Why Meditating on Our Mortality Makes Us More Alive
Forget causality. Forget deserved. Forget sin and karma.
I mean, if we really want to pick any of those back up — we can do that. But for now, let’s just imagine not asking ourselves why bad things happen to people. Especially the good ones we love. (How could we love them if they weren’t good?)
Put religion down — momentarily. Deities aside, there is one unifying response we humans have to death and pain and suffering:
This happened without my knowledge or consent; this terrible thing that’s happened is out of my control.
And this makes us mad. And sad. And anxious and scared. All at the same time.
And those who love us, who are concerned about the depths of our grief, get sad and sometimes mad (at least frustrated) when we don’t accept what’s happened or heal fast enough or in the right way.
Death and pain and suffering bring out the pain and suffering in others. It’s empathy at its damned finest.
Yet, death and pain and suffering bring out beautiful things that we tend to overlook: Truth and wisdom. Take W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
That the world should stop its spin around the sun … but that it doesn’t… is a raw emotional truth Auden used to create an incredibly powerful poem.
Simply: In our desolation, how dare the world go on?
Stoicism over Nihilism
If we believe that life is ultimately meaningless — nihilism — what’s the point of, well, anything? Considering this possibility does not make us immoral. It’s part of trying to rationalize what happens to us that is outside our control.
I suppose nihilists can be fun people, although I can’t imagine partying with them.
Stoics, on the other hand, recognize that shit happens. Really bad stuff. And they remind themselves that things change, that today they have shelter and food, family and friends, but not necessarily tomorrow. That today they chose to walk outside to listen to birdsong but tomorrow, they may be imprisoned, infirmed, or mourning beside the corpse of a loved one.
Stoics do not dwell on when the other shoe will drop. They just know that it will (someday) and that reminder helps them stay in the moment of what’s happening now and being grateful for it.
Here’s OK Go expressing stoicism through art, poetry, song and movement:
A Little Stoicism for the 21st Century
Stoicism is not a religion. It can be practiced with or without one. Stoicism is a mindset, a personal philosophy that works through actions and practice. Some principles as relevant today as they were in third century BC:
Differentiate between what you can change and what you can’t. What you have influence over and what you do not. It’s a workout for your mind, arguably more important than workouts at the gym and feeding your body fresh, healthy foods.
Practice what you fear. Seneca advised: Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?” Practice what you fear, whether a simulation in your mind or in real life.
Choose to not stay stuck on “I’ve been harmed.” Recognize that you will feel anger, sadness, and grief when bad things happen. You can choose to replace your first impression (‘X happened.’ –> ‘X happened and now my life is over.’). If you can find the dispassion toward how the harm makes you feel, you’ll find opportunity.
Remember how small you are. How small we all are. If everything is ephemeral, what matters? Right now matters. Being a good person and doing the right thing right now, that’s what matters and that’s what was important to the Stoics.
Meditate on your own mortality. These are the building blocks of living your life to the fullest and not wasting a second. In fact, one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day.
Journal. Write down or voice record your daily experiences and reflect on those. After his wife had gone asleep, Seneca explained to a friend, “I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” Then he could find that “the sleep which follows this self-examination” was particularly sweet.
Imagine, but don’t stay stuck in, the worst case scenario. The premeditatio malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”) is a Stoic exercise to imagine things that could go wrong or be taken away from us. This principle, in particular, seems the most contrary to our western culture’s obsession with positive thinking.
Try to love or find love in everything that happens. This, amor fati, a love of fate, is the Stoic mindset. To make the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment — no matter how challenging — as something to be embraced, not avoided.
The Struggling Stoic
It’s me. I’m not “good” at it because old habits of fairness, being deserving and delusional, magical thinking that I have more control over life than I do get in my way. But I’ve been practicing, sometimes in earnest, sometimes half-assed, since I read The Antidote and then interviewed Oliver Burkeman about six years ago.
Here’s my take on it — and why stoicism is worth embracing:
- It’s hard work. Especially to conjure worst case scenarios — at first — but I end up worrying and fearing these scenarios significantly less.
- I no longer fear death as I did. Maybe that comes with getting older, but I not only admit but remind myself that there’s nothing I can do, ultimately, to stop death. (I have no interest in developing more neuroses, disease or despair.)
- The urge to “help,” to intervene in others’ lives, to try to save people and fix situations has abated, but not disappeared. When I do step back or out of the picture, altogether, I see that things don’t get worse and many times improve — without my unsolicited assistance.
- Unhelpful responses to rejection (Why don’t they like me? That was a good piece of writing! Why don’t they want it?) including hurt, sarcasm, and jealousy are fewer and farther between my disappointments.
- I find myself more present in the moment, even the chaotic ones, the disagreements, and the ones where I am most anxious or scared. I can’t explain the result, but it’s something close to confidence… to knowing that I’m entitled to be here and so is everyone else.
- Choosing not to stay stuck in the I was harmed mindset is crazy hard. But that’s where the amor fati principle comes into play: making the best/finding love in everything.
- Practicing what I fear helps me remember my strength. It’s little things like traveling alone, being uncomfortable, going without a meal, or choosing to pass on buying, imbibing, or indulging that helps me remember not to depend on things as necessities. And not to take people’s kindness for granted.
All the people, places, and things could be gone tomorrow. I could be gone tomorrow. What to do, when no one can stop the entropy?
Maybe sing and play more often:
There is nothing more lovely
There’s nothing more profound
Than the certainty
Than the certainty
That all of this will end
That all of this will end
So open your arms to me
Open your arms to me — OK Go, The One Moment