Zen and Recovery – Die Before You Die

Zen and Recovery – Die Before You Die August 22, 2022

There’s a phrase I have heard in Zen circles that goes “Die before you die.” My understanding is that this idea has its roots in the Sufi spiritual tradition, but many Zen folk have picked it up as a teaching tool.

I was thinking about this teaching recently because I had a moment where I experienced a little death.

In my life these little death’s usually take the form of an emerging awareness that an identity, or ideology that had a lot of power and influence in my life, was no longer helpful or useful.

This time it was the loss of what I called the fire in my belly. I was sharing with a friend how I no longer was experiencing the level of ambition I once had when I was a younger man. I then went on to share how this ambition or the fire in my belly carried me through difficult times and was responsible for the professional success I had after I entered recovery. I valued it and considered it a friend.

I wondered aloud if this loss of the fire in my belly an encroaching laziness in my advancing age, or something more akin to equanimity.


The idea of equanimity was one of the things that initially attracted me to Buddhism. This sublime place that offered clear vision, and freedom from the storms of emotions.

My initial understanding of equanimity was flawed in that I saw equanimity as a sort of escape from the world, rather than being firmly planted in the world, with an even-mindedness and without attachment or aversion.

Something I think I am beginning to learn about equanimity, is that on the road to this place, equanimity, there will be experiences of grief and loss. That when we begin to shed ideas, identities, and practices that used to serve us as we tried to navigate a chaotic world, even though we find them no longer useful, this shedding is experienced as a sort of death of who we used to be, or to ways of being that carried us along.

This is what I think the Sufi’s and Zen teachers mean when they encourage us to die before we die. The more we shed the delusions of who we think we are, or identities we thought would make us whole. We get closer to our Buddha nature.

Dying in Recovery, Rather Than Out of Recovery

To be successful on the journey of recovery, there is no way to avoid the many little deaths required for the process.

Initially its shedding the skills and resources we used to survive in the world of addiction. These deaths can include the dishonesty, subterfuge, and hiding we did so well. Many of these we don’t miss so much. But other, sneakier, ways of being are a different story. If we have built value and worth around egoic identities, these are harder to let go. And they hurt more when we do let go.

Plan to experience several ego deaths if long term recovery is part of your plan. However, if done well, we are regularly changed and rearranged, and I think that’s exciting.

I now know there is a freedom in dying before you die. I also believe that to be successful in recovery, or much of life for that matter, and as hard as it is, this process must happen.


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