Memento Mori is To Meditate On Your Mortality
Memento Mori is important. It’s so you don’t postpone what’s vital until you die…
People who almost die and get a near-death experience often change quite a lot. People’s experiences are often quite similar and seem to follow a specific pattern. The pattern and how they can experience similar things could be an exciting topic, but it’s not the point here – the results are. (Here’s a TED talk on the subject if you’re interested.) The point is that by getting the experience, they often get more empathic, less interest in worldly things, more spiritual (though not more religious), and more socially oriented. Could that perhaps be more towards the… “right” way? Could the close encounter with death bring people closer to what’s likely to be essential?
People who get close to death, without dying, seem to get an eye opener. They commonly change dramatically when they get their second chance. They look around, think and think again.
What’s truly important?
What do I want to do?
In a way, the questions get close to reflecting on why we fear death.
Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself:
Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”
– Marcus Aurelius
The ones who get that near-death experience often lose their fear of death. Is it because there’s something afterward – or because they tend to what’s important during their time left alive?
The Stoics lived closer to death than we do. Most people before our age probably did. People died for less and more animals were around, and died locally because meat didn’t come from the store in a package. Most people had likely seen a dead person at some point, and when people died, they said they died. They didn’t say they “went to heaven”, or something similar to mitigate the blow.
Marcus Aurelius, in the quote above, lost nine children, according to some sources. That’s far more than most would endure. To reflect on what’s essential, to think of what matters, the Stoics use(d?) the exercise of Memento Mori.
Perhaps you should too.
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman
– like a man –
on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Another snippet from his journal to keep himself focused on what truly mattered was, “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.” The key, he said, was not to let your emotions override your mind, as well as to give yourself a strong purpose. Aimlessness is an enabler of distraction that must be avoided to get something done. It’s not unreasonable to think that you could do just that with some dedication and will. You do have the power to concentrate like a Roman. (Well, if that’s in any way, shape, or form an ideal to you. Use another ideal example if you prefer; I can’t be sure that Romans did have an astonishing ability to focus well).
“If you seek tranquillity, do less.”
Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way.
Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential.
If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity.
Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well.
To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditation
The Stoics were responsible and public-minded doers who kept busy. But they also understood the importance of balance and essentialism. Working hard doesn’t mean you do it all. That’s impossible and self-defeating. You’ll have to determine what matters by keeping the end in sight. You’re a finite being with limited resources.
What do you want to do with your time?
How much of it can you waste?
What’s less than essential for you?
“We will benefit from that helpful precept of Democritus, showing us that tranquility lies in not undertaking tasks, either in public or private, that are either numerous or greater than our resources.”
We need to take the time to set our priorities straight and understand our limits.
What’s the most crucial thing in our lives?
What’s the next most important thing?
What will we say no to so we can focus on those things?
What will we say no to (or yes to) to protect our happiness and peace?
Sometimes we need to do less to do more of what we care most about.
Memento Mori is the ancient practice of reflection on mortality.
If you had limited time – how would you spend it?
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life.
Let us postpone nothing.
Let us balance life’s books each day. …
The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” was likely written in Marcus’ journal “Meditations” as a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue now. Don’t postpone things and hope you’ll have time for it later. For that same reason, I got my ring with the same message. A physical reminder to see and feel several times a day. It’s inspired by the painting “Still Life with a Skull” and shows the three essentials of existence – the tulip, symbolizing life, the skull for death, and the hourglass representing time. The inside is engraved with the first part of the quote above: “You could leave life right now”, then it’s up to me to fill in with the rest. Ideally, live by it, rather than just saying it.
What the thought of death helps us do varies. Some could be supported not to obsess over trivialities. Some might worry less about what people think of them. Some could value physical stuff less. Some could get less prone to make plans far off in the future – and live only for the future – as some seem to do.
It’s a nudge, a help, and an exercise to value what’s important.
Not at all. It’s realistic and gives perspective. Meditating on one’s mortality is only depressing if you miss the point, or dwell, ruminate, and brood instead of using it to get forward. I hope you already know that you’ll die. I’ve spoken to one who refused to acknowledge death as a fact even though she worked with healthcare and dying people. I’m not entirely sure she’ll avoid it forever, regardless.
Both ancient and modern Stoics tend to find the thought invigorating, refreshing, and humbling rather than something to get the waterworks going. Seneca urged us to tell ourselves: “You may not wake up tomorrow” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again” when waking up as reminders of our mortality.
Epictetus told his students:
“Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible –
by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.”
As you kiss your son good night, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.”
Don’t tempt fate, you say.
By talking about a natural event?
Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?
Use this tool. Remind yourself and meditate on it daily.
Let this help you build your life so that you can live it to the fullest.
Don’t waste a second.
“You aren’t bothered, are you, because you weigh a certain amount and not twice as much?
So why get worked up that you’ve been given a certain lifespan and not more?
Just as you are satisfied with your normal weight, so you should be with the time you’ve been given.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
In On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It, Seneca writes:
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.
Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.
But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.
So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it…
Life is long if you know how to use it.
No one knows how long they have left – but we can be sure of one thing.
We’ll waste far too much of life. We’ll waste it sitting around, and we’ll waste it chasing the wrong things. We’ll throw away some, or even a lot, by refusing to take the time to ask ourselves what’s actually important to us.
