Memento Art Assignment

Since I was a small child I’ve been known as a fidget. So when I was told I had to be very still for a series of seven minute MRI scans I was worried. I was a kid who, when bad dreams sent me running to my parents’ bedroom, kept my mum awake all night as I kicked and wriggled while ‘peacefully’ asleep. That’s the kid that grew into a woman who nightly and tosses and turns. How could I possibly stay still in the scanner? Let along REALLY still. Not even swallowing… Ironically, given the experiments we performed, I needed to still my body, to ‘play dead’ in order to prevent micro movements.

We are usually unaware of how many small movements that we make when we think we are being ‘still’. But in the MRI scanner these micro movements “due to swallowing, fidgeting, overt speech, or transmitted motion as a result of finger pressing on a keypad are a major cause of inconclusive or uninterpretable fMRI results in the clinical setting”. (Desmond et al. 2002). So, my body and brain need to be very still for the 5-10 minutes that a functional MRI scan takes to complete. This stillness created a self-consciousness that accentuated my sense of being embodied. I’d first noticed this during mindfulness meditation, the more mindful I became, the more ‘bodiful’ I realized I was. As I quieten my mind, my awareness is more open to, and often overwhelmed by the sensations in my body. Little aches and pains, the feels of the surface I am lying on, the temperature of the air as it fills my lungs, all these sensations flood in. As I practiced, knowing I would have to lie very still and not even swallow in the scanner, I found myself trying to control what are usually unconscious and small bodily movements, like those associated with breathing or swallowing. As a newbie mindfulness practitioner and a wannabe MRI subject I became hyper aware of my tiny movements and that awareness became tension which resulted in ticks and twitches. My ongoing lesson is to have the awareness but not to focus on it, not to turn it into tension. I noticed in the moment of imagining resisting movement, I would make a small movement. It was a sort of mental ‘tensing’ as I thought of wanting to move, and then tried to stop that thought, right then my muscles would alter as I imagined ‘not moving’.

This project is full of surprises, it’s made me know more about myself and taught me new things. But one of the biggest surprises was when I came out of the MRI scanner and the neuroscientist, Torben, commented on how still I’d been. I was stunned (and proud of myself). After 50 years of fidgeting and being told off for it, I am learning to stay still!

Desmond, John E, and Annabel S. H. Chen. “Ethical issues in the clinical application of fMRI: factors affecting the validity and interpretation of activations.” Brain and cognition  50, no. 3 (2002): 482-497.

Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” Seneca

At a Roman triumph, the majority of the public would have their eyes glued to the victorious general at the front—one of the most coveted spots during Roman times. Only a few would notice the aide in the back, right behind the commander, whispering into his ear, “Remember, thou art mortal.” What a reminder to hear at the peak of glory and victory!

It is reminders like this one that we desperately need in our own lives—a thought or an idea that we’d rather ignore, do everything to avoid and pretend is not true. Most often, our ego runs away from anything that reminds us of the reality that sits at odds with the comfortable narrative we have build for ourselves. Or, we are simply petrified to look at life’s facts as they are. And there is one simple fact that most of us are utterly scared to meditate, reflect on and face head on: We are going to die. Everyone around us is going to die.

Such reminders and exercises take part of Memento Mori—the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In early Buddhist texts, a prominent term is maraṇasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’ Some Sufis have been called the “people of the graves,” because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality.

Throughout history, Memento Mori reminders have come in many forms. Some, like the aide behind the general, were there to humble. Others were invented to inspire zest for life. The essayist Michel de Montaigne, for instance, was fond of an ancient Egyptian custom where during times of festivities, a skeleton would be brought out with people cheering “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

To us moderns this sounds like an awful idea. Who wants to think about death? But what if instead of being scared and unwilling to embrace this truth we did the opposite? What if reflecting and meditating on that fact was a simple key to living life to the fullest? Or that it was the key to our freedom—as Montaigne put it, “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

In his Meditations—essentially his own private journal—Marcus Aurelius wrote that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue NOW, and not wait. The French painter Philippe de Champaigne expressed a similar sentiment in his painting Still Life with a Skull, which showed the three essentials of existence — the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time). The original painting is part of a genre referred to as Vanitas, a form of 17th century artwork featuring symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

Meditating on your mortality is only depressing if you miss the point. It is in fact a tool to create priority and meaning. It’s a tool that generations have used to create real perspective and urgency. To treat our time as a gift and not waste it on the trivial and vain. Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful. And fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this. A simple reminder can bring us closer to living the life we want. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many things you have left to be done, a car can hit you in an intersection and drive your teeth back into your skull. That’s it. It could all be over. Today, tomorrow, someday soon.

The Stoic finds this thought invigorating and humbling. It is not surprising that one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day. After all, it is Seneca who urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking up as reminders of our mortality. Or as another Stoic, Epictetus, urged his students: “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” Use those reminders and meditate on them daily—let them be the building blocks of living your life to the fullest and not wasting a second.

P.S. We are excited to announce that the Daily Stoic is now releasing its own Memento Mori—”remember that you will die”—medallion as a physical manifestation for you to carry with everywhere. Enjoy!

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