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Unlocking Wisdom through Life Reviews

“My life flashed before my eyes.”

These are the words of a person who has had a near-death experience. In the moments, possibly even seconds, before someone comes close to dying, he or she or they might have a life review—an episode of deep contemplation during which an individual experiences a swift recounting of their life journey. This review or flashback offers insights into how someone has lived their life. The wisdom gained from a thoughtful examination of one’s life can indeed guide the trajectory of their remaining days.

The theme of the life review, and the corresponding second chance, makes for popular entertainment. I am reminded of three different stories retold in movies and a television series.

One filmed story, adapted from a play, exists in three distinct versions: a 1941 version titled Here Comes Mr. Jordan; a 1978 version called Heaven Can Wait; and the 2001 remake, which was retitled Down to Earth. Each of these films weaves an intricate narrative around a man who, upon his death, reconsiders the various deeds—both virtuous and villainous—that he committed during his earthly life.

In each of these three remakes, our protagonist, is mistakenly taken to Heaven before his actual death by an overzealous angel. He is given a second chance at mortal life back on Earth, albeit by inhabiting a newly dead corpse, and the resultant comedic mixups underscore the film’s underlying theme: the importance of seizing the opportunity to do good in the world.

A 1943 film, also coincidentally titled Heaven Can Wait, tells the story of a man who, convinced that he is destined for damnation, willingly presents himself to the devil. A similar theme can be found in the 1991 film Defending Your Life, which presents an intriguing scenario: a deceased man on trial in the afterlife, compelled to justify his life choices and actions to determine whether he’ll be reincarnated on Earth. The film raises profound questions about the nature of fear, growth, and enlightenment.

As Buddhists, the assertions of the protagonist Daniel’s defense attorney in Defending Your Life are particularly intriguing. The attorney posits that humans, due to their limited brain usage, live their lives dominated by fear. If Daniel can demonstrate that he has overcome his fears, he will ascend to a higher plane of existence where he can utilize more of his brain and experience the universe’s vast offerings. If not, he will return to Earth for another attempt at transcending his fears.

This theme of self-improvement and redemption also permeates the television series The Good Place. Here, the central characters navigate the afterlife, grappling with the uncertainty of whether they are in heaven or hell. The series spans four seasons, each episode underscoring the idea that every individual is capable of redemption.

The Good Place proposes that every person in the universe is given countless opportunities to evolve into a better version of themselves.


The stories described above present the death experience largely from a Western Judeo-Christian perspective. Conversely, in the graphic novel A Guided Tour of Hell,* Sam Bercholz, a Western Buddhist, writes about his own real-life near-death experiences after undergoing heart surgery and coming close to death:

Under the guidance of a luminous being, Sam’s encounters with a series of hell-beings trapped in repetitious rounds of misery and delusion reveal to him how an individual’s own habits of fiery hatred and icy disdain, of grasping desire and nihilistic ennui, are the source of horrific agonies that pound consciousness for seemingly endless cycles of time. Comforted by the compassion of a winged goddess and sustained by the kindness of his Buddhist teachers, Sam eventually emerges from his ordeal with renewed faith that even the worst hell contains the seed of wakefulness. (Penguin Random House)

The valuable lessons learned combined with the opportunity to return and make better life choices is almost like experiencing rebirth. In this instance, instead of dying and returning in a different life, you almost die and return to your current life. Most of us are not likely to have a near-death experience, so how can we access the benefits of such an enlightening life review?

Look around you, within you, and you will see that you have all that you need in the teachings of your Buddhist practice.

Consider the act of performing good deeds. This is not just a way to cultivate positive kamma, but also a reminder of how to live your life skillfully. By consciously choosing to act with kindness and compassion, you can significantly reduce the suffering you cause others and yourself.

Keep doing good deeds, keep meditating, and take the time to reflect on your day. At the close of each day, permit yourself a moment of introspection. Mull over your thoughts, your emotions, and your interactions with others. If you stumble on something that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, then take the time to consider how you can rectify it and reconcile with it.

Perhaps, you shared harsh words with someone. Consider circling back to that person and extending an apology. If, for some reason, that apology is not possible—maybe the person was a stranger—you can still make the apology, at least in your heart. And once you’ve conducted this daily inventory, work on releasing the things that no longer serve you.

The goal of this practice is not to berate yourself or to wallow in self-pity. It’s about cultivating compassion and forgiveness for yourself. It’s about quieting the storm within your mind, because it is only with a tranquil mind that you can forge ahead, better equipped to do good and to foster healthier interactions with others.

In undertaking this practice, you will find that you no longer need the narrative of films like Heaven Can Wait, or Defending Your Life, or The Good Place to guide you. You will have already developed your own narrative—one that is filled with wisdom, compassion, and understanding.

* A Guided Tour of Hell: Illustrating Infernos in a Buddhist Graphic Novel (BDG)


Bercholz, Samuel. A Guided Tour of Hell: A Graphic Memoir. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

See more

Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
The Death Dhamma Podcast (Margaret Meloni)
A Guided Tour of Hell: A Graphic Memoir (Penguin Random House)

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