Zee Clarke at the Rio Grande

This is a reminder that this life, your life, could end at any given moment.

Six weeks ago, I almost drowned, and I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and process this near-death experience.

It was a Friday night, and I got a text from a friend asking if I wanted to go white-water rafting the next day. They had a last-minute extra spot, and even though the last time I went white-water rafting was over 20 years ago, my initial instinct was, “That sounds fun! I’m in!” This split-second decision would have a lasting impact on me for the rest of my life.

The water levels on the river were extraordinarily high. Within five minutes of rafting, we hit the first rapid in a way that violently tossed me out of the boat. I got sucked down a sinkhole. Note that currents bring you forward, but what I experienced was getting pulled downwards. I had no control over my body and the river’s full force was upon me. I don’t know how long I was under, but my rafting companions spent a while unsure of what happened, and unable to see any trace of me at the river’s surface.

The next thing I experienced was being in a place that I can only describe as “the in-between place.” All I saw was white. I didn’t have a body, but I was fully conscious. The first thoughts that I had were, “Did that just happen? Where am I? Is it over? Did it end? Just like that?” And then deep in my heart, like a passionate scream within, I thought, “BUT I’M NOT DONE YET!”

Eventually I popped up to the surface. Some friends that had gone to Divinity School for their graduate studies asked me how I survived. I responded, “You tell me!” Regardless of how, once I came back to consciousness in this world, I saw the blue sky. I remembered the safety procedures, I tried to grab for the rescue rope that was thrown to me, and I made it back to the boat. At that moment, I realized I almost drowned and I was so grateful for the thing I talk about every single day – the breath! I could barely breathe and was coughing up water.  Shock is what followed, and I still had 90 more minutes of the trip since there was no easy way back to the road or car from there!

I’ve thought a lot about what I was meant to learn from this, and my hope is that you can apply these learnings to your life without having to have your own near-death experience. I invite you to spend some quiet time journaling on the Food for Thought prompts below.

#1: Self-doubt is the most useless way to spend our time here.

I’ve spent so many sleepless nights worrying. In my childhood years, I worried about how I would do on exams, in violin competitions, and whether I was going to get into my dream college. In my adult life I worried about my career, whether I was going to get certain jobs I applied for, and once I got whatever job it was, whether I was going to get fired–especially when I was in some toxic work environments. In my personal life, I spent time worrying about things I felt society expected me to do, marry someone with a certain résumé, have exactly 2.5 children, send them to the best schools, the ones with waitlists and college-type essays for kindergarten.  What I realize now is that all of this worrying has been a complete waste of time. I could’ve been enjoying my life, getting rest, or experiencing joy. I could’ve been spending that time and energy working on progressing towards whatever it is my goals were.

Food for Thought: What aspect of your life are you exerting excessive energy worrying about? How might you shift that time and energy to something that nourishes you and helps you on your journey?

#2: Don’t give away your power. Don’t let other people determine your worth, your mood, or your well-being.

It’s so easy to let other people affect us. How many times has your day been ruined by what someone said or did?  Since I’ve shifted my career to focus on helping people of color thrive despite experiences of racism and injustice, I’ve received a flood of hate messages on social media. I’ve had white supremacists share their opinions about Black people, our abilities, and the validity of our feelings. I’ve been called offensive names. I’ve had first hand experience with gaslighting that has made me so sad about the state of our society that I wanted to just hide from the world! I’ve been so angry I couldn’t eat or even think without my blood pressure skyrocketing. While people might say and do things that trigger us, allowing them to determine how we feel and what type of day that we have, is in fact giving away our power. I am so grateful for the breathing practices I learned in India that have helped me to take back my power when I get impacted by these experiences.

Food for Thought:  In what ways do you allow others to determine your worth, your mood and your well-being? How might you take back your power in the future?

#3: It’s okay to not have a set path. Be open to the possibilities!

I’ve always operated with a plan–a  5-year plan, a 10-year plan, all sorts of plans. As a recovering Type A person, I always found comfort in knowing I had a plan. I’m not telling you to stop making plans, but rather, I invite you to be open to spontaneity. I invite you to not be so rigid with the plans, and when things don’t work out as planned, appreciate what has arrived in your life that you couldn’t possibly have dreamed of.  Imagine all the surprises that have happened in your life already. That one thing which led to another thing, which led to where you are today–those things that you could never have predicted, that are in fact pretty amazing! Be open to the possibilities! There’s beauty in the unknown. Embrace it. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Food for Thought:  What area of your life could you be more open to the possibilities?

#4: Don’t wait to be happy. What can you be happy about now? 

