We are dying every day. It might be grim, but it shouldn’t be shocking. Every minute that passes is one you can’t get back. For as long as humans have recorded history, they have made sure to highlight this fundamental truth.
In some of the earliest Buddhist texts the word maraṇasati appears. It translates to “meditation on death.” This concept has become a cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy and theology. One of the seminal works of Tibetan Buddhism is the Book of the Dead.
For ten days I practiced vipassana – Buddha’s ancient meditation technique – by sitting in silence and focusing on my breath. While on a retreat you are supposed to maintain a noble silence, and refrain from speaking or making eye contact with anyone. I would exchange a fleeting smile with the other students as we broke for meals or took breaks from the meditation hall. After the noble silence was lifted I began speaking to an elderly man who had been a part of my class. I asked him why he had come to the center. He looked me in the eyes and softly said, “I want to die with a smile on my face.”
In his most famous dialogue, Phaedo (On the Soul), Plato depicts the death of Socrates. In this essay Plato discusses the essence of leading a good life. He tells us that philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” Plato’s writings have influenced every subsequent school of western philosophy.
“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.”—Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
The term memento mori began to appear during the late 16th century, it translates from Latin as “remember to die.” During the Renaissance it was common for great thinkers to keep skulls on their desks. This memento mori was a reminder that the hourglass of their lives never stopped running. Memento mori is the practice of reflecting on your mortality, and focusing yourself. It is a reminder to think about your life, work, and relationships. Death is the greatest motivator we have.
I created a browser extension to act as my own memento mori. You can get it for chrome here (it’s free). Every time you open a new tab on your desktop you will get a reminder of your mortality. I hope you’ll pause and consider how you’re spending your limited time.
Check it out, and make the most out of your life.