Some say age is just a number. Some get vast amounts of anxiety and break down when it’s mentioned. Some people find age important enough to lie about it; women might try to be perceived as younger, while ambitious young men might feel as if they are taken more seriously if they are perceived as older.
If you find yourself rushed or uttering the words “I just don’t have enough time,” as SO many of us do SO very often – stop and take a second. Is this true? Or have you just said yes to – and spent time and resources on – a lot of unnecessary things? Are you efficient? Or have you assumed a great deal of waste into your life? Some statistics say that the average American spends about forty hours a year in traffic. Plenty of people spend a couple of hours a DAY in traffic. If we count the lower amount for forty years, say between the age of twenty and sixty, that’s 40×40=1600 hours. 1600 hours equals about 67 whole days or 200 workdays if they’re 8 hours each.
Is that necessary?
What’s that time worth for you?
That kind of counting is worth doing for plenty of things. See how much time you spend fighting with others, watching television, daydreaming, having anxiety, or doing other things you don’t value highly enough to want to spend time doing.
Your life is plenty long if you know how to use it properly.
Most people don’t. I can’t either, so I can’t tell you how to live. I’m not all-knowing enough. But I can reason about it, and I can tell you that I sure do try to figure it out myself and do my best to do what’s truly valuable. I try to be very aware of the fact that it’s finite and there’s no point in wasting big chunks doing meaningless things I don’t like. People seem to waste the life they’ve been given only to open their eyes when it is too late. THAT’S when they try to compensate for that waste by doing all sorts of things. Often in vain. Suddenly it’s worth anything to add time to their lifespan. Rich people and those who obsess about health spend vast amounts trying to move the expiration date forward. Ideally forever. But that’s not very likely to succeed – and the time we manage to survive doesn’t really matter if we keep wasting it. If we get twice our life span but still waste it, that’ll be the same thing… just twice as long. We didn’t get more meaning.
What does matter ought to be what that time is composed of, what it includes, and what happens while we’re at it.
Use every day.
Make yourself satisfied with what you have been given.
“This is the mark of perfection of character –
to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.69
The Stoics didn’t think that anyone could be perfect. I don’t think anyone can be perfect. I hope you don’t believe you – or anyone else – can be perfect.
If you do, I hope you can relearn because that’s a delusion.
The idea of becoming a “sage” or “the highest aspiration of a philosopher” isn’t, and wasn’t, realistic. It’s an ideal and something to aim for. Goal-setting and going for the stars – to get as far as you can… but perhaps not all the way.
They started every day by hoping and striving to get a little closer to that mark, just as you should. You ought to try and try again to get forward, but without expecting perfection. If the expectations are too high, there will be disappointment.
There’s plenty to gain just by trying. How would you live if today was your last day? What if it could be your last but wasn’t, necessarily? What if you had a week, a month, or a year? The answers would likely differ as the time did. That’s the tricky part. You don’t know.
Would you keep saving hysterically if you got closer to the end of the road? What would you change? Would you do something else entirely because what you’re doing isn’t worth spending a decent chunk of your more-or-less-soon ending life?
Is it possible to achieve perfection?
Is it possible to effortlessly do the right thing twenty-four hours per day?
Is it possible for more than a minute?
I doubt the first is possible. The second is unlikely. The third might not even be especially easy… But we could try a decent amount. Not hysterically, but… decently. If trying was enough for the ancient Stoics – and many others who manage to achieve significant things in life today – trying should be enough for us too.
I have yet to hear about a burned-out ancient Stoic, even though they seemed to try hard. Their trying to be good, better, and do what they can wasn’t as it is today. What are we doing differently? Where is the difference in workload and responsibility? Do what you can with the resources you have, but you can’t spend more than those. Don’t expect perfection.
To apply this practically rather than just theoretically, we could use similar exercises as when I reflect on values with people.
One could be summarized like this:
“You’ve got 24 hours left to live. What are you going to do with it?”
The same thing could be questioned with a week, month or year.
Perhaps you should reflect on that and live closer to those answers.
You don’t know if you have more than 24 hours from now.
“You are afraid of dying. But, come now, how is this life of yours anything but death?”
– Seneca, Moral Letters, 77.18
At one point, Seneca tells a story about an extremely wealthy Roman. The standard was to be carried around by slaves, like the Persian leader in the movie 300, Xerxes. (Perhaps not a throne as big as the one Xerxes had, but nonetheless.) Seneca says that on one occasion, after being lifted out of a bath, the Roman asked, “Am I sitting down yet?”
Seneca’s point? What kind of sad, pathetic life do you live if you’re so disconnected from the world that you don’t even know whether you’re on the ground or not? Did the man know if he was alive at all? A lot of people are afraid of dying. But… Why? To protect what? Think about it. If you’re afraid of dying, that ought to be for a good reason. It’s worth fearing death if you’ve got a life worth living where you’re doing something with a greater purpose. You ought to fear life because “then I won’t be able to do this“. For a lot of people, the “this” is hours of television, gossiping, shopping, wasting potential, wishing for a change but never doing anything about it, dreaming of doing this or that without ever doing it, reporting to a boring job, and on and on and on… Is that really a life? Is that worth clinging to? Is that worth being afraid of losing? That’s up to you.
Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”
– Marcus Aurelius