Last month I went to my 15-year Harvard Business School reunion, and I asked a classmate of mine if he was happy. He said, “Well not right now, but I’ll be happy when…” as he listed a bunch of future circumstances around his job, his family situation, his geographic location and much more.  How many times have we all defined conditions of the future that would finally make us happy? Sometimes all of those things come true, and we’re still not happy because our list has just gotten longer. Sometimes the things on our list don’t ever come true because of external circumstances, and so we’re still left longing. Sometimes, tomorrow never comes. When I was in my 30s I lost six friends in an 18-month period. They never got to their tomorrow. My near-death experience made me ask myself this question: “What can I be happy about now?” I know it might sound cliche, but gratitude really is powerful. If we spend our days on this planet with the mentality of, “I’ll be happy if…” or “I’ll be happy when..” we are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to be happy right now, in this moment. 

Food for Thought:  What can you be happy about now? Make a list of all of the amazing things in your life. Close your eyes, and allow yourself to smile. 

#5: Make time for the people you care about. 

When I finally paused to reflect on what had happened, I cried a lot. As I thought about what these tears were really about, I realized that I was incredibly sad and shaken about the idea of saying goodbye to the people in my life. We all get busy. Society often makes us feel like if you’re busy that means you’re being productive, you’re contributing to society, and you’re making your life matter. However, it’s also a very easy excuse to not have time to call your loved ones, to spend quality time with your partner, to check in on your friends that live on the other side of the country. This was a huge reminder to not take anyone for granted. This was a huge reminder to make time for the people that I love.

Food for Thought:  Who do you need to call today? Let them hear your voice. Tell them you love them. Who have you been delaying having lunch with? That person you haven’t seen in ages. Make a list of the people that first come to mind. Make time for them. 

#6: People will never forget how you made them feel. 

I couldn’t get this Maya Angelou quote out of my head: 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

We all spend so much time focusing on achievements, outcomes, and results, especially at work! The phrase “by any means necessary” comes to mind, as I think about certain work environments that I have been in. I had bosses that just didn’t care about people’s feelings at all, and I’m embarrassed to say that there have been moments where that rubbed off on me while I was working there. There have also been certain moments in personal relationships where I was so overwhelmed with emotions, that I didn’t stop to think about how the other person was feeling.  While I’ve grown a lot, and changed a lot, this remains top of mind for me as there are always ways in which we all can be better. This was a reminder to always be intentional about how you’re making others feel, because that is your true legacy.

Food for Thought:  In what areas of your life could you be more intentional about how you’re making others feel? What relationships in your life could use a bit more care and attention?

#7: Pay attention and appreciate the little things. 

I can’t help experiencing every moment with appreciation now, knowing that this moment, right here, right now, might not have been possible. I find myself noticing the birds chirping, noticing the light in people’s eyes during work meetings and social gatherings, savoring the flavors in delicious meals, and just paying way more attention to all the details. I know the phrase, “Cherish every moment” might sound cheesy, but imagine that you just got a cancer diagnosis, or you somehow knew that you’d be in a car accident tomorrow. Would it sound cheesy then? We have the opportunity to really enjoy this life, so why not do so with eyes wide open, paying attention to all of the gifts and experiences?

Food for Thought:  Spend one day this week paying attention to the details. Imagine that this was  your last day on earth. What would you miss the most?

#8: Be clear about why you’re here.

“BUT I’M NOT DONE YET!” This is what went through my head when I was in that “in-between place,” that place where I wasn’t fully alive, but also hadn’t quite moved on to whatever happens after this life. Since this experience, my life mission has never been clearer: to help Black people and all people of color live our best lives and be our best selves despite the microaggressions, the racism, and the hate that continue to exist. When people tell me that they finally feel seen and heard after one of my corporate workshops, it’s a further reminder of my purpose. When someone tells me that one of my breathing practices helped them to reduce their stress levels on a really hard day, I know I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. And, I know that I still have work to do here. What about you? What is your mission? And if you don’t have one, and you don’t know, that’s totally okay! But I invite you to think about it.  Note that it doesn’t have to be about work, it might be about your family, your community, our planet, but think about it.

Food for Thought: If you had a near death experience, and asked yourself the following questions, what do you think might come up? 

What is my mission? 

Why am I here on this planet? 

What do I still have left to do?

Zee Clarke is the author of the book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). She has been featured in many leading publications including Oprah Daily, ABCFortuneForbesCNBCEbonyEssence, and Fast Company. She is a Harvard Business School graduate who applies holistic healing practices to corporate environments. Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools for BIPOC employees at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more. Learn more at https://www.zeeclarke.com/


  • Zee Clarke


    Zee Clarke is the author of Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). As a successful Black woman executive in corporate America, she used to think that high stress levels and stress-related health conditions were a baseline requirement if she wanted to remain employed. Then the Harvard MBA discovered mindfulness, and it changed her life. Now Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools for BIPOC employees at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more. Learn more at https://www.zeeclarke.com/