“The best medicine for living peacefully and thankfully in a trying world is a DIRECT and CONSTANT awareness of one’s own mortality and that of everyone around one. This awareness is also the necessary first step on the path to transcending death”.
Bold visitor to DEATH*MATTERS!
Startling as it may sound, the above statement underlies the life mission of DEATH*MATTERS:
- To make available in classical and contemporary forms that age-old medicine known as “a direct and constant awareness of the inescapable mortality of oneself and every one around one”. This bitter but invigorating tonic kills the ego like no other medicine and helps us appreciate our fragile lives and live in greater harmony with our equally mortal fellow humans.
- To provide access to artistic and spiritual resources which can help us – each person in his/her own way – to work towards making an allay of our inevitable physical death and working towards eternal life.
Though we make no apologies for this frontal attack on society’s greatest taboo, let it be clear that our intention is the very opposite of morbid death-glorification.
DIRECT awareness of mortality
Though easy to talk about, a direct awareness of mortality is extremely, almost impossibly elusive…. Perhaps only those surviving a near-death experience have truly understood and can testify to the therapeutic power of this experience; for this reason, conscious death meditations have always been common practice in all true religion.
But we here – writer and reader – are likely neither death-contemplating monks nor near-death survivors, and we fool ourselves if we claim to understand and accept our mortality. This understanding and acceptance is but a superficial assumption of what mortality is and what our death will mean for us. We can make this naive assertion because we’ve often seen real or simulated death on television; because family members have died; or simply because anyone can deduce that what happens to everyone else will eventually happen to them. Indeed, we like to assume our own death awareness and acceptance, since the illusion of knowing lets us be done with the unpleasant matter; it justifies not looking closer and possibly ruining our day.
No… This superficial awareness which everyone glibly claims to possess is not our aim, for it is like the awareness of a well-fed, safely-housed dandy who fantasizes how starving or freezing or being homeless would feel. Even if the imagination is accurate, it remains theoretical, resting conveniently and impotently at the most superficial level of our being – just where we like to keep it, hidden and safely shackled. But for that reason it is also ineffective to help us.
No … The mortality awareness I mean penetrates deep and transforms one’s life. Desire to acquire it is insufficient, for mortality awareness is a highly elusive life-skill, the most difficult of all, to be consciously practised and incorporated into our being. It is so elusive, firstly because it is the single most unpleasant realisation for our ego, secondly because death is only normally experienced in one mode of being at a time (physically, emotionally or intellectually), and lastly, because we live in a death-denying epoch like no other before.
Life-transforming awareness of mortality only comes when the reality of death is experienced physically, emotionally and intellectually – all at the same time, and repeatedly. This full experience gives it immediate, emotionally-penetrating and intellectually persisting reality. Experienced like this, it becomes life-transforming.
Let us proceed by examining the various forms of partial awareness that distract us from the real thing:
Emotional awareness without intellectual understanding – the death of a loved one.
When someone close has died, for a while we truly feel in our hearts the tragic consequences of our common mortality. The person has disappeared, but the bonds we have built continue without any possibility of enjoyment. But at that sad moment, we unfortunately avoid the all-important intellectual step of impressing upon ourselves and other survivors that this tragedy will also be our fate, and the fate of everyone we love. Without one exception.
It is said that in certain ancient societies the morally correct way of behaving when someone died was to spend days collectively and mutually impressing upon one another the inevitability and even imminence of the death of everyone present: all would soon be in the same position as the newly deceased. How shocking, how insensitive this seems to our delicate and sentimental modern treatment of tragedy! But the ancients lived much closer to reality and in greater psychological health: this courageous custom utilized the inescapable tragedy to help the living better appreciate the gift of their own remaining years of life. The deceased was dead and gone, nothing could be done, and so the very real and powerful sadness was exploited for the good of the still-living. It sounds harsh, but is healthier and more pragmatic than our utterly useless and often merely polite sentimentality – as if condolences truly make any survivor feel better when their loved one has been wrenched away forever!
