On ageing, awakening and extinction. The title, memento mori, (see note below) prompts us to “remember that we will die” – but not to bring fear of dying to our attention in some morbid manner. Our physical end is inevitable. The prompt is for us to learn how to live while we still have time. When we understand how it is to truly live, we can find no reason to fear death. It’s all about learning to live.
A lifetime is so little time
that we die before we
get ready to live.
– John Muir
Since this blog is dedicated to my mother, Miriam, who would have been 104 years old today, I rally myself to write a post in her honour. She had a longer lifetime than most, and spent a great deal of it coming to the understanding that in order to fully live there needs to be a kind of death in every moment – a dying to the past, the future, and their construct of a solid, separate self.
What does it mean to truly live? These wise words from Joan Tollifson look life and death in the eye and are worth sharing. Being fairly advanced in years myself, I can vouch for their accuracy; the similarities between awakening and ageing are apt. Yet everything is here to remind us of what never awakens or ages, because it’s never been asleep or subject to time.
Some writers point to the likely extinction of our species as we plunder the planet that creates and sustains our life. Perhaps so. Where did we get the idea that anything could ever be permanent in a universe of ceaseless motion? Permanence is an impossibility; but that’s not all. Impermanence is an equally fanciful notion. As Joan points out, “a deep understanding of impermanence reveals that there is no impermanence, because no-thing ever forms or persists to BE impermanent.” Bodies will appear and disappear but never leave – where would they go? Death is a gracious messenger; it comes to alert us to its own illusion.
I see aging as a spiritual adventure not unlike awakening – you realize in a very visceral way that there is no future. You are beginning to dissolve. Everything is falling away. Growing old involves loss of control, loss of abilities, loss of independence, loss of self-image, loss of loved ones, loss of everything that has defined you. In the end, it is a total letting go. And at the same time, death is actually moment-to-moment. The bodymind is like a wave on the ocean – inseparable from the ocean, and in that sense, eternal, but never eternal as a single consistent form, which never existed to begin with in this ever-changing movement. The same can be said about the human species, planet earth, and the entire universe.
Whether through climate change or a nuclear war, it seems quite possible that the human race may wipe itself out. Many species are disappearing at a rapid rate in what has been called the sixth mass extinction to occur on planet earth, this one largely human-caused. Perhaps humans throughout history have felt “the end was near,” and certainly many people have lived through periods of war, famine and plague where everyone they knew was wiped out – but in some very unique way, we seem to live in a time when the vulnerability and potential death of the human species is in our face. Would this death be a tragedy or simply another change in the endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of infinite (timeless) unicity? How do we meet these threats of extinction?
When loved ones die, alongside the grief and sorrow of loss, there can also be the immense freedom and discovery of what cannot be lost. A loved one is gone forever, and yet they are right here. Everything is right here! No-thing actually begins or ends. As they say in Buddhism, a deep understanding of impermanence reveals that there is no impermanence, because no-thing ever forms or persists to BE impermanent. There is only the ever-changing, ever-present Here / Now from which nothing stands apart. Our fear of death may be very much like the fear people once had about sailing out to sea and falling off the edge of the earth – a fear based on a misconception about how things actually are.
I began this post with a quote from John Muir. It comes from this stunning video, which is both an an ode to wilderness and an invitation to “get ready to live.” It was filmed in the Scottish Highlands.
More information about John Muir at johnmuirtrust.org
In January 1944 Miriam spent her 31st birthday in a New Zealand maternity ward recovering from the delivery of yours truly – just 48 hours earlier. We always celebrated our birthdays in tandem; my birthday poem for this year is posted on echoes from emptiness blog: on turning seventy three
Memento mori is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember your mortality”, “Remember you must die”, or “Remember you will die”; taken literally it means [In the future] remember to die, since “memento” is a future imperative of the 2nd person, and “mori” is a deponent infinitive. It names a genre of artistic creations that vary widely from one another, but which all share the same purpose: to remind people of their own mortality. The phrase has a tradition in art that dates back to antiquity.
Fiona Hall’s sculpture Out of my Tree, is part of that tradition. Crafted – with her usual meticulousness – from sardine tins, this piece was part of her installation for the 2014 Adelaide Biennial and the 2015 Venice Biennial.