It is possible that you may depart from life this very moment. Regulate every act and thought accordingly.
Momento Mori, Latin for, "remember that you must die", is the practice of remembering death commonly practiced by Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and others. Contemplating death is a practice in many schools of thought.
I've long considered myself to be a connoisseur of religions and philosophy. For me, religion is more of a buffet than something to which to one aligns. Momento Mori immediately resonated with me due to my familiarity with the Buddhist perception of impermanence. Both impermanence and Momento Mori provide a framework of thought that provides a new prospective from which to experience life.
Remember that no man looses any other life but this that he now lives. For the present is the same to all. That which is lost is but a mere moment for a man cannot loose either the past or the future. For how can any man take from a man what he does not have?
The book The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle served as the doorway to which I discovered Buddhism. Tolle's teachings emphasize the importance of presence in the current moment or, as he puts it, the Now.
By living in the past or incessant thinking of the future, we rob ourselves of the life that we now live, the present moment.
We ought to observe also that even the unlooked for things that attend our natural processes contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked there is some splitting at the surface and where the loaf cracks open contrary to the purpose of the bakers art it is in someway beautiful and excites the appetite. [...] Though they are far from being beautiful when examined on their own, still because they are consequent upon those natural consequences, they help to adorn them and please the mind.
This paragraph I found intriguing as it relates to a similar concept called wabi-sabi (侘寂) in Japanese. Wabi-sabi is the practice of finding beauty in imperfection. In english, we have the term patina referring to the favorable appearance the aging process provides certain materials such as leather, bronze or wood. In the above paragraph, Aurelius reflects on the beauty provided in natural processes such as how bread splits.
You are come to shore, now disembark. If indeed to another life there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to state without sensation you will cease to be held enthralled by pains and pleasures and to be a slave to the vessel of the body. Which is as much inferior as that which serves it is superior. For the one is intelligence and deity, the other is earth and corruption.
Here Aurelius remarks on death. When you come to the shore of death, disembark, embracing your fate. Perhaps there is life after death. Perhaps there is not. To Marcus this doesn't matter. For even if life ends here, death releases us from the confines of an imperfect body.
Short then is the time which every man lives. And small the nook of the earth where he lives. And short too the longest posthumous fame. Which is itself only sustained by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know not even themselves much less him who died long ago.
We put so much time and thought into every element of our life. Through the contemplation of death, Momento Mori, or impermanence; we can reframe our problems that feel overwhelming in the moment. What is one day compared to the duration of our lives? What is our life in relation to all of humanity. Here you are, one person sharing the earth with billions of other humans. When viewed from the thousand feet view provided by Momento Mori, our problems seem small indeed. Within a couple lifetimes all who knew us will also die, and with them, any sign of our existence.
The power that rules within us when it is according to nature is responsive to events so that it always easily adapts itself to that which is present, and that which is presented to it. For it requires no preferred material to work on but it takes the given conditions to move towards it purpose. And it makes a material for itself out of that which opposes it as fire lays hold of what falls into it by which a small light would have been extinguished. When the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the matter which is heaped on it and consumes it and rises higher by the means of this very material.
The above paragraph is a rare example of an ancient motivational speech. A testament to the ability of humanity to adapt to trials and tribulation. In the analogy of the fire, we may find ourselves buried with debris, but this debris gives the fire it's power and shape. Truly, an ancient version of the modern saying, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Take away your judging thought and then there is taken away the complaint, "I have been harmed". Take away the complaint, "I have been harmed", and the harm is taken away.
How often do we find ourselves enraged because the driver ahead of us cut us off? We assume he is a dick and allow ourselves to feel anger towards him. But let's pause and analyze this for a moment. What if he didn't see us? What if he's in a hurry because he's late for his daughters graduation? What if he's just been fired and isn't focusing properly? Do we still feel the same anger towards him? Was it the deed itself or our analysis of the motivation behind the deed that caused our anger. If we remove the judgement, we may understand, and if we understand, we may not be upset any longer. The harm is taken away. In psychology, this is called correspondence bias, or fundamental attribution error.
You are not going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.
Perhaps there is a God. Perhaps not. I personally don't think this should impact your behavior. There may be fringe activities that would be taboo in certain groups and not others but in general, you pursue a life that you deem to be virtuous. In the book the The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Harris advocates that humans can live a moral life, with or without a guiding religion, a thought shared by many Stoics.
Good fortune is something you assign yourself and a good fortune is is a good disposition of the soul, good emotional responses, good actions.
Marcus Aurelius often mentioned that bad things happen to both good and bad people alike. As such, good fortune was not a prize to be won from the gods. While you may occasionally be lucky enough to stumble into good fortune, it is far better to develop an attitude of good fortune. If we have control of our faculties, our emotional responses and our actions, we will find longterm wealth, albeit of a different type than worldly riches.
All existing things soon change.
Again, the practice of recognizing impermanence. This can be a cause of both comfort and anxiety. Life is a river. We have no way of knowing what lies for us around the next bend. Good and bad, or what we interpret to be good and bad, will come and go with the current. Recognizing this can allow peace.
It [the mind] also makes everything that happens appear to itself such as it wills.
As humans, we attempt to put each piece of information into the existing puzzle that we have assembled in our mind. If a piece of information or a belief does not coincide with ours we oftentimes reject it in favor of confirming our priors. Being aware of this allows us to make our puzzle less rigid, allowing the adoption of more ideas and beliefs.
Think not so much of what you do not have as of what you do have. And of these things of which you do have select the best and then reflect on how eagerly they would have been sought if you did not have them.
In the western world, we hear of being grateful so much that it almost is viewed with a negative connotation. Parents often guilt their children into eating their food because children in Africa are starving. Additionally, there is a part of ego that wants to feel unique in our suffering and being grateful rubs the ego the wrong way. Learning to analyze what we have however, and understanding how that relates to others in the human condition, when paired with the lens of impermanence, gives us a bigger picture and often results in a more positive disposition.
Look around at the courses of the stars as if you were going along with them, and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another. For such thoughts purge away the filth of the earthly life.
If Momento Mori is the practice of contemplating death to put our life into perspective, contemplating the stars and complexities of science gives us a thousand foot view of humanity in general. Many astronomers who study the stars feel a profound peace that comes by understanding our own insignificance.
For you have had experience of many wanderings without having found happiness.
Happiness isn't to be found in our wanderings. We always wait for the next thing. Our next vacation. The purchase of a new house. The birth of a child. We're constantly waiting for that next step that will give us purpose and happiness. We fail to realize that no step of life will provide that purpose. We create purpose independent of any life event.
Return to the worship of reason.
This sentence, albeit short, is my favorite from the many writings of Marcus Aurelius. I often find myself frustrated with what appears to be a decline of the value of knowledge in our society. We watch the news that confirms our political priors. Instead of having an open mind, we dig in and defend all our views as if they were infallible. We value clothes, sports and media at the expense of our individual knowledge. On Facebook I recall seeing a meme saying that the man cave needs to be replaced with the study. I couldn't agree more. We need a return to the worship of reason.