Why and How to Remind Yourself of Death Every Day
What we can learn from Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness
Irritated with the lack of progress in my life a few months back, I wanted to get back on track. I’d not been meeting my friends for a long time. The next day one of my friends called me for some work and suggested we should go to the gym together.
One thing led to the other, and we had a time and place decided. When the day came, I took my car keys, ready to pick him up and head to the gym.
In New Delhi, it was the election season. Rallies of political leaders along with an army of vehicles of all types were not uncommon. The traffic was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
I was stuck for thirty minutes in what was supposed to be a five-minute ride. I called my friend to meet at a different spot and snuck out of the traffic after spotting space between a broken road divider.
Since we were getting late, I was in a hurry. I picked up my friend and had a U-turn in front of me. Yet, from the other end, a huge public bus filled with army soldiers was coming at a speed of at least 80km/hr.
As my signal was green, I took my turn slowly without hesitation, thinking other people ought to follow the rules on their side.
Yet, the bus driver came cruising full speed. My friend warned me to not take the turn, but it was too late.
My heart came in my mouth. The bus would’ve surely hit us if the drive had applied the breaks even a second late. He managed to stop a few feet behind us.
The driver, flowing with rage with a face as red as a tomato, came toward me and held my arm ready to twist it until I scream with pain. Soldiers stepped down from the truck with big-ass guns on their shoulders.
I knew I didn’t do anything wrong and I was calm. I’d only lowered the glass, and didn’t get out of the car because I wanted to escape the scene as fast as possible.
Luckily, the soldiers sorted the matter and let us go. As their guns went back into the bus, I felt relief.
Yet, I couldn’t speak for the next fifteen minutes. The fact that we were almost killed rang loud in my ears. My friend was praising me for my calmness yet, I was in a minor shock.
This was the first near-death experience or at least one I can remember (As a young kid, I’ve cracked my head at least four times with lots of stitches). And it has changed how I think about life and death.
I’ve been a reader and practitioner of many Stoic principles. My interest in philosophy was piqued when I heard about it from the likes of Tim Ferris, Ryan Holiday, and Robert Greene.
Memento Mori (“Remember Death”) was the most interesting concept I’d come across. I could see how remembering my own mortality would help me strive for things in life that I wouldn’t otherwise go for.
It made taking risks less intimidating. It helped me take the searchlights off of fame, success, and material gain to truly focus on what’s important in life.
Yet, I didn’t completely appreciate the concept until I had a near-death experience.
Most of us are uncomfortable with death. As a kid, I was often afraid of going to sleep alone because I feared not waking up. Yes, I thought about dark stuff.
Anyway, the reason people forget this today is that death is more or less absent from our lives. Yes, people do die around us, but not like they used to.
You don’t see people killed. You don’t see them dying with terminal illness regularly. You don’t have near-death experiences every day.
Our ancestors, on the other hand, had such experiences much more regularly than us. Plagues used to wipe out millions of people. War ruined millions of households. Death was an accepted and anticipated fate of life.
Death is a morbid, uncomfortable truth of life. People would go far to preserve themselves. But if you can come to terms with it, you can lessen the hold it has on you.
You can then use that freedom to live a life of purpose and passion knowing that your day will come and you have little time left on this planet.
Seneca makes the perfect argument in [On Shortness of Life](https://www.amazon.com/Shortness-Life-Penguin-Great-Ideas-ebook/dp/B00BCU07LO). He says that life isn’t really short. It’s just that we waste much of it on the non-essential.
Think about how many parties you could’ve avoided, and how many time-sucking friends you could’ve cut out. When you remove everything that doesn’t add value to your life — material possessions and relationships — you can finally find that life is long if lived correctly.
Here’s why death plays such an important role in the Stoic philosophy and our lives:
Death gives everything its value.
Time isn’t unlimited. This life is a lease, you don’t own it. If time was an endless supply, we all could procrastinate forever and not feel bad about it. But it doesn’t work that way.
When you’re binging on Netflix, scrolling social media, or watching pornography, you should remind yourself of the paucity of time. It flies faster than we like it to until one day you don’t have any left.
If you can use death to realize the value of time, you can solve most productivity problems people deal with.
Death makes you realize your body and soul are different.
Death, in other words, is the death of the ego. The soul is deathless and ageless.
Once you understand this simple phenomenon, you can start to look out for things that satisfy your soul. People spend their lives chasing material success, fame, sex, money, prestige, etc only to realize they can’t take it with them. You don’t have to.
