Remember that you must die (memento mori). Not the cheeriest of thoughts, but possibly the most important if we’re to have a shot at a happy life.
It’s October in VA, the trees are still mostly full green – just some hints of the rich colors that accompany their annual decay. It also reminds me that I’ve been living like I’ll never die, or to put it more bluntly, I’ve been wasting time.
The Danse Macabre
I find when I get like this (i.e. stubbornly procrastinating) that reminding myself of my inevitable demise can help get me back on track. It’s not foolproof, you need to be in the right frame of mind for this meditation (you can simply become maudlin if you aren’t), but remembering that time is limited helps put a context on everything.
If you have a tough time thinking about your own death, you’ll have a tough time with a lot of things, death is inevitable – it doesn’t care if you think about it or not. The intent of these death meditations isn’t pessimism or morbidity – it’s to help free us from attachment (the ego, the body, to outcomes) and unleash the “soul” – the truly valuable part of us. Of course, it’s up to us to determine what is most valuable to us (a brutal truth on par with death) – which is probably why so many prefer to let others do that thinking for them.
Buddhist monks would sit on the edges of mass graves for days and watch the bodies decompose as a way of meditating on impermanence. I’m not recommending we go that far (though I’m sure it’s pretty powerful), but I do want to encourage all of us to develop a meditation on the transient nature of all things as a way of getting the most out of life.
Immersion isn’t Mindfulness
I’ve heard people say they don’t need to think about death because it’s all around us all the time. Well, so are gyms and organic foods, that doesn’t make everybody a ripped vegan. We need to make the conscious choice to accept our eventual decline, death being at the end of that path. I’ve always liked the phrase “a fish doesn’t know it’s wet”, it sums up so many things about how we perceive things. If there’s always “more time” there’s never truly a reason to begin anything, why not wait till tomorrow? I’ll tell you why, because we’re on a freight-train to the grave, that’s why.
If we don’t make a conscious effort to remain mindful of the temporary nature of life, we’ll either ignore it or imagine we’ll be the first generation to figure out how not to die. Either way, it’s a form of repression – in the same way it’s unhealthy to deny carnality, or anger or desire because it always crops up at the most inopportune times – not having a relationship to death when you’re at your most healthy and vibrant foreshadows a very unpleasant end when the time comes.
Choose your Memento
My sister gave me this nutty little skull (I think it’s from Disneyland) as a gift many moons ago. The major selling point being that it glowed in the dark, but as time wore on, the glow wore off. But I’ve kept it all this time, and it has become my memento mori. I keep it prominently displayed wherever I live as a reminder to live the life I choose, like the vanitas of the past. Perhaps finding one for yourself could be an entry point for this meditation (some of the art shown on the vanitas page could be a good place to start – could make a strong background screen for your phone or computer).
Some of the iconography associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead can make for some snappy daily reminders. Whatever you choose, it should be something that has meaning to you and can quickly put you into a meditative space – reminding you of impermanence and the opportunity of the present moment. Carpe diem ain’t just a bumper sticker. The point isn’t to get bummed out, the point is to embrace life – if it wasn’t finite it wouldn’t be precious.
Choose a Destination
If there’s one sin I commit repeatedly, it’s forgetting where I’m going. My spirit animal, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, said “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable” and years of experience have made clear how true this is. This whole memento mori thing is only valuable when we have a clear sense of how we want to use the time we have.
For me, it’s being a creator; for you it can be being a parent, a gardener, a mechanic, a healer, a friend – whatever. There’s no “right” answer, only your answer – you can have many, it can change over time, the important thing is to know it. At least to guess at it, because this – the pursuit of it, the enjoyment of it, the sharing of it – is why it’s important to remember we do not live forever.
We can only do our best – or something less – with the time we have. If we start by remembering “you must die” and perhaps we’ll all do a better job with the time we have.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel to write….