By not taking the painful step of consciously contemplating our own mortality when someone dies, we act little differently from animals, even higher animals. Wolves, elephants, dolphins etc also feel the tragedy of death and visibly mourn when a member of the pack or herd dies. But they cannot reason about the universality of this fate, cannot understand that this will be their fate too. They quickly forget and the loss has no benefit of their remaining life.
When we forget this intellectual effort – or deliberately avoid it as we do so superbly today – we miss out on one of the most therapeutic medicines for life – the deep realization of universal mortality.
Intellectual understanding without emotional awareness – the spectator’s illusion.
A different partial awareness occurs when a person without a personally traumatic experience of death understands with his reason that he will die but without feeling the emotional gravity of the fact, without feeling the tragedy in his heart. The understanding is correct but it does not penetrate, it remains only mental. Observing or hearing about a death in the media for example, or from a neighbour, is an example of this impersonal, abstract awareness.
Anyone in regular impersonal contact with death – the funeral director for example – is vulnerable to this pseudo-awareness of mortality. But the general public today is also increasingly vulnerable due to excessive virtual exposure to death in the media, an exposure without any personal suffering. In the pre-modern world, death would have been mostly experienced in the flesh, seen first-hand, perhaps with real blood and cries of pain, and, given the small social circles, it was more often a personal loss. It could not appear “trivial” or abstract, as it does to us today.
Physical awareness of mortality – the aging of our own body.
Lastly, we must also physically sense death’s presence and or at least its approach. Physical awareness of our mortality should be easy because the body provides us with plentiful signs of its gradual but inexorable demise – wrinkles, increasing aches and pains, puffing breath, decreasing sex drive and even impotence – in short, an evidently deteriorating body and mind.
But instead of understanding and utlizing these signs of the arriving end of our body, we pretend they are temporary anomalies or exceptions, which a good specialist, the passing of time, or a little luck will take away. The cosmetic, pharmaceutical and even the health care industries help us continue this pretense to their benefit.
Such foolish hopes are simply other forms of death denial, mirages of hope. Blinded by their false light, we avoid swallowing the genuinely beneficial, though bitter medicine of mortality awareness through our own first-person aging process.
CONSTANT awareness of our mortality
Awareness of our personal mortality must become not only direct, but also a constant part of everyday life. We should sense the mortality of ourselves and others whenever our mind thinks of, or our glance falls on another person or our own image. We need to almost literally see the mortality of those around us. See that in some decades most will have disappeared, in little more than a mere century, every single person on the planet. We must become mortals again in the ancient sense of the word. (It would be an excellent sign of improving attitudes if this word were to become popular again; it gets right to the point.)
Constant awareness can only come gradually. To realize it too abruptly would devastate the psyche, the world would appear meaningless, and hopelessly tragic, and we would go mad or kill ourselves. But of that there need be no fear, for we are amply protected by our egos and, today, by the incredibly efficient “death-disappearing” customs and procedures of modern society. But slowly integrated, mortality awareness transforms life, making one a kinder, more loving and more appreciative person.
Swallow your medicine!
As the monks knew, mortality awareness is the best medicine for destroying our egoism and sense of superiority (or inferiority). In our mortality we are all equal and all equally nothing, and this knowledge works miracles for our compassion, our patience, our humanity. Infinitely more than any UN human rights statutes or political correctness campaigns. As we realize the greatest problem of all – the common mortality of everyone – other problems and conflicts disappear of their own accord. What importance can they have in comparison with death, which ends them all!
To fight the ignorance in yourself with regard to your mortality, we suggest rereading this DEATHMATTERS mission statement carefully. And visit the site regularly – because you’ll not easily find remindersw of your mortality in the media and in the streets of your city. Death has been made astonishingly invisible in our world – we are masters at hiding it, though literally millions of people die each day in our world.
Here we will make our modest efforts to pass on our own insights.