Death makes you fearless.
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason to not follow your heart” — Steve Jobs
When most people think about death, their reaction is this — “If we’re all going to die and none of this matters, why do anything?”
Yet, they don’t ask the opposite question — “If we’re all going to die, what reason is there to not do anything?” This is what actually happens with survivors of terminal illness for example — they emerge with a new zeal to live life and contribute to the world.
They don’t come out thinking “I’ll die one day so why not smoke pot all day and rest on the couch”
Death reminds you to be grateful.
Ryan Holiday talks about how he decided to reply to his friend on Monday instead of Friday since he was too busy. By then, his friend had already passed away in his sleep.
Being mindful of death can help you avoid that. When my mother comes up to ask for a favor, instead of telling her I’m way too busy, I do whatever she says to cherish these moments. For who knows how many are left?
Death helps me to push harder but it also allows me to leave my work when the people close to me need me. It provides a sweet balance to life because you realize what truly matters.
How to Actually Remind Yourself of Death Every Day
All of this doesn’t matter if you don’t remind yourself of death every day. It’s not something you think of on the weekend and then forget about it.
And so, here are a few ways that ensure the thought of death does not leave my psyche.
There’s an app for everything. And there’s an app for reminding you about death.
According to the creator of WeCroak, regular contemplation of mortality helps people “spur needed change, accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter, and honor things that do.”
It sends five notifications a day at random times all about your death. It urges you to meditate and contemplate for a couple of minutes about your death every time a notification arrives.
Screenshot by author
Similarly, if you’re not convinced that this will work, Death Clock will ask you a set of questions to determine your death date. While this can sound cheesy, you can also just do simple math like Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox, who swears by the number 30,000. He believes he has 30,000 days to live and realizing that he probably has spent a lot of it already is a great reminder.
Death Salons and Cafes
Perhaps death enthusiasts can rejoice at the thought of Death Salon where they “hold events that bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art.” They host gatherings in cities worldwide.
Similarly, there are death cafes you can visit to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death with strangers.
Their objective is to “increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Carrying Death Reminders
There are various reminders that modern stoics use to keep the thought of death in their minds. Some of them include medallions, mourning rings, and morbid art pieces.
I myself have one above my desk:
Photo by author
The main reason this works is you can always have something reminding you. Unlike app notifications, you play with a medallion or a ring and stare at a painting to let the thought of death enter your mind.
Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme — Buddha
While I love the mourning ring, there’s something about it and all the other methods that don’t seem complete and moving.
The reason is that they don’t provide a deeper experience. When it comes to thinking about death, intellectual pondering and contemplation aren’t enough. You need something more than that.
It’s like a quote that you paste on a wall. The first week is exciting and the quote motivates you. But slowly, it can lose meaning and you can get habitual to it.
The best way to solve this problem is to schedule a block of time daily to think about death. And not just think, meditate upon it.
A simple 10-minute routine can help with that. Sit down, close your eyes, and relax with a few deep breaths.
Picture the best story of your death — the age, the bed you’re laying on, and the reason for your death. You’ve told your loved ones that you care about them. You’ve let go of all resentment against anyone and have asked forgiveness from others.
You’ve sorted all financial matters in your family and you’ve given a part of your wealth for the causes you care about. There are no worries, only a sense of relief from your possessions.
Your body is weak, there’s no strength for moving your arms or legs. You realize that it’s the body — and you’re not the body. You feel your consciousness withdraw from the five senses.
Then imagine yourself being buried. Put inside a coffin, people throwing sand on top. See the world from inside the coffin and deepen the sense of your impermanence.
This is how you can make death seem real. To realize that it will come and what it could be like. To help yourself, you can find guided death meditations. Here are a few.
Practices like these are crucial to unlocking the true power of Memento Mori. It also helps you realize that nothing, including you, matters. It’s all dust. Compare the size of the universe with the size of the earth. And on this earth is you — worrying about your problems and making your life miserable.
The Bhutanese say,
“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”
In their culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan.
They know that death is a natural part of life and ignoring it comes at a huge psychological cost.
As I edit this article, one of my friends from college passed away. He was my age and fell from the stairs, banging his head on the floor.
Think about it. When death comes, it can come in the simplest of forms. Falling from the stairs may only break the ankle for some people, but for him, it was a matter of life and death.
No matter how old you are, don’t make the mistake of thinking you have a long time to live.
Don’t wait to have a near-death experience. Accept it, embrace it, and live without regrets.
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