When was the last time you contemplated your mortality?
I recently spent a weekend spent participating in a series of rituals designed to force a personal confrontation with the reality of one’s inevitable death.
I’d been inspired by a Buddhist practice called Maraṇasati, one approach of which involves a gruesome visualization and contemplation of nine stages of corpse decomposition, designed to provoke the realization that “…this body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body”:
- A corpse that is “swollen, blue and festering.”
- A corpse that is “being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to bones, white in color like a conch.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together.”
- A corpse that is “reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust.”
I had no idea what I was in for.
During one exercise, I fixed my attention on infinity. As the black void of time and space enveloped me, I melted into nothingness.
What, exactly, was dissolving? Of what stuff am I constituted? On one level, “I” am a bag of water and other organic and inorganic compounds, made of atoms and quarks, held together by a tightly-woven matrix of skin cells. I am capable of moving through space, of responding to stimulus, of interacting physically with my environment. On another level, I am consciousness – a multi-textured, endlessly flowing stream of emotions, thoughts, sensations, and experiences. On still another, I am suspended in a series of roles and relationships as a romantic partner, brother, employee, citizen. To be human is to be a many-layered being, complex and highly resistant to simplification.
And yet, in that moment all shattered into insignificance. I realized that one day, this state will be permanent. The stream of my subjective experience will simply stop, like water shut off from a tap. The latticework structure of my being will decay and disperse, no longer held together into shape. The relationships that connect and support me will fade – slowly at first, then suddenly into nothing. On the scale of infinity, it will be as if I’d never existed.
Zoom out far enough, and all that is begins to dissolve. Billions of years of evolutionary history: gone. Nations, empires, conquerors: irrelevant. Wealth, institutions, ideas, religions, companies, causes, wars: nullified. Nothing escapes unscathed. Everything moves through endless cycles of death and rebirth, of entropy and negentropy, of decay and renewal.
We have evolved incredibly resilient mental defenses to prevent us from fully reckoning with these realities. The machines of culture and capitalism spin highly sophisticated and elaborate webs to distract us: a $30B+ fitness industry peddles fantasies of eternal youth, a $130B+ religious machine promises an elaborate hereafter, and a $3.6T+ healthcare system sequesters, sterilizes, and euphemizes death’s messy finality. Layer in a massive entertainment, beauty, and distraction industrial complex that’s pathologically fixated on youth, and it’s no wonder we’re unable to cope.
Shivering, I pulled my shawl tighter and gave these cold and bracing thoughts full reign, letting them run rampant through my mind, burning through the latticework of delusion and avoidance I’d created. I was curious to see what remained in the ashes. Would I be left with a diminished will to live? Or perhaps I’d instead be consumed with hedonistic fervor, intent on wringing every last drop of pleasure from my brief and meaningless existence?
Instead, a sense of playfulness and joy welled up within. I was filled with gratitude for the few poignant moments I’d been granted. I wondered why I so often commit to approaching life with a sense of dread and seriousness, why I found myself so easily entangled in fruitless struggle. If all is ultimately for naught, I am free to create my own meaning. Boundless and unfettered creativity can flow onto the blank canvas that remains – I can fill it with laughter, with dance, with love. I can choose a life free of fear, of curiosity, suffused with gratitude and connectedness. Momentary pain and challenge and difficulty and heartbreak will be present too, but they cannot destroy me.
I am already undone.