Edition 52 May 2023
“Never forget that you must die...that death will come sooner than you expect. The letters of death have been written upon your hands. On each of your palms, you will find the letter ‘M’. Together they mean memento mori. Remember, you must die.”
Research shows that when we are reminded that a pleasurable experience will soon come to an end, we feel more grateful for the time we have left and make better decisions and take more actions to make the most of it.
When it comes to situations that have a definite expiration date, reminding ourselves that they won’t last can spur us to engage in the experience more fully...to stay present and feel thankful, really savoring each moment we have left. It is of memento mori that I wish to talk with you today.
Memento mori is a philosophical reminder of the inevitable nature of death. In Latin, the words translate to...
remember that you will die
It is also a sobering reminder of the finite nature of life. The term arose from the minds of some of the great thinkers and philosophers over the centuries. These great men and women had a deep and driving desire to understand the intricacies of human life, as well the inevitable final chapter that we must all eventually experience!
I have gathered together a few of these deep thinkers quotes to share with you...
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
“If death causes you no pain when you are dead, it’s foolish to allow the fear of it to cause you pain now.” Epicurus
“Death: There’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing that comes before it – the fear of it.” Seneca
The power of memento mori was also captured by a number of Roman military generals and leaders upon their return from battle...always an extravagant and glorified event.
Captured enemy combatants, exotic plants and wild animals, brought back from the conquered territories, were paraded through the streets of Rome. As musicians played, the successful general, standing proudly and defiantly in his chariot, rode ahead of this menagerie...waving to the cheering and adoring crowds. Always standing in the chariot beside the general would be an aide, whose job it was to whisper repeatedly into his ear...
“Remember...you are mortal.”
Although we may not be returning from triumphant battles or riding chariots through the streets, the power and value of memento mori in our own lives is quite evident and easily seen.
While it might appear morbid on the surface, it is anything but. Remembering that each of us must and will die is the perfect antidote to the unending poisons of modern culture...
You and I will eventually leave this world. But such will be the fate of everyone else too...including our close friends, loved ones and family. Keeping this at the forefront of our thinking, rather than daydreaming our way through life, is the most effective way to find and experience true appreciation, joy, peace and love for everything that is here now...
but will be gone tomorrow
There are many cultural traditions, all around the globe, that have honored and even glorified death. Death is seen as merely a transition from this world to the next...from our human form, back to our spiritual form.
Many older spiritual traditions see death as liberation. In Sufism for example, there is a popular quote...
“People are asleep and when they die, they are awakened.”
When my children were small, their mother and I, while watching them play, would often remark to each other...
“They’ll never be as young and small as they are right now.”
It was a sobering reminder for me that my children were in a special phase of life...one that would pass sooner than I was able to fathom. And although they might drive me crazy at times, one day in the not-too-distant future, their tiny footfalls were going to disappear and leave the house empty and quiet. Though I cannot speak for their mother, for me it helped me to savor and cherish what truly precious little time I had with them.
In his song, The Art of Dying, George Harrison wrote perhaps the perfect lyrics to explain memento mori...
There will come a time when all of us must leave here Then nothing Mother Mary can do Will keep me here with you As nothing in this life that I've been trying Could equal or surpass the art of dying Do you believe me?
There will come a time when all your hopes are fading When things that seemed so very plain Become an awful pain Searching for the truth among the lying And answered when you've learned the art of dying
There will come a time when most of us return here Brought back by our desire to be A perfect entity Living through a million years of crying Until we've realized the art of dying
If you want it Then you must find it But when you have it There'll be no need for it
As much as we practice the art of living, we should not fail to also learn the art of dying. The practice of memento mori...of remembering that all things pass and that we will all die, can make us more grateful for each additional day and moment we get.
The spiritual exercise of memento mori has perhaps fallen furthest from popularity and common usage than any other spiritual practice. This is why I considered it to be an important exercise for you to know about and learn today, and why I wrote extensively about it in my soon-to-be-released next book, TRUST IN THE PROCESS...BELIEVE IN THE OUTCOME.
Memento mori is a meditative exercise meant to remind us that all the things of this world age. That all things pass. That all things die...
current trends and fashions
the reputations we build
the wealth we amass
the families we create
These things should not become our primary focus. These things can be swept away in a moment. Instead, our central aim should be to discover the divine part of ourselves...our soul, and to learn to separate it from our body and worldly attachments.
In so doing, we become less like animals and more like gods
One way to free ourselves from the body is to remind ourselves that the body is simply a vehicle...one destined for the scrapheap. We must stop letting ourselves be distracted by it.
Pay attention to how time passes, as do all things and all people. When you see or hear on the news of the passing of yet another one of your childhood heroes or idols, let this serve as an antidote against any excessive vanity you may think appropriate over your achievements, or self-loathing over your failures.
Remember in your own hour of glory you too are destined for the dust!
Conventional values teach us to fear death...to hate it. It is seen as an intrusion, of a most savage nature, into our carefully ordered plans. But the enlightened person...the man or woman who has learned the art of dying, sees through those conventional values and accepts death as a part of the ebb and flow of nature.
We must not look down on nor deride death...but welcome it. It too is one of the things required of us by Nature. Not unlike our youth, that transitions into our old age, it is growth and maturity.
Keeping death in mind is a way of freeing ourselves from fear of losing our worldly possessions, including our body. It has a way of cultivating inner freedom...
of releasing ourselves from bondage to the world
I remind myself daily that I will die soon (perhaps even tonight in my sleep or tomorrow sitting at my desk). Whatever fame I’ve managed to achieve will disappear. The world at large will soon forget me. Only those who I have managed to love, and those who have managed to return it, will know I existed. Life comes and goes in a brief instant. So why not enjoy it as the gift that it is, without imposing your own demands or expectations on it?
This is not to say that I don’t still fear death. I do! I have periodic bouts of doubt, dread and anxiety. But I always return to my practice of prayer, meditation and conscious breathing. These three simple disciplines never fail me. They always put things back into perspective.
Whether walking through the meadows of Terra d’Amore or kneeling beside my bed, a gentle prayer will almost always make my fear immediately dissipate. When it disappears, I am left with a stronger sense of the sheer joy and wonder in my human existence.
I have a simple memento mori practice...
On a piece of paper that I have attached to the inside of my refrigerator, I have printed the phrase...
Memento Mori...remember your death
I see it each time I open the door to get food out.
I have the same reminder posted in my writing room as well as my exercise room. I even have one tacked up out in the barn. It is my way, subtle as it is, of keeping a visual reminder of my death in plain sight. It encourages me not to “forget” my death. And it even motivates me to spontaneously meditate upon it.
It isn’t about being depressed or miserable. It is not about living in fear. Rather, it is very much about meditating on the finite qualities of life. It is about living with intention...
If I must die, how then should I live?
Should I spend my time loving people or hating them?
What must I consciously intend to forget in order to free myself from sadness?
To whom do I owe a phone call or a letter?
Who do I need to forgive?
From whom do I need to seek forgiveness?
What have I been wanting to do but have been too afraid?
...it means living in reality.
Knowing that we will one day leave this earth (and so will those we love) we should cherish each and every moment that we get to spend with them.