ASK ABDI: HOW DO I TRULY SEE MY IMPERMANENCE?
QUESTION: Hey Abdi, I’ve been crushing on some of your lectures on Spotify, finding them very enlightening, thank you. In one I listened to recently, you suggested that death should be our strongest advisor, and I couldn't agree more.
A couple years ago, I felt very, very aware of this mentality and got "Memento Mori" tattooed on my finger to always remind myself. They were times of freedom, love, and interconnectedness like I've never experienced. In an attempt to always feel my mortality, I did scary shit - I walked along skyscraper rooftops and meditated on the edges, and hung off the tops of cliffs. I spent endless hours roaming around graveyards contemplating my unavoidable fate.
As a 24-year-old in Brooklyn, I've found it harder and harder to truly FEEL my mortality with the same level of urgency. I don't find the death simulation particularly helpful because I think the only way to truly feel close to death is to BE close to death, not to think about it. Just as you can't fabricate being brought to your knees by life's turmoils to truly open your heart, I find it impossible to live freely alongside my imminent death without organically confronting it face to face.
I do appreciate lofty sentiments just as much as the next guy, but in this case I would love some tangible, mundane advice on how to truly feel my mortality. Do I really need to play Frogger on the FDR to truly see my impermanence? Any suggestions?
ANSWER: This is such an important topic and one around which there is such strong cultural denial. The fact that you have awareness of it at such a young age means you are paying attention. Just remember that the practice is about ruminating on death not actually killing yourself, but more on that in a minute.
Memento mori (Latin for “remember you will die”), for those that are unfamiliar, is the medieval Christian practice of reflecting on our mortality. Many cultures and religions had and have this practice. The Buddhists have Maranasati (“death awareness”) and many other paths have specific practices that include visiting and meditating in graveyards as a way of pondering their impermanence.
For the uninitiated, the function of such paths is not morbidity, although it may seem so to a culture like ours - that clothes and makes up its dead. Just to the contrary, it is about learning to fully live in the moment - to fully taste life and be here now. It can help us face the unconscious fear of dying that we carry. Ernest Becker’s The Denial Of Death is a fantastic examination of this topic.
It is important to not confuse only feeling alive on the edge of death with death awareness practices. Doing “scary shit”, “walking along skyscraper rooftops”, and “hanging off of cliffs” is not the same as “roaming around graveyards and contemplating my unavoidable fate”. Some of us do have the wounding and/or are wired in a way that makes us crave those kinds of experiences. We only feel truly alive when we hang our life in the balance. I know I did the first half of my life, and I have buried many friends who were on the same path. So do be aware of the obvious fact that to contemplate death you first have to stay alive.
The practice I recommend came from watching the AIDS epidemic that killed so many people under my care. It dawned on me one day that even though my “heart was truly opened by life’s turmoils” in your words, I was still in denial of the fact that death was also inevitable for me. So I would lie down and really FEEL what it would be like to be dying. I found it helpful to practice late at night and in the dark - where my ego was not as fortified. I would drop into the feeling of leaving loved ones behind, not finishing goals, not being able to do the things that I loved. It took me a while, but I finally got to drop into the anxiety, fear, and grief around it all. It was not pleasant business initially, but certainly fruitful over time.
I appreciate what you are saying about how thinking about death is not useful to you. However, you are thinking about it instead of dropping into the feeling-experience. It is about the emotional charge of the topic, not mental awareness. You seem to enjoy extreme experiences and that wiring does not necessarily make it easy to drop into one’s emotional state. It takes practice of slowing way down to even know what is going on under the surface. Read up on Ramana Maharshi’s enlightenment experience at the age of 16, when he was overcome with an intense fear of death. He surrendered into it by lying down and doing exactly what we are talking about here.
One thing that might be helpful for you is to go and volunteer at a hospice service. You can be of some service while getting a firsthand experience of what actual death and dying looks like. Maybe being around that process will open you some more. And there is always the option of going to a medical morgue where cadavers are being worked on. That definitely can break through one’s hypnosis of eternal life. Just remember, that at the end of the day - our egos are deeply fortified against such openings. It takes time and effort to slowly peel the onion layers back and drop into the unconscious fear of death and dying. You are doing pretty awesome to be paying attention to death and dying. Keep your gaze on it - regardless of the path you choose.