sufis call us to die before we die. What does this mean? It means we must accept that we are in a changing world and that everything in form dies, including ourselves. It means that even our own identities, roles, and egos must constantly be reborn before our bodies reach our eventual death.

Our culture has lost a deep connection to the earth, which helps us understand these cycles of life and death. In our mind-oriented state, in the present-day culture, we can convince ourselves that we should be immortal and that death should be banished.

Dying before you die calls us to face the reality of death and to understand that we are continually dying and being reborn.

In this way, we can let go of the fear around death and allow our dying to be a daily practice. As we let go of fear and embrace this process of life and death, we enter into a new paradigm that allows us to live more fully and more joyfully.

I just completed a year-long course called Unmasking Mortality, led by Steve Schwartzberg, loosely based on Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live. One of the many exercises we were asked to carry out as we contemplated our eventual dying was to create a calendar counting down the days of our last year to live. Each group member found a unique and creative way to acknowledge that the days of our lives are numbered.

The design of my calendar, which was my celebration of life and death, came to me in a dream. I attached twelve ribbons two inches by sixteen inches from a ring. On each ribbon, I pinned a picture of a baby, a picture of a loved one who had died, and natural objects — flowers, feathers, bark — in various states of life and death. Above the ring, I placed a coyote skull and a picture from the Web Telescope of the birthing of stars. On each ribbon, I pinned a card describing roles I fulfill, e.g., a lover, a sister, a writer, a dancer, a journeyer. I tore off a card each month, ripped it to pieces, and placed it in a pot with dirt. Then, I covered the shredded paper with more dirt and water.

Yesterday was the completion of the twelve months, and although I am still healthy and alive, I know I have only been given a reprieve. I recognize that I will die even as my life goes on. In honor of my continued life, I have planted a flowering plant in the compost made of the parts of myself that I had let go. And with gratitude, I am taking up my life, knowing more fully that I am mortal, that I will die, and that I do not want to waste a second of the gift of life that I have.

I offer this exercise and wonder how others are dying before they die.