Medicine for LIFE!

“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 DEATHmatters!

Startling as it may sound, the above statement underlies the life mission of DEATHmatters:

  • To make available in 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 invigorating but bitter medicine kills the ego like no other remedy and thus 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 transcending mortality.

Though we make no apologies for this attack on the last taboo, we should explain what is intended – for we are the very opposite of morbid death-glorifiers.

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, death meditations were common practice in many world religions.

But we here – writer and presumably reader – are neither death-contemplating monks nor near-death survivors, and we fool ourselves if we presume to understand and accept our mortality. Our presumed understanding and acceptance is but a superficial assumption of what mortality is and what our death will mean for us. We are able to make this naive assumption because we’ve often seen real or simulated death on television; because someone in the family has died; or because anyone can deduce that what happens to everyone else will eventually happen to them. In fact we like to assume death awareness and acceptance, since the illusion of knowing lets us be done with the unpleasant matter; it justifies not looking closer and ruining our appetite.

No – this superficial awareness which most everyone glibly claims to possess is not what we’re talking about, for it is but the awareness of a well-fed, safely-housed dandy who fantasizes how starving or freezing or being tortured would feel. Even if the imagination is accurate, it remains theoretical, resting impotently on the most superficial level of our being – which is just where we like to keep it, safely banned – but for that reason also ineffective to help us.

No – the mortality awareness I’m talking about penetrates deep and transforms one’s life. And even if we wanted it, desire is not sufficient, for mortality awareness is an elusive life-skill which must be learned consciously. It is so elusive firstly because it is so unpleasant to our ego, and secondly because death is only normally experienced in one mode of being at a time, physically, emotionally or intellectually.

Life-transforming awareness of mortality only comes when the reality of death is experienced physically, emotionally and intellectuallyall at the same time, and again and again. This full experience gives it immediate, emotionally-penetrating and persisting reality. Experienced like this, it is 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 to us has died, for a while we truly feel in our hearts the tragic consequences of our common mortality. But we then avoid the all-important rational step of impressing upon ourselves and each other that this tragedy will also be our fate, and the fate of everyone we love.

It is said that in certain ancient societies the morally correct way of behaving when someone died was to spend many days collectively and mutually impressing upon each other the inevitability of everyone present also dying, as the deceased had. A far cry from today’s sentimental treatment of tragedy, the ancients’ behavior courageously used the inescapable tragedy to help the living better appreciate the gift of their own life. The deceased was in any case dead – nothing to be done – so the resulting sadness was exploited for the good of the still-living. It may sound harsh, but it is actually healthier and more pragmatic than our utterly useless sentimentality – as if condolences truly make any survivor feel better when their loved one has been wrenched away forever!

By not taking the rational but painful step of consciously contemplating our own mortality when someone else dies, we act little differently from animals, even the higher animals. Wolves, elephants, dolphins etc clearly also feel the tragedy of death and 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 and everyone else’s, that death will take them too. And thus they cannot exploit this tragedy for the benefit of their remaining life.

When we forget this intellectual effort – or deliberately avoid it as we do so well 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 funeral director’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 purely theoretical.

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 was at least only ever witnessed in the flesh, with real blood and cries of pain and personal loss – it could not appear “trivial” or abstract, as it does to us today.

Physical awareness of one’s mortality – the aging of our own body.

Lastly, we must sense death’s presence and or at least its approach also physically. Physical awareness of our mortality should be the easiest because the body provides us with plentiful signs of its gradual but inexorable demise – increasing aches and pains, puffing breath, a generally deteriorating body and mind.

But instead of undestanding and using these as signs of the arriving end of our body, we pretend they are anomalies or exceptions, which a good specialist, the passing of time or some good luck will take away. (The cosmetic, pharmaceutical and even the health care industries help us continue this pretense to their financial 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 aging.

Constant awareness of our Mortality

As we reach a more direct awareness of mortality, we also need to make constant. We should sense the mortality of ourselves and others whenever our mind thinks of, or our glance falls on  another person or ourselves. We need to almost literally see the mortality of those around us. We must become mortals again in the ancient sense of the word. (It would be an excellent sign of changing attitudes if this word became popular again – because 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 simply go mad or kill ourselves.  But slowly integrated, it transforms life, making one a kinder, more loving and more appreciative person.

Take your medicine – at your own risk.

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 can work miracles for our compassion, our humanity. As we realize the mortality of everyone, other problems and conflicts with others disappear of their own accord. What importance can they have in comparison with death, the end of them all!

To begin to fight the ignorance in yourself with regard to your mortality, we suggest that you reread the above DEATHmatters mission statement carefully. And visit the site regularly – because you’ll not easily find much to remind you of your mortality in the streets of your city. Death has become astonishingly invisible in our world – we are masters at hiding it, even though literally millions of people die each day in our world.

We will make our modest efforts to pass on our insights here. And we invite others to contribute their comments.