Maximizing Life by Meditating on Death and Staying Offline

Matthew Koehler
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Stepping off the elevator into the swanky top floor hotel conference room, I entered an energized space full of industry insiders, all mingling and talking excitedly. I quickly grabbed my ID lanyard, which said media, and my stomach turned. Anxiety threatened to squeeze my throat shut so instead of making small talk, I threaded my way to an empty seat to compose myself. As the panel discussion began, my phone buzzed silently and the peculiar app, WeCroak, reminded me that I was going to die.

Specifically, Tad Williams offered me his own fatalistic thoughts: “Dying men think of funny things — and that’s what we all are here, aren’t we? Dying men?”

Focusing on those words for a few seconds, I took a deep breath. After my nerves ebbed, I settled in for what promised to be an interesting discussion on transportation and infrastructure.

It’s morbid but unobtrusive and honest

WeCroak was created by Hansa Bergwell, a publicist in New York, and Ian Thomas, a freelance app creator. The app reminds you that you’re going to die, five times a day, at randomized times. “It invites users to contemplate mortality with a quote,” Bergwell explained.

A daily meditator, Bergwell says he was trying to find the right practice that works for him and wanted to add death contemplation, big in traditional buddhist communities, to his routine. That’s when he came across a Bhutanese formulation that appealed to him because of its simplicity. It claims that to be happy person, one should contemplate their death five times a day.

Being in the heart of NYC and not the Himalayas, though, made this esoteric practice a bit difficult. “I would get to the end of the day and figure out that I’d barely done it once,” Bergwell lamented.

Then he had the idea of his phone interrupting him with invitations to practice contemplating his death. So far, the app has worked well for him, often catching him off target from where he wants to be on a given day. “The tiny course adjustments that come everyday, predictably, because you don’t know when they’re going to happen- it always sort of speaks to the moment.”

A salient point.

This is where I place WeCroak, and apps like it, in today’s society. They’re responses to what many of us, if not most, waste our valuable time on: social media.

Social media is ruining us and we know it, but it’s so addictive

Getting offline and reclaiming your life from your phone, and the addictive apps it carries, is trending almost as much as anything else in the news. In a twist of Frankensteinian irony, the parents of social media platforms have turned away from their own creations in horror, shutting themselves (especially their children) off from their seductive pull.

Over the course of 2017 and leading into the new year, I found myself glued to my phone, whether it was work-related or “platform-building” (i.e. legitimate activities like blogging and researching publications to activities that were less so, like tweeting or scrolling through Instagram for 40 minutes). I knew I’d reached a crisis point when I would hide in the bathroom on a Saturday afternoon to type out lengthy rebuttal or shamelessly surf through trending news on Twitter, while my wife and daughter enjoyed the real world outside.

I read a now forgotten article somewhere that suggested putting technology away on the weekends, a sort of secular shabbat, in order to reclaim some of that lost time. This initially worked for me and became a rule of weekend phone usage: It’s the weekend, so it can wait. But, I found myself making up for lost time come Monday. In Between freelancing projects, or during the research process, I’d ratchet up my use of social media, telling myself that it wasn’t just an easy distraction with empty rewards; it was platform building.

Something radical was needed to make my use of social media more meaningful but less time-consuming.

Already into meditation and regular exercise, I wasn’t interested in an app pestering me to do. Besides, our phones are always telling us something or another, and a reminder from yet another app that my immediate attention was required, was just as likely to get dismissed.

Then I came across this article and thought I would give WeCroak a try.

The first thing I noticed was that the app didn’t tell me to do anything. There’s no expectation to engage with a like-minded community or share results online somewhere. There’s just a quote and your reaction to it — novel in today’s fast-paced and addictive online engagement.

In fact, WeCroak doesn’t connect with anything at all and discourages online engagement. It’s self-contained, for your consumption only. If you were so inclined to share something about it online, you’d have to take a screen pic and do it yourself.

Bergwell says that because of the way they designed it, people on average spend less than a minute total inside the app. “There’s no scrolling past quotes. It simply grabs your attention, reminds you of something true and invites you to contemplate a quote and that’s it. The user design is all about giving life back to them.”

After the first several days of enthusiastic usage, though, I had the sinking suspicion that the reminders were coming mostly when I used social media. As if it was pointedly reminding me of life’s finality right when I was about to send out a killer tweet, multiple times a day. I’d even level profanities at it under my breath when it interrupted my social media binges. Eventually, I stopped seriously engaging with what I felt were constant reminders (not as constant as our obsessive phone touching) and forgetting sagely advice, “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings (Socrates)," before even finishing the quote.

As my social media high faded, however, guilt would wash over me for ignoring the message of my own mortality. I also felt guilty because I’d paid for it — a whole 99 cents, but still an investment.

When I asked Bergwell if he’d received similar responses from other users, he stressed that they weren’t encouraging users to get offline,”We’re not about telling people what to do, and that is pretty core to our mission.” In truth, they aren’t pushing users to do anything except to engage with a quote and think about what death means to them.

Returning to my original question, he continued, “There’s a lot of natural aversion to death, so of course we get that it’s sick, that’s morbid — all that kind of thing, when people first hear about the app.” As Bergwell pointed out, most of those people don’t download the app but for the people who do, “They really like it and find a ‘divine’ use for the app.”

If people get offline after reading a quote about their demise, then perhaps the WeCroak does offer something divine — a reconnection with the real world.

It’s just an app but there’s value in the message

While not massively popular, WeCroak has a small but slowly growing and committed user base. The latest download numbers are somewhere north of 30k, and according to Bergwell, continuing to rise. It has also spread its message across 108 countries, which is a far greater response than the creators expected — especially given that they spend nothing on marketing.

Since I continue to use the app, I tend to agree that if you’re committed to the message it offers, you can definitely attain more peace of mind. Getting offline, and staying off, has made me a happier, more attentive person. Smart use of the social media platforms doesn’t disrupt this better state of mind, but relapses highlight, to a greater extent, the negative emotional state and mental fugue frequent use engenders.

Considering my anecdote at the beginning, I’ve also found some novel uses for the app. Having an outside voice remind me that life’s day-to-day troubles are nothing compared to the finality of death has made me more composed in my work and in life.

Is the death app going to become the next Candy Crush of the app world? I doubt it but that’s not the point. It’s a tailored message not everyone wants to hear, but true and meaningful nonetheless. Just like its daily reminders of death, you can ignore the message or act on it. It’s entirely up to you.

With that thought in mind, I’ll leave you with something to chew on, in the spirit of WeCroak: “If you are constantly aware of your mortal nature, you will only do what truly matter to you (Sadhguru).”

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