Friday, May 6, 2022
Thanks to David Kirichenko, a 2022 Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s post.
Understanding your place in the universe is difficult. It requires facing, and then transcending, your deepest concerns, with death as one of our core fears. One day you will die. Everyone you know and love will die. All of us began aging from the day we were born, and death does not wait at the end of life’s road – it is with us throughout life’s journey. With this in mind, death can be a powerful teacher. If we accept and embrace individual mortality, we can empower our consciousness to accept it as a force that drives us.
Our control of the future can feel like vapor when we don’t know what tomorrow may bring. When someone comes close to death, such as with a serious illness, the realization of mortality hits them and the real importance of the future becomes clear. This truth is difficult to comprehend; our borrowed atoms, from the stardust that created us, will be returned to the universe.
In adopting a philosophy of not fearing death, but embracing it, a heightened perspective on life can be obtained. People can learn to better differentiate between what is or isn’t important. We understand our days are numbered; we live with purpose and in the present moment, appreciating each day more. One can safeguard against selfish impulses, live in the moment, and doubt the future less because we know what awaits us at the end. Embracing mortality means living life to the fullest.
From our earliest years, we become aware of the concept of mortality. Just the thought of being separated from family has a psychological impact on our minds. And from then on, that fear never leaves our minds. You cannot cleanse yourself of this thought. Eventually, it returns and influences our thoughts and behavior. Death is the highest reality – it has a definite limit that cannot be exceeded. It is a litmus test for our actions.
Take The Romance of Alexander the Great, a book of legends published in 323 BC which spoke about the Macedonian king’s attempt to find the “water of life,” or fountain of youth, to avoid being mortal. Or China’s first emperor, Ying Zheng, who ordered his subjects to search for a potion that would make him immortal in the 3rd century BC. We are the same; our ways of thinking might be more advanced, but we too are searching for ways to live longer and avoid death.
The awareness of our mortality is our biggest primal fear. As a species, our motivation is to create life and ensure the survival of future generations; consequently, we distance ourselves from death as much as possible.
Our ancestors had an intuitive relationship with death. As hunters, they would kill animals for either food or sacrifice to appease gods in exchange for favorable conditions, such as prolonging the inevitability of death. During plagues, death was present. It was also prevalent without the threat of a plague or illness, as medicine and sanitation had yet to make necessary advances, causing preventable deaths. Graveyards were not outside of cities but had a special place near churches or a city’s center. Being close to death helped humans understand death’s inevitability, and that proximity normalized it.
Modern technology has cordoned off death from our everyday lives. In developed countries, death is relegated to specific places in society: animals are slaughtered in slaughterhouses, people die in hospitals, and cemeteries aren’t prominently featured. Though bombarded with death on television, we are desensitized and remove ourselves from the reality of death, until it becomes an abstract notion.
If we live as though time lasts forever, a delusion made more possible by our modern technologies and societies, we try to escape reality and deny the one inevitability of life — death. Time is our scarcest resource and our most unique and prized possession. Time is everywhere in life yet hidden from sight. The effects are visible as it sets plans in motion while obliterating them simultaneously. Time gives both life to the soul and takes it away, yet we can easily forget its presence.
Many of us are distracted by life’s mundane routines as a consequence of living as though life lasts forever. We fall into a routine and grow to be cautious because we don’t want to take difficult or painful risks. We allow ourselves to become intoxicated and manipulated by politicians, media, culture, and greed. If we are aware of these things and their related implications and impacts on our lives, it will help bring clarity to our minds.
Mortality clears the fog from the mind, strips away false illusions, and renders façades transparent. Through meditating on mortality, one finds an abundance of power and the freedom to live on individual terms with the limited time provided. We search for ways to live well and remain in the moment because we know life is brief. When focused on specific goals, then everyday is filled with purpose and direction.
When meditating on mortality, it’s important to pause during each day to prevent your mind from running all over the place. Tame anxieties. Tell yourself, “Memento mori” or, “remember that you will die,” which is an ancient practice of reflection on mortality dating back to philosophers like Socrates. Contemplate impermanence by understanding that every season in life has a beginning, middle, and end. Learn to embrace loss and let yourself feel what you feel without trying to fix anything.
However, we should not simply play with thoughts of death when it is convenient to us, but should maintain a healthy respect for it. Death is of course a sensitive subject, but it’s also an inescapable part of the human condition. Having a healthy relationship to death means accepting its presence and understanding that nothing is permanent in this life. Mark Twain put it best as he said that, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
One activity that allows you to reflect is talking to someone who is in the latter stages of their life. The days before death are a time for deep reflection. You can absorb life lessons from this person to improve your understanding of what you may regret at the end of your life, and that is likely to be whatever you regret or wish were different today. Therefore, if you regret not having time for your friends or loved ones, you’re most likely going to regret not having time for them in 20 or 30 years. The key difference is that you have the power to change that now.
This awareness can change our relationship with those around us and remind us to cherish every interaction, for each one could be your last. One must recognize that each person is also living their life and deserves a baseline of kindness. Rather than cherishing these interactions for ourselves alone, we can do our best to make small moments worthy of appreciation for those around us too.
This exercise can also be done through visualization. Larry Rosenberg’s Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive suggests that we should imagine ourselves on our deathbed. Now, think about the person you love the most sitting at your bedside and imagine saying goodbye to them forever. This would alter every interaction you would have with that person going forward if this visualization remained in the back of your mind.
However, meditating on your mortality would not be helpful if you missed the core focus, which is using meditation to establish your priorities. Meditating on mortality is a human skill that has been developed throughout history to gain a heightened perspective and create urgency in life while understanding how scarce time is and not to waste it on trivial matters. The daily act of meditating on mortality can guide us to live the life we want.
Knowing that mortality is approaching, you will discover that regretting something you didn’t try exceeds the regret of trying and failing. The sting of failure will fade; the regret of not trying won’t. The thought “I should’ve tried” will haunt us as death approaches.
If we accept mortality, we can live with urgency and a commitment to our life’s purpose with our minds no longer moving in multiple directions. As we learn to be aware of this and not repress it, we can develop a beneficial relationship with this philosophy.
It’s important to ask each day, “if I found out at this moment that my life was going to end, would I have any regrets?” Compare it to going on a hiking trip and preparing everything in a pack, ounces equal pounds. As in life, we should honestly weigh our decisions and actions in relation to mortality and create a list of things to keep because every second counts. We may choose to discard excess or unwanted baggage.
In meditating on mortality, you become fulfilled in knowing that if in this very moment death arrives, you will be prepared on your terms. You will be content with the life you have lived, cherishing, and celebrating every moment of your existence up until that point. Without complaints or regrets, you are at ease and can welcome death.
Until you welcome your mortality, one thing is certain – you have not lived.
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