We’ve just passed a rather subdued Halloween along with the Mexican Day of the Dead and Memorial Day (to remember the soldiers who died in war). But death has been on our minds for most of 2020. As I write this, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 243,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the USA (overwhelming affecting those with underlying conditions such as diabetes or obesity as well as those who are elderly).
When we step outside, we are confronted by a sea of mask-wearing humans, reminding us of the Covid-19 pandemic. People no longer shake hands or touch each other. Bars and restaurants have been shut down. Workplaces have been closed. For months, cities were turned into ghost towns.
Every day, the media announces climbing statistics and more deaths. World leaders are denounced as murderers on social media for not protecting us. Some people are so afraid of getting Covid-19 that they wear their mask even while they are alone in their car. I have personally witnessed one person wearing a World War II-type gas mask and home-made hazmat suit rushing into his apartment after disinfecting his mail and leaving it outside. From the reaction to Covid-19, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that — having never thought about it before — the majority of people have just woken up to their own mortality.
Towards Death And Beyond Death
The spiritual person — the initiate — has always had a particular attitude towards his or her own mortality, however. That is, he or she is aware of it and has always reflected on his or her mortality, viewing life as somewhere between an illusion and preparation for whatever is beyond death (heaven, parinirvana, etc.). Undoubtedly, many esotericists, in particular, have always viewed themselves as somewhat alien to this world.
Reflection on death is can be found in many spiritual traditions. The ancient, tribal shaman underwent a ritual of death and rebirth. The Hindu Tantrika meditated in graveyards (in which, corpses could often be seen). The late samurai manual, the Hagakure, says the following:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
In Christianity, the believer is confronted by the image of Christ crucified on the cross whenever he or she walks into church and, as such, is confronted with his or her own mortality. During the time of the Black Death (which killed 75-200 million people in Europe and Asia), the memento mori (reflection on death and how to die well) became popular in Christian Europe. A few years ago this practice was revived by the Catholic nun Theresa Aletheia Noble FSP. In her book Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things, she says the following:
As Christians, we must pray with and meditate on death and the afterlife. Many suggest it is old fashioned or unnecessary, but meditation on the Last Things is vital to the Christian life.Theresa Aletheia Noble FSP. In her book Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things.
In Freemasonry, too, the initiate reflects on his own mortality, sometimes in a chamber of reflection (where a skull and crossbones are placed, and where (in some jurisdictions), the candidate must write out his will, to think seriously about his mortality), and within the ritual process as a whole. The Freemason is one who faces his death head-on and, as a result, works to improve his life, his character, and, in particular, his spiritual condition, readying himself for that “house not made with human hands.” Although the Masonic ritual differs across jurisdiction, and at different times, in the 19th century General Ahiman Rezon And Freemason’s Guide, we read the following:
Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down.Daniel Sickels, General Ahiman Rezon And Freemason’s Guide, 1869.
The spiritual person, the initiate, is conscious that he or she is heading towards death. In some respects, this is what makes the difference not only between the initiate and the non-initiate but between the mature individual and one that is merely swept along by events, never thinking deeply about anything until it is too late. Memento Mori, meditation on death, is not intended to be morbid. In the Brazilian Rite of Freemasonry, various sayings are written on the wall of the chamber of reflection. One of them is this:
If you want to live well, think of death.
Seize The Day: Get Healthy, Know Your Purpose
Many, today, are terrified of death. But, sooner or later, we all die. And only by reflecting on our mortality — by being conscious that our time is limited — can we begin to live as we are meant to. Fear of death is not a spiritual attitude; it is a materialist one. Meditation on death is “the substance of the way of the samurai”, “vital to the Christian life,” and vital to the path of spiritual awakening. As you may know, the Buddha was born a prince, and was protected from the ugliness of the world, being allowed only to see things of beauty. But, on seeing death one day, he renounced his kingdom to went in search of enlightenment. The sudden awareness of mortality initiated his journey towards Buddahood.
Covid-19, and its constant presence in the media, has woken the majority up to the reality of their mortality. (And I am not encouraging you to be reckless or to take foolish risks when it comes to your health. You should, of course, practice good hygiene and take sensible precautions around those who could be, or are, sick.)
But you should be diligent about your health in general.
Consider this: more than 480,000 deaths are caused by cigarette smoke (including second-hand smoke) every year in the U.S.A. and obesity adds roughly another 300,000 to the annual U.S. death toll. Indeed, while we hear so much about it, Covid-19 was only the third largest cause of death between February and October 31, 2020, coming well behind heart disease (over 500,000 deaths during the same period) and cancer (nearly 450,000 deaths during this period).
The initiate has always meditated on his mortality. But that has given him an appreciation for life. And good physical health and physical discipline has very often been intertwined with spiritual discipline. (We can think immediately of Yoga, for example.) The Buddha was said to have excelled in wrestling. Plato said that a man’s education required that he practice music, wrestling, and philosophy. And, notably, the pentagram (now synonymous with Wicca and neopaganism, but once a symbol within Christian mysticism and Freemasonry, among others), derived from the school of mathematician and mystic Pythagoras, where it signified “health.”
I encourage you to seize the day, and work towards improving your health and fitness:
- Eat a nutritious diet
- Work out physically at least a couple of times a week (if you don’t want to lift weights or gain muscle try Chi Gong or Yoga)
- Get at least seven hours of sleep a night
- Get outside in the sunlight and fresh air every day (preferably going for a walk)
- Manage and reduce your stress with meditation and mental self-control
- And don’t smoke or poison your body.
However, I also encourage you to let this annus horribilis be the beginning of a journey towards awakening and towards becoming truly who you should be. I encourage you to live life seriously and courageously. Now that we are so conscious of our mortality, I urge you to become conscious of your purpose in life and to act on it today and every day.