This essay is an excerpt from The Way of The Karma Yogi , my new book.
The ultimate truth that we all humans face — whether we are rich or poor, successful or struggling, religious or spiritual — is that we all have a finite life span and we all are eventually going to die. We need constant reminders so that we don’t ignore this truth and pretend it’s not true. Our ego likes distancing itself from anything that reminds us of this stark reality as it goes against the comfortable narrative that we have built for ourselves. We are going to die, that’s a fact of life, but we are scared of looking that truth in the eye, meditate and spend time on it. Although it’s a reminder of our own destruction, we need to keep the end in our mind and face this truth head on.
The literal English translation of ‘Memento Mori’ is: “Remember you must die.” It’s the ancient practice of reflection on the impermanence of life and mortality, going back to Socrates. In Plato’s Phaedo, he says, “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” The point of the exercises and reminders that reflect Memento Mori isn’t to spread fear and to be morbid, but it’s to inspire, and cultivate intrinsic motivation and clarity.
Throughout history, Memento Mori reminders have come in many forms. For instance, the Stoics used Memento Mori to invigorate life and bring meaning and prioritization to life. They believed that each day is a gift given to them, and reminded themselves repeatedly not to waste any time during the day on the trivial and futile. Seneca urged in his Moral Letters to Lucilius, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
As difficult it may be to expect and accept you are going to die, it’s certain. So, constantly keep Memento Mori in your consciousness (use a reminder if need be). Don’t waste time on trivial things and pointless endeavors. It’s not worth it. Instead spend your precious time on noble goals and worthwhile pursuits. Don’t take the time that you’ve been given for granted; make a good use of it.