Memento Mori – Death and the Art of Mindful Living

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“It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.”

Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

The one and only thing we can have absolute confidence in is that, without a shadow of a doubt, one day we will die. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, famous or unknown, happy or sad, at some point you will shuffle off this mortal coil.

The irony about this one certainty is that generally we have absolutely no idea when this will occur, and how it will happen.

Is it this juxtaposition of certain knowledge and absolute ignorance that makes death such an uncomfortable subject, I wonder?

Whatever the reason, death is a subject that our society seems to want to skirt around; to only discuss it when we absolutely must. The notion of regular dialogue about and contemplation on our own demise leaves many people horrified.

But this was not always so. Many cultures throughout history, and indeed still today, make contemplation of death a regular practice. In fact for many cultures it is a vital part to living a fulfilled life.

Within Buddhism there are number of death related practices, with Maranasati being the most known. Maranasati, a Pali word meaning ‘death awareness’, is considered essential to living a better life, and helps to inform one’s choices on the journey through this fragile and precious existence.

Bhutan, the mountain kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas, is considered one of the happiest nations on the planet. They even have government policies centred around happiness; the Gross National Happiness index.

People in Bhutan are expected to contemplate their own death 5 times a day.

At first, to our modern, western eye this may seem at odds with happiness, but the Bhutanese would argue that it is this very foundation of death contemplation that helps to boost the nations collective happiness.

And this is backed up by research. In this psychological study from the University of Kentucky in 2007, researchers found that subjects asked to contemplate their own deaths were more likely to seek out and experience positive emotions and associations than those contemplating other subject matters.

Perhaps, the most well known practice in western culture comes from the Stoic philosophers and their practice of Memento Mori, from the Latin meaning ‘Remember that you must die’. It was such a key feature to the Stoic philosophy as a means to keep one grounded and mindful, that is was practised by casual students and emperors alike. As generals were being heralded as heroes of the empire and lorded around the populace, they would be accompanied by a slave whose sole job was to quietly whisper to them to remember that they too would someday die. Even Emperor Marcus Aurelius (my favourite Stoic) wrote to himself “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

The practice of Memento Mori kept their egos in check by reminding them that someday they would be dust and all their great achievements forgotten. Everything is impermanent.

And it’s this realisation of impermanence that gives life it’s real, vivid colours.

Think of a holiday. Those blissful two weeks in the Costa del Wherever. Ah, this is the life. But what makes it so special? Sure, the sangria is flowing, the sun is out, and your kids aren’t fighting for the first time in what seems like forever. But, if you moved there full time would this be the new existence for you? Probably not. The mundane creeps in; the spectacular becomes the ordinary; tax returns still exist; your kids suddenly remember the sibling rivalry that so consumes every moment.

What makes it special is the fact that our time is finite there. Two weeks. There is a lot of living to be done in two weeks and, by god, you are going to shoe horn as much of it in as you can. When you know your time there is short lived you make the most of it and you live those two weeks more mindfully than you have lived the previous fifty.

Do you know what else is finite? Life. Maybe we have 80 years, maybe two weeks, maybe less. What if we lived our life the way we do on holiday? And I don’t mean excessive drinking and sunburn, I mean mindfully.

And how can you be more mindful of the time you have left on this realm? By contemplating it running out.

When people have experienced some kind of existential threat like a near death experience they often recount a sense of clarity in their existence, a new lease of life. By the daily practice of Memento Mori, I essentially have a mini existential crisis each and every day (by one of my own choosing), which puts my priorities into perspective. I realise what is truly essential to me; my family, my health, my service to others. It allows me to stop sweating the small stuff that I had previously considered colossal.

Now this isn’t some nihilistic attitude to think f*** it and reject all my responsibilities. It’s a gut check to clarify what are the most important things to me. But contemplating my ever diminishing time on the planet I am much more likely to say the things I want to say, to pursue the dreams I’m dreaming, to really listen and be attentive to those around me (still working on this one), and to fill my time with high quality interactions and not just chewing gum for the soul.

“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one.”

Confucius

Mic drop!

How to incorporate a Memento Mori practice into your life

I tried to get a slave to whisper in my ear but apparently that’s not a done thing anymore. That and the fact that they are employed doing that creepy ASMR shit now.

This makes me immensely anxious, not sleepy!

So I employ a number of tools and devices to prompt me into thinking about my own death.

Visual prompts – These are utilised throughout the world as gentle (and not so gentle) reminders of mortality. Places like Bhutan are festooned with death symbolism, as are many areas of the world. In Europe, it was fashionable to own a Vanitas painting. Starting in the 1600s these paintings usually depicted a human skull along with other symbols of our fleeting lifespan; wilting lilies, hour glasses, that kind of thing.

Whilst they are not really to my taste I do have my own version of one. I have this rather fetching print by Dutch painter Julie de Graag from 1916. I love it. Kelley less so. We are still in a custody battle over wall space.

Next up is the ‘My Life in Weeks’ chart. Basically each square signifies a week of my life on the assumption that I’ll live to 89. According the Office of National Statistic life expectancy calculator I’m only given ’til 84, but I’ll take 89.

You colour in the weeks already lived to give yourself a visual representation of your life. The blank squares are your theoretical remaining weeks. At the time of writing, I have an estimated 2,325 weeks left. Gulp. And that’s assuming I don’t die of sunstroke or my beloved dog becomes rabid and savages me to death.

Pretty sobering stuff, eh? I am already halfway through this holiday we call life. Pass the sangria, please. No, the bottle.

The two main takeaways from this chart are that 1. life is indeed fleeting; and 2. I can’t believe I spent that much of my remaining life colouring in little squares.

You can buy these charts from a number of places, as well as downloading one and printing it yourself.

My third tool of choice is the app WeCroak. This is based on the Bhutanese notion of contemplating death 5 times a day. To keep you on track it sends you a simple message – ‘Don’t forget, you’re going to die’ – randomly 5 times a day. Click on the message and you’ll open up an u̶p̶l̶i̶f̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ death related or thoughtful quote like this one:

There are a whole host of other Memento Mori paraphernalia that you can spend your hard earned money on, from tattoos, to rings, to these cool coins from dailystoic.com, which I would love but would doubtless lose before the week was out. Maybe there is some lesson on impermanence there?

So, if you think contemplating your death is a morose, dark activity, you are, in my opinion, missing the point. It’s not really about death at all, it’s about living. It’s about sucking the marrow out of our existence. It’s about putting things into real context. It’s about telling your kids how much you love them, RIGHT NOW. It’s about daring to dream and not living a life of quiet desperation.

Steve Jobs put it well:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Powerful shit, right there.

I cannot control my natural death. All I can control are my choices on how to live. The practice of Memento Mori has been one of the most power tools to enable this.

So to finish I want to leave you with my favourite death quote. This is usually ascribed to Marcus Aurelius, but in fact, and quite wonderfully, it’s actually Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator:

Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.

Maximus, Gladiator

See you on the other side